I’ve just read that the UN has just listed the creole spoken on Norfolk Island as an endangered language.

The language, known locally as ‘talking Norfolk’, is a mixture of Olde English¹ and Tahitian and can be traced back to the Bounty mutineers.

A quick look at Ethnologue leads me to Pitcairn-Norfolk as the language this article refers to, though it probably has a different vernacular name altogether.

Anyway, it leads me to think about what exactly constitutes ‘endangered’ when it comes to languages and the relative population of speech communities. The Ethnologue page says that Pitcairn-Norfolk had 580 speakers (second language only) in 1989 on Norfolk Island alone, and more in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere in the South Pacific. I’m tempted to say this is extraordinarily many, considering the state of many endangered languages in the world (Wagiman has probably 5), but in my opinion it comes down to how many children are learning the language as a proportion of the total speech community. So if a language of 600 speakers has only 20% rate of child acquisition, then I consider it to be more endagered than a language of 50 speakers with 90% of children learning it from birth.

Does the UN consider languages as endangered or not as a function of the raw population of the speech community, or does it look at the rate of uptake as the more important criterion?

Either way, I’d be happy to do a little bit of fieldwork on Norfolk Island in a bid to preserve linguistic diversity.


¹Olde English? Really? I’m certain they mean some form of Early Modern English, and most likely a maritime/naval dialect thereof.