A glossary of terms related to language endangerment

Study of language

Descriptive grammar

An explanation of how a given language is spoken. A descriptive grammar does not judge what is good or bad usage, but instead records the language as it is spoken.


All of the resources available about a language. Language documentation can include texts, scholarly articles, descriptive grammars, wordlists or dictionaries, and audio/video materials.

Genetic index

Our calculation of how many genetic units are represented in an area compared to the number of languages. A high genetic index means that a large number of genetic units are represented in an area without very many languages within each one. This means that the languages in the area are very different from each other. For more on genetic index, see What are language hotspots?

Interlinear analysis

A method of showing linguistic information by placing analysis and translations between lines of text in the original language. Generally, an interlinear analysis has a transcription of the sounds of the original language on the first line, followed by a word-by-word or part of word analysis. The last line gives a translation into the language of the researcher.

Knowledge system

A collection of information and the way it is stored.


In the context of documentation, a list of words, usually with definitions or translations, like a dictionary.


A person who studies linguistics.


The scientific study of the world's languages. This includes the study of syntax, phonology, morphology, sociolinguistics, and other aspects of language. For an overview and articles on the subfields of linguistics, see the Linguistic Society of America's The Domain of Linguistics.

Linguistic diversity

The variety of languages in a region or in the world as a whole.


The study of word structures, for example, how words are built using prefixes and suffixes.


The study of speech sounds, including how they are produced in the vocal tract, how they are heard, and how they can be categorized.


The study of sound structures and patterns. This includes studying what sounds are used and how they are used in a given language (for example, English uses the sound ng, but never at the beginning of words), interactions of speech sounds, and explaining sound patterns theoretically.


The study of meaning in language. This includes studying how the parts of a statement combine to produce its meaning.


The study of language in its social context. This includes the study of dialects, the way people speak in different social contexts, attitudes toward languages and dialects, and many more areas. For much more on sociolinguistics, see PBS's Do You Speak American?


The study of sentence structure and the rules that govern how words are combined to make grammatically acceptable sentences.

Writing system

A set of symbols used to represent statements expressed in language. Alphabets, syllabaries, and raised notation systems are all forms of writing systems. For more on writing systems, see Omniglot.

Language Features

Agglutinative verb

Verbs built up using smaller meaningful parts. When these smaller parts are combined in the verb, they keep the same form they have in other contexts in the language.


A word or syllable used to group nouns according to meaning. Two examples of classifier systems are Japanese counting words and Navajo verbs. Numbers in Japanese have a classificatory suffix to show what sort of thing the speaker is counting (people, nights, railway cars, etc.). In Navajo, some verbs receive classificatory stems, which describe the noun involved in the action of the verb. These stems are for classes such as mushy matter, open containers, or solid roundish object.


A sound in language made by closing or restricting the flow of air in the vocal tract. Consonants in linguistics are described using three factors: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing. The place of articulation describes where in the vocal tract a sound is produced. The consonant p is a bilabial consonant, because it uses both of your lips. The manner of articulation describes the sort of obstruction in the vocal tract that produces a consonant, such as a stop (b), a fricative (f), or a nasal (m). A consonant is voiced if the vocal cords are vibrating while you make that consonant. Place your hand on your throat and try saying apa and then aba. When you say apa, you should feel the vibration of your vocal cords stop briefly, while they should continue vibrating through the b in aba. The consonant p is unvoiced, while b is voiced. For more on consonants see the University of Iowa's Phonetics Flash Animation Project.

Ejective consonant

A consonant produced by trapping air within the vocal tract at a higher pressure than in a standard consonant so air rushes out forcefully when the consonant is pronounced.

Ergative language

Exploded consonant


A consonant produced by forcing air through a narrow channel in the vocal tract, creating turbulent airflow. Some examples of fricatives are f, v, th, s, and z. For more on fricatives, see the University of Iowa's Phonetics Flash Animation Project.


A changed articulation of a consonant that uses partial or complete closure of the glottis. This is often called 'creaky voice,' when the glottis is only partly closed. Glottalization is different from a glottalic consonant: a glottalized consonant involves a consonant not normally produced with a closed glottis. Your glottis is the space between your vocal cords. You can see a picture of the vocal tract, including the glottis, in this image, which shows a crossection of the head: Vocal Tract.

Grammatical case

A marking that indicates a noun's function, such as whether it is the subject or object of a verb.

Lateral consonant

A consonant made by creating a closure or narrowing of the airflow through the mouth while allowing air to flow along one or both sides of the tongue. The only lateral sound in English is l.

Nasalization contrast

A distinction between sounds made using just the mouth and sounds that allow some air to leave through the nose. Try saying the letter n, which is a nasal, while holding your hand under your nose; you should feel some air coming out of your nose. A nasalization contrast means that a language has both nasal and oral (air only leaves through the mouth) versions of a sound, and distinguishes between the two.

Pharyngeal consonant

A consonant that is produced by placing the root of the tongue very far back in the mouth, against the pharynx. English does not use pharyngeal consonants, which are fairly rare in the world's languages.


A changed articulation of a consonant that uses tightening of the pharynx. Pharyngealization is different from pharyngeal consonants: a pharyngealized consonant involves a consonant not normally produced with a tightened pharynx. Your pharynx is the part of your neck right behind your mouth and above your esophagus. You can see a picture of the vocal tract, including the pharynx, in this image, which shows a cross section of the head: Vocal Tract.

Polysynthetic word structure

Words built using smaller meaningful parts.


A style of speech used in a particular situation. Some examples are the formal language of the courtroom, informal language used with friends, or baby talk.

Special speech styles

Modes of speech only used in particular situations, for example in the presence of foreigners or a particular relative.

SVO order

A basic word order with the subject at the beginning of the sentence, followed by the verb and finally the object. This is the second most common basic word order of the world's languages.

Tonal systems

The use of pitch to distinguish words. Languages with tonal systems often have high, middle, and low tones, and often have 'contour tones,' such as high rising or low dipping.

Verb-final word order

A basic word order that places the verb at the end of the sentence.

Serial verb

A string of verbs that share the same subject and have no words to connect them. Serial verbs often describe a set of events that happened one after another or at the same time.

Verbal morphology

The various forms a verb can take in a language. Verbs change to show a number of things, such as tense, aspect, mood, person and gender. Tense describes when an action happened, such as past, present, or future. Aspect shows how the action is related to time, such as whether it is complete or incomplete, happens over a period of time or instantaneously, or happens repeatedly. Mood describes how a verb relates to reality, such as whether it happened, might happen, or the speaker heard that it happened but did not see it. Person shows who performed an action, such as whether it was the speaker, the speaker's audience, or some other person they are talking about. In some languages verb forms change depending on the gender of the subject.

Vocal tract

The area stretching from the larynx through the mouth and nose that is used to filter sound. This image shows a cross section of the vocal tract: Vocal Tract.

Voice quality contrasts in vowels

Differences between ways of producing vowels, such as creaky voice or breathy voice.


A sound in language made without a closure or restriction of the flow of air in the vocal tract. Vowels in linguistics are described using three factors: height, backness, and roundedness. Height describes how far open the mouth is when producing a vowel, backness describes where in the mouth the tongue is when articulating the vowel, and roundedness describes the shape of the lips. For more on vowels, see the University of Iowa's Phonetics Flash Animation Project.

Vowel harmony

A characteristic of some languages in which all the vowels after the first vowel in a word have to share certain characteristics of the first vowel in a word. For more on this, see William Shetter's A Little Close Harmony: Sounds of a language 'echoing' each other.

Word-initial velar nasal (ng-)

Word-initial means a sound that appears at the beginning of a word. The velar nasal is the sound ng; velar is its place of articulation and nasal is its manner of articulation (see consonants). Many languages, such as English, use the sound ng but do not allow it to appear at the beginning of words.

Basic word order

The order of the words in a standard sentence in a particular language. This is described based on where the Subject, Object, and Verb appear in the sentence. English is an SVO (subject-verb-object) language. The sentence English is an SVO language follows SVO word order: the subject (English) appears first, followed by the verb (is) with the object (language) at the end. Other word orders are possible in English. For example, you could ask Is English an SVO language? That sentence has the verb is before the subject. This does not change the basic word order of English; instead, questions use a different word order to mark an important part of the sentence.

Language Classification


A local variety of a language that is characteristic of a group of speakers. Speakers of different dialects of the same language can understand each other.

Genetic affiliation

The classificatory unit that a language belongs to.

Genetic classification

Grouping languages according to how closely related they are based on common ancestry. We use terms borrowed from biological classification to talk about languages. Languages are not born like living beings, so the terms 'genetic' and 'family' (and all the terms used to talk about endangerment) are metaphors. Genetic classification is based on determining how far back in time you would have to trace two languages' histories to find a time before they both split off from a common language. Linguists do this by looking at common features of languages, such as similarities in syntax, phonology, and shared words.

Genetic unit

A grouping of languages that are all descended from a common language, at the level of Romance languages (all descended from Latin) or Germanic languages (descended from Proto-Germanic).


A language unrelated to any other languages in the world.

Language family

A grouping of languages that are all descended from a common language. This term is used by linguists to cover a broad range of groupings. We use it to mean a group at the level of the Romance languages (descended from Latin) or the Germanic languages (descended from Proto-Germanic). We also use the term genetic unit to mean this level of grouping

Mixed language

A language that seems to have two parent languages, rather than the one parent language that most languages have. Mixed languages are formed when there is a community fluent in two languages. The mixed language arises due to mixing of the two languages, and often marks a new cultural or ethnic group.


A language without an established genetic affiliation, due to lack of data or a lack of academic consensus about classification.


A language used by speakers who do not share a common language in order to communicate across a language barrier. A pidgin is only used as a second language, never learned as a first language.

Language Contact

Borrowed word

Also known as a loanword. A word taken by one language from another language without translation. English has a huge number of loan words. For a history of English borrowing and a list of some loanwords in English, see Loanwords

Language contact

Language contact happens when speakers of one language encounter speakers of another language, due to trade, movement, colonization, or other factors. Language contact can lead to changes in both (or all) languages involved in the contact, the creation of pidgins or fully fledged languages, or language shift.


Also known as a linguistic area, a Sprachbund is an area where a group of unrelated or distantly languages have grown to share some traits due to prolonged contact.

Language endangerment

Ancestral language

The language traditionally spoken by an ethnic group.

Endangered language

A language likely to become extinct in the near future. There is no precise definition of when a language should be considered endangered. Instead, we have to consider a number of factors, such as the number of speakers, age of speakers, and attitudes of speakers.

Ethnic group

A population of human beings who identify as a group, based on common traits. Language is often one of the traits used to identify an ethnic group.

Extinct language

A language with no living speakers. A language ‘dies’ when the last speaker of that language dies.

Language attitudes

“The feelings people have about their own language or the languages of others” (Crystal, David. 1992. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.)

This is a vague definition for a broad topic. Language attitudes can include whether a person feels ashamed or proud of their own language or dialect, how they view the language or dialect of other speakers, how a whole group views their own or other group’s speech, or other kinds of feelings about a language. These attitudes have a big impact on the endangerment of a language; speakers with negative attitudes toward their own language are likely to allow or encourage their children to grow up speaking a different language.

For more on language attitudes, see this handout, which includes links to a number of bibliographies on language attitudes: The Study of Language Attitudes.

Language maintenance

The continued use of a language.

Language prestige

One part of language attitudes. Certain languages or dialects are held in higher esteem than others. High prestige languages or dialects are generally spoken by the most successful or influential members of a society. Language shift usually involves children learning higher prestige languages in favor of low prestige ancestral languages.

Language revitalization

An attempt to reverse language shift and maintain an endangered language. Revitalization projects generally include efforts to improve social attitudes toward a language, create teaching materials and documentation of the language, and teach the language to children. For links to revitalization projects in hotspots, see Global Trends.

Language shift

The process by which a community switches to speaking a new language. This involves an intermediate step of multilingualism. Language shift can happen over only a couple generations or over hundreds of years. It always involves a monolingual group coming into contact with another language group, a younger generation learning the new language and eventually using that as their primary language and forgetting the ancestral language.

Moribund language

A language that is no longer being learned by children.

National language

A language spoken throughout a country. Not necessarily an official language or the largest language in a nation, but one that is spoken in all geographic areas.

Official language

A language designated as one of the languages of a country by the government. Some nations have no official language, while others have multiple official languages.


(in reference to language use): Unlikely to become endangered. A language that is spoken by a large number of people of all ages and used in many spheres of life.