Livonian, Latgalian in danger, reports UNESCO atlas

Livonian is “critically endangered” and Latgalian’s status is called “unsafe” in the latest atlas of endangered languages compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, released Feb. 19 as an interactive online tool, reports about 2,500 languages have varying risks of extinction. About 6,700 languages are spoken around the world, according to a UNESCO press release.

In Latvia, Livonian is listed as having just one native speaker with full competence, although numerous individuals study it as a second language. Latgalian, spoken in the Latgale region of eastern Latvia, has about 150,000 speakers.

Livonian was close to extinction already in the 1980s, Valdis Muktupāvels, head of the University of Latvia’s Centre of Letonics, told Latvians Online in an e-mail.

“At present there are efforts to revitalize the Livonian language,” he said. Besides being spoken in a number of families, there are a Livonian newspaper, poets and writers who use Livonian, and music with Livonian lyrics.

Latgalian is in much better shape, Muktupāvels said.

“The Latgalian literary language is clearly defined with its own grammar, lexicon and language norms,” he said. Noteworthy is the number of Latgalian newspapers, magazine, yearbooks, and works of poetry and prose. It is also important that Latgalian dominates in the Catholic church. Discussions also have begun to give Latgalian official status, Muktupāvels said.

The UNESCO atlas also notes Krevin as a language once spoken in the Semigallia region near Bauska, but which now is extinct. According to an online version of The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire, Krevin was a dialect of the Votic language, which is related to Estonian.

“The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said in the press release, “especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it—from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe.”

The atlas groups the endangered languages in one of five risk levels: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

In Estonia, the new atlas reports Võro-Seto as “definitely endangered.” About 50,000 speakers of the language are found in the southeast of Estonia and in the Pskov province of Russia.

In Lithuania, the Karaim language is listed as “severely endangered.” It is spoken by about 50 individuals in the Trakai region. Another six people use the language in Ukraine.

Previous editions of the language atlas were published in 1996 and 2001. A printed version of the 2009 atlas is due out in March, according to UNESCO. The online version may be viewed at

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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