The UN International Year of Indigenous Languages: optimism, skepticism, and unresolved tensions by Mel M. Engman and Kendall A. King

Intergenerational play at an Ojibwe family language camp

In celebration of International Mother Language Day, today’s blog post is written by Mel M. Engman (University of Minnesota; Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia) and Kendall A. King (University of Minnesota).

The United Nations has designated 2019 as the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages.’ With this proclamation, the UN aims to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote Indigenous languages through national and international work. The resolution also emphasizes the role of Indigenous languages in peace building, and describes Indigenous languages as resources for speakers, but also for the world’s cultural diversity more broadly.

Key stated objectives include:

“(1) Informing about the importance of indigenous languages for social development;

(2) Creating greater awareness about the critical status of indigenous languages around the world;

(3) Stimulating intercultural debate around indigenous languages;

(4) Imparting new knowledge on the importance of indigenous languages;

(5) Shaping attitudes of relevant stakeholders about indigenous languages.”

However, few specifics on the policies, programs or funding to meet these goals are provided on the engaging, colorful website. As of February 2019, the only defined initiative was a call for papers written by practitioners and researchers on Indigenous languages to be published by UNESCO Open Access. As researchers and advocates for language revitalization, we therefore view the UN proclamation with an optimistic, but slightly skeptical eye. Like many in the field, we are encouraged and excited by this high-status body’s interest in promoting a cause that we see as critical to a socially-just world. Simultaneously, we worry about the overly broad objectives of the proclamation and we also question the absence of material and political specificity. We also wonder how work will be accomplished with unclear budget and limited identifiable programming to date. Drawing on years of experience working in support of Indigenous language revitalization efforts, we explore this skepticism in greater depth by comparing the language of the resolution and action plan with the language used by our Indigenous colleagues to describe community desires linked to language revitalization. We look for alignment between local and international efforts and we identify areas where greater connections are needed despite their politically fraught nature.

Trilingual (Spanish-English-Quichua) sign welcoming visitors to the Saraguro community of Lagunas

We look at the UN documents as university-based scholars who have studied language revitalization in communities in Latin America and the U.S., and as (non-Indigenous) allies and advocates for language rights and Indigenous sovereignty. Our experiences with Quichua-language revitalization activists (in Ecuador) and Ojibwe language reclamation experts (in the U.S.) have highlighted how language survival is intertwined with community and family well-being, to land rights, and more broadly, with economic and political justice.

We both came to research work as academically trained linguistics, initially interested in technical or cognitive phenomena of language contact and change (King) and language acquisition (Engman). Long-term engagement with communities forced our attention to the ways that these linguistic phenomena are embedded in language ideologies and social hierarchies which in turn are rooted in historical trauma and injustice. These experiences have expanded our conceptions of the relationships between Indigenous languages and numerous other spheres of life, and concomitantly, color our view of international political bodies and proclamations such as this one.

We note that there is much that seems hopeful and appropriate in the UN materials. For instance, the resolution is inclusive of many Indigenous people and perspectives. The authors also recognize that supporting Indigenous languages also supports families, education, health, and longstanding Indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, the language of the action plan shows a willingness to include Indigenous peoples (instead of making policy on their behalf) in their efforts to support and promote Indigenous languages. This is also evident in the ways that the proclamation reportedly structured its steering committees to include people who can provide a wide variety of local perspectives, and it is evident in much of the plan’s language, which points to numerous social concerns that are deeply entangled with language. For example, the materials address the intersecting and converging interests of sustaining and reclaiming Indigenous languages alongside the maintenance of longstanding cultural practices, the development and dissemination of Indigenous ecological knowledge, and the promotion of basic human rights.

These ideas are sound and decidedly non-controversial. Yet there are numerous concerns that are of critical importance to our Indigenous community collaborators and friends whose language-related work resists the legacies of dominance and erasure. Our experiences with these innovators lead us to note that key words such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘colonialism’, ‘wellness’, ‘water’, and ‘land’ are absent from the UN’s action plan. There are certainly peripheral references to some of these ideas in the resolution and plan (e.g., “a significant cross-cutting pattern of disadvantage and discrimination” refers to colonialism without using the word), but they are not stated directly despite their deep entanglements with the sustaining and restorative work of Indigenous language regeneration.

Language games at an Ojibwe tribal school

To us, as to many readers we imagine, these points of omission and tension look familiar. Furthermore, these omissions parallel the kinds of tensions we often find ourselves navigating as researchers. For many language activists, numerous pressing community threats are seen as fundamentally connected with language work. Such concerns are often social, political, and environmental, and include, for instance, land and water rights, overt racial discrimination, and self-determination. These concerns are more immediate, more linked to displacement and colonialism, and more controversial than what the UN has laid out in the action plan. They are also central to why most Indigenous languages in the world are in need of resolutions and action plans in the first place.

Several decades into this work, the sorts of validating and affirming discourses anchoring the UN’s efforts are familiar to those of us who study language and who work with communities to sustain and restore cultural and linguistic continuity. We agree that language and the attendant social phenomena described in this action plan are basic human rights, and it is easy to see the value of these ideas being recognized by the UN on such a grand scale. This is likely “easy to see” now because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous communities who have labored to educate and cooperate with the individuals and institutions who hold disproportionate amounts of power. White, English-dominant settler academics like ourselves have benefited enormously from the generous and educative thinking of our Indigenous colleagues. We also have a responsibility to elevate the ideas, entities, and practices (e.g., sovereignty, wellness, water) that are fundamental to the current realities of our Indigenous colleagues’ language work.

Wall mural in town of Saraguro woman in traditional dress

Our experiences have shown us how language work at the local level touches on other social and intellectual domains like Indigenous environmental science, political activism, and healing and wellness. The silence around some of the contentious issues associated with these concerns in a sweeping policy document means that those of us with the ability to impose listener and readership (e.g., UN resolution-drafters, policymakers, guest-bloggers) have more work to do in order to hear and promote the voices of our Indigenous friends and colleagues. An example of such efforts can be found in recent efforts by Minnesota clergy who have aligned with Indigenous-led groups to oppose a pending replacement oil pipeline in the state. This pipeline, locally known as Line 3, would run through sensitive headwaters of the Mississippi River and sacred wild rice beds. Through marching, letter-writing, and protesting, this interfaith group shows how non-Indigenous leaders can leverage their power to follow Indigenous groups’ lead for joint, sustained efforts that advocate for a host of concerns related to social justice, cultural and linguistic continuity, and environmental protection.

The UN’s annual International Mother Tongue Day, the occasion of this invited blog post, is dedicated to “promot(ing) linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism” – a generally non-controversial, humanizing goal that we can expand, extend, and unsettle in this 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages. As non-Indigenous beneficiaries of settler colonialism, we aim to follow our Indigenous collaborators’ leads. Importantly, the concerns that our colleagues identify as interlaced with community language work are not apolitical. In order to follow their lead and support their efforts, we are required to resist the status quo. When we support Indigenous land recovery programs, champion Indigenous efforts to protect clean water, or defend Indigenous sovereignty we lean into the politically charged and controversial but critical work of honoring Indigenous languages around the world.

Kendall A. King (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is Professor of Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches and researches in the areas of sociolinguistics and language policy. Recent publications appear in the Modern Language JournalApplied Linguistics and the Journal of Language, Identity and Education. She has written widely on Indigenous language revitalization, bilingual child development, and the language policies that shape immigrant and transnational student experiences in the U.S., Ecuador, and Sweden. Her current research, based in Minneapolis, examines the educational policy and practices which (under)serve adolescent migrants with limited or interrupted formal schooling experiences. She is a former editor of the journal Language Policy and current Vice President (to be President) of the American Association of Applied Linguistics.

Mel M. Engman (PhD, University of Minnesota) teaches courses on applied linguistics at the University of Minnesota and she is the Administrative Director for Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia (GIM), a non-profit organization devoted to reclaiming the Ojibwe language in the Great Lakes region.   Her recent and upcoming publications can be found in the journals Language Documentation and Description, Heritage Language Journal, and Linguistics and Education.  Mel’s current research interests include Indigenous language reclamation, heritage language education, and critical approaches to language and sign in institutional contexts.

The past inside the present: A glimpse into the deep history of Waigeo by Laura Arnold

The Raja Ampat archipelago 

Today’s blog post is written by Laura Arnold, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a recipient of an FEL Grant in 2017.  

Waigeo is the northernmost island in the beautiful Raja Ampat archipelago, just off the Bird’s Head of New Guinea. Nowadays famous as a diving hotspot, the archipelago has long been a place of movement and contact between different population groups, lying as it does at the crossroads between insular Southeast Asia to the west, and Melanesia to the east. Today, Raja Ampat is home to several tribes, including the Maˈya, the Matbat, the Ambel, and the Biak. I’ve just finished a project documenting the language of the Ambel  –the Foundation for Endangered Languages  funded the printing of a trilingual dictionary (Ambel-Indonesian-English), based on material in the documentary corpus, for presentation to the Ambel community. My primary aims in recording the corpus were to collect linguistic data in order to analyse Ambel; and to create a permanent record of the language, should it become extinct. However, in this post I’ll show that the cultural information and oral history contained in the corpus provide important details that allow us to draw back the proverbial curtain, and peer into the deep history of Raja Ampat, specifically Waigeo. There’s nothing concrete – but there are lots of tantalising glimpses.

Me with Bapak Martinus Wakaf (my main Ambel teacher) and his family

According to tradition, the Biak migrated to Raja Ampat around 500 years ago, from Cenderawasih Bay on the other side of the Bird’s Head. The other tribes, however, have been around for much longer. But not forever – at least, not in their current form. All of the languages spoken in Raja Ampat today belong to the Austronesian language family, the second largest language family in the world by number of languages. The Austronesian homeland is thought to have been Taiwan; Austronesian speakers began migrating from Taiwan through the Philippines and insular Southeast Asia some 5,000 years ago, eventually settling as far afield as Madagascar in the west, and Easter Island in the east.

Austronesian speakers first turned up in Raja Ampat around 3,500 years ago. When they arrived, they came into contact with whoever was already living in the archipelago – speakers of so-called ‘Papuan’ languages, a term used to refer to the non-Austronesian languages spoken on and around New Guinea. New Guinea was first colonised by humans at least 45,000 years ago, if not earlier – some of the Papuan languages spoken in the region today are perhaps descendants of the languages spoken by the original migrants. Papuan languages are incredibly heterogenous: today, there are over 800 languages belonging to around 60 distinct language families, with many isolates.

No Papuan languages, however, are spoken in Raja Ampat today. But evidence shows that there once were – and that, over time, the Papuans shifted to use the language of the Austronesian incomers. This evidence comes in the form of features found in the present-day languages of Raja Ampat that are more typical of Papuan than of Austronesian languages – remnants of the original languages of the archipelago that were transplanted into the Austronesian languages when the Papuans switched from their own language to another. One example of this is the presence of tone in Maˈya, Matbat, and Ambel – the use of pitch to distinguish different words. For example, in Ambel, there’s a contrast between the following two words (accents are used to mark syllables with High tone):

yun, meaning ‘I know’, which has rising pitch; and

yún ‘I pick [something] up’, which has falling pitch.

Tone is very rare in Austronesian languages, but fairly common in Papuan languages – so the presence of tone in the languages of Raja Ampat is thought to have been caused by contact with a now-extinct Papuan substrate. This linguistic evidence suggests that contact between the Austronesians and Papuans in Raja Ampat was generally stable, involving intermarriage between the groups, and lasted for a long time – long enough, at least, for a feature such as tone to be integrated into Maˈya, Matbat, and Ambel.

Besides the linguistic evidence, the Ambel corpus contains many other clues about the identity and culture of the pre-Austronesian groups of Waigeo, as well as the relationship between the Austronesian incomers and the Papuan residents. This is what I’ll be talking about for the rest of the post.

Apelina Awom and others, on the way to the recording of the Bintaki ritual

Two of the most exciting recordings in the Ambel corpus are of a reenactment of the Bintaki ritual , and a dance and song associated with the ritual. The Bintaki is a traditional fish-poisoning ritual, performed in the Ambel settlement of Darumbab on the north coast of Waigeo. There hasn’t been an ‘authentic’ performance of the Bintaki for several decades, and the elements of the ritual are nowadays remembered only by a single man, Alec Sosir. During my time with the Ambel, I was lucky enough for Alec to arrange a stylised performance of the ritual, so that I could record it.

In an authentic Bintaki performance, the male participants spend the whole night pounding the bark of a bintakí tree, an icthyotoxin, into a river. One of the chief participants is the bintaya, who is symbolically married to the bintakí tree during the ritual. While the men mash the bark into the water, they sing a song – ayo bintaki, kiyaaa yeee, ayo bintaya, yaaa… The women and children of the village are not allowed near the river while the men are pounding and singing, as it’s believed their presence will disrupt the ritual, and the fish will not die. At the break of dawn, a conch shell bugle sounds to signify the end of the ritual, and the bintaya beats the river with a branch from the bintakí tree. At this point, the women and children come to join the men at the river, to help collect the stunned fish. The fish are taken back to the village, and a big feast is held.

The Bintaki ritual (Alec Sosir holds the drum on the left)

There are many differences between an ‘authentic’ version of the ritual, and the one I was able to record – for example, the recorded ritual doesn’t last all night, as an authentic one would (more like ten minutes in the middle of the day); both men and women are participants; and no fish were actually killed in the recording. However, despite these differences, there are a couple of clues from the recording that point to an ancient origin of the Bintaki.

The first clue comes from the mythological history of the ritual. According to oral tradition, the Ambel only learnt the Bintaki several generations ago. Two Ambel men were out in the forest one night, going about their business, and happened across a group of evil kábyo spirits. These kábyo were doing something very strange: beating a drum and singing a song, standing on a platform over the river and thrashing the water with long sticks. The men stopped and watched the spirits all night long. In the morning, they saw that the fish in the river were dazed, and that the kábyo could pick them up effortlessly. The men returned to their village, and told everyone what they had seen. They had memorised the song that the kábyo were singing, and taught it to the other Ambel.

The Bintaki dance

Which brings us to the second clue: the words of the Bintaki song. The origin and meaning of this song is obscure. Some words are found in present-day Ambel (for example, koránu, an archaic word for ‘king’ or ‘ruler’), but most are not. Alec was able to give the gist of what some of the lines mean (the first lines, for instance, salute the bintakí tree, the bintaya, and the ritual equipment) – but for the others, even he does not know. It’s my suspicion that the kábyo that the Ambel men watched were actually a pre-Austronesian population group, and that the song that the Ambel men learnt was sung in a Papuan language, spoken by the earlier inhabitants of Waigeo. The hunt is currently on to see if there are any similarities between the words in the Bintaki song, and any of the Papuan languages spoken nearby – if there were, this might help us to identify some of the pre-Austronesian inhabitants of Waigeo.

The kábyo in fact turn up in many other Ambel myths and folktales. Several of the narratives in the corpus tell stories about the interactions  between humans and the kábyo , and they play an important role in some of the clan histories (for example, in the history of the dispersal of the Kein clan). While they are spirits, the kábyo only ever manifest in human form in these narratives: typically, they take the shape of one of the Ambel villagers, and then lure other people away from the village in order to kill and eat them. If these stories of the kábyo really are memories of an earlier population group on Waigeo, this suggests that they were aggressive, and possibly cannibalistic – and that relations between the Ambel and the kábyo group were antagonistic, at least some of the time.

Matius Kein tells the history of the Kein clan

Another curious hint about the pre-Austronesian inhabitants of Waigeo comes in the form of the stories one occasionally hears about the ‘little black people’ who are said to live in the interior of the island, the orang gi (‘Gi People’ in the local variety of Malay – the gi element is probably related to the Ambel word for betel nut, gíy). The orang gi are the subject of much discussion in Thomas Schultze-Wistrum’s 2003 documentary Waigeo: Insel der Magier (currently available on YouTube in German; a French version was also made), which focusses on the syncretism between Christian and pre-Christian beliefs in Lupintol, a nearby Maˈya village on Waigeo. In this documentary, the orang gi are said to be a group of spirit-like people who live in the interior of Waigeo. When quizzed, most of the Ambel I asked said that the orang gi were the stuff of fairy tales. Others, however, claimed to know people who had seen the orang gi. The accounts of the orang gi are all similar: they are said to be very short, with very dark skin.

Again, while there is no direct evidence, I suspect that the stories of these orang gi refer to a now-disappeared population group who once lived on Waigeo. The orang gi appear to have been distinct from the group remembered as the kábyo – both in terms of their physical characteristics (recall that, in stories of the kábyo, they are often said to manifest as Ambel villagers, suggesting they are quite similar physicaly to the Ambel themselves); and their shadowy and shy, rather than aggressive temperament. In fact, the physical characteristics described for the orang gi are reminiscent of the Negrito populations found throughout South and Southeast Asia – for example, the Semang of Malaysia  and the Aeta of the Philippines. Could the stories of the orang gi have developed from reminiscences about a now-extinct Negrito group on Waigeo?

Individually, these speculations don’t amount to much. But taken together, they suggest interesting future avenues for research. Note, for example, how the linguistic and the cultural data don’t quite match up – while the linguistic data suggest that contact between the Austronesians and Papuans was friendly, the stories about the kábyo eating human flesh suggest a more antagonistic relationship. Future work may shed some more light on some of the speculations discussed here – in particular, a proposed archaeological project involving Dr Daud Tanudirjo from Universitas Gadjah Mada might turn up something more concrete. Research looking at the population genetics of the archipelago would also be very welcome, to determine the extent to which the Austronesians and Papuans intermarried. For the time being, however, the information I’ve talked about here shows how important it is for a documentation to include as much cultural detail as possible. Without the information contained in the Ambel corpus, at this stage we couldn’t begin to make even these tentative speculations. Ayo bintaki, kiyaaa yeee…

Laura would like to thank Dylan Gaffney for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

To the ‘Underwear Crowd’: What gives you the right to question other people’s existence?

A bilingual sign- often the impetus for diatribes against Gaelic in the press

Today’s blog post comes from the editor, Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas, associate fellow for the Scottish Gaelic language research network Soillse. Cassie is currently on an Irish Research Council-funded fellowship ‘The Challenges of Minority Language Maintenance:  Family Language Policy in Scotland and Ireland’ at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and is also a principal investigator on the project ‘The Intersection of Language and Community in Corca Dhuibhne’ with the Smithsonian’s SMiLE (Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe) initiative.

As most of us who work with endangered languages know, every once and a while there are just those days.  Those days where you just can’t believe that someone would say that about a language and its speakers.

Last month it was one of those days for Scottish Gaelic—the language I’ve had the privilege of working on and speaking for nearly a decade now—with an article  describing the language as ‘“sounding like someone gargling with Irn Bru’” and referring to a sign in Gaelic as ‘nice for tourists to think they’ve arrived in Brigadoon.’

Now, anti-Gaelic articles in mainstream papers are nothing new.  This time, however, the backlash to the article was something I had never before witnessed, with some excellent counter-posts, letters to the editor, and the hashtag #ismiseGàidhlig, circulating. Then another inflammatory article was written (which seemed to be inflammatory simply for the sake of being inflammatory), and which was similarly rebutted by poet Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, among others. (But, to the first columnist’s credit, he actually attempted to understand the original backlash by interviewing Professor Wilson McLeod of the University of Edinburgh in another article).

I have taken great interest in reading the many excellent responses and in reflecting on how to explain the value of minoritised languages to people who just don’t understand.  I suppose in a way this a long comeback to the times I have been interrogated on the value of minority language revitalisation and was initially blindsided, because to me, it felt like having to explain that the sky was blue.

The first time this happened I was in an interview for funding.  I don’t remember exactly what I said in relation to the question ‘why would someone want to preserve a language like Gaelic?’ (or the approximate thereof) but whatever it was, one of the panel members suddenly thought of her husband’s underwear and quipped, ‘But my husband’s underwear are old, should we hang onto those?’

(Note:  I have said a lot of things I later regretted in the heat of an interview, but I know I didn’t just say ‘because it’s old’ in my previous answer.  I think my response was something like, ‘well, it’s like anything of cultural heritage, we want to preserve it.’  Perhaps I threw in ‘old building’ instead of the saying ‘listed building’ as I should have.  I don’t know.  But whatever it was, it somehow evoked images of this woman’s husband’s underwear).

After the underwear comment, I said, ‘Pardon me, but I think that any Gaelic speaker would take grave offense at having their language compared to your husband’s old underwear.’

Needless to say, I didn’t get the funding. But this question has come up time and time again in my professional and personal life, and like the newspaper articles mentioned beforehand, is always along the lines of the underwear comment.  So this is what I would like to say to the ‘underwear crowd’:

When you tell someone (either explicitly or implicitly) not to speak their language, you are passing judgment on them. In a Sapir-Whorf sense, you are telling them that the very shapes of their thoughts are wrong.  You are telling them that the way they put their being into the concrete form of words is wrong.  In essence, you are telling them that their existence is undeserved.

And that is exactly what is implied by  trotting out ‘only 1% of the population speak the language’ and the mention of ‘Brigadoon’—that these people shouldn’t exist.  Indeed, as anyone working in endangered language revitalisation will know, for most of these language communities, hegemonising forces have tried their upmost to ensure that these people don’t exist, and perhaps the 1% is still a thorn in the side of polities with a long history of imperialism in its various guises.  In the Gaelic case, these are the people who were once cleared off the land, who have had a constant struggle to stay in the place where they and their families are from—even today.  But thankfully they still exist, and as my colleague from on the Isle of Lewis puts it, ‘I don’t see why I have to justify my identity to anyone.’

So know this, underwear crowd: when you lay into the value of minority languages, you are perpetuating imperialism, again and again. And so, the next time you question the value of minority languages, I will respond with:

What gives you the right to question another human being’s existence in this world?  Why should their existence be questioned and yours remain indubitably beyond reproach?

Austerity and Resistance in Ireland’s Gaeltacht 2008-18 by Ben Ó Ceallaigh

A small section of the 6,000+ strong crowd united under the Dearg le Fearg slogan at the first of several large marches that took place in 2014

Today’s FEL blog post, written by Ben Ó Ceallaigh, a final year PhD student in the University of Edinburgh, looks at the connections between economics, language vitality, and resistance efforts. Ben’s thesis is provisionally titled ‘Language shift and neoliberalism: The Irish economic crisis and the sociolinguistic vitality of Gaeltacht regions 2008-2018’. He is also the national secretary for radical activist group Misneach.

For almost one hundred years now, the Irish state has afforded special protection to those areas in which the county’s first, but minoritised, language remains the everyday community language. Despite this, the Irish language is still seriously endangered in these Irish-speaking communities, collectively known as “the Gaeltacht”. In 2007, a large scale report demonstrated that Irish was unlikely to remain the dominant community language in even the strongest Gaeltacht areas for more than 15-20 years if radical action was not taken.

The timing of the 2008 economic crisis and the enormous cuts to state spending it caused was, then, devastating for the Gaeltacht, with such peripheral areas being in no small part dependent on the state support which was cut so heavily during the crisis.

Having lived in a Gaeltacht community where Irish is now effectively moribund throughout most of the recession, and subsequently spent the last several years doing a PhD on the effects of this period on the Gaeltacht, I have seen many examples of how this large-scale international event has effected language vitality at the community level.

The examples are many, but perhaps the starkest illustration of the effects of the crisis is to be seen in the extent to which state provision for the Gaeltacht has been drastically reduced over the last decade. For example, the Gaeltacht development authority, Údaras na Gaeltachta, had its budget cut by 73.7% between 2018-15 and in a classic example of the neoliberal “rolling-back” of the state, the Gaeltacht Act, 2012 saw much of the responsibility for language planning transferred to voluntary community groups which are operating with only minimal resources.

The consequences of these cuts and other effects of the crisis for language use may be inferred from the 2016 census, which showed a dramatic drop of 11.2% in the number of daily Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht since 2011. As well as significant reductions to language support schemes, many Gaeltacht areas suffered large-scale emigration during this time.

These challenges to Gaeltacht life have not gone unopposed, however. Since 2009 several groups and campaigns have emerged in opposition to state policy and budgetary decisions regarding the Gaeltacht.

Guth na Gaeltachta Publicity material

In 2009 the campaign group Guth na Gaeltachta (“voice of the Gaeltacht”) was founded in Donegal and became one of the most important Gaeltacht-based mobilisations since the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. While the group had wound down by 2013, amidst threats of legal action against its spokespeople by the state, it laid important ground work and helped politicise Irish speakers, who, like much of Irish society, had been largely de-politicised during the “Celtic Tiger” boom years. While relatively short-lived, Guth na Gaeltachta served as an important inspiration for other campaigns which have emerged over recent years.

During my PhD fieldwork I had the opportunity to witness and take part in several of these campaigns. While my research topic was oftentimes depressing (as work in the area of language endangerment and loss so often is), on a personal, level these grassroots efforts provided me with an enormous source of inspiration and hope.

In 2014 Irish speakers from both within and outside the Gaeltacht mobilised to resist the proposed amalgamation of the Language Commissioner’s office with that of the state Ombudsman. This was to take place as part of a much wider process of public service rationalisation, reforms which themselves have been deeply neoliberal. The ensuing Dearg le Fearg (“red with anger”) movement saw a number of marches take place in Dublin, Belfast and in the rural Galway Gaeltacht. Well over ten thousand Irish speakers took part in these protests, with the government ultimately abandoning the proposed merger as a result.

Taking many of their cues from the 2014 movement, An Dream Dearg (“the red group”) have run a vibrant campaign over the last year and a half demanding a language act for the North of Ireland. Unionist opposition to such an act is a key obstacle to the reinstatement of power-sharing in Belfast – creating a very unusual case whereby minority language policy is responsible for a government’s collapse!

Aran Islanders and their supporters protesting to defend their islands’ air service

In 2015 the inhabitants of the Aran Islands in Galway organised a vocal campaign to oppose a proposal to replace islands’ aeroplane service from a nearby airstrip with a less reliable and less suitable helicopter service from a much further away airport. Many–including, I was told, the former minister for the Gaeltacht who supported the campaign–felt that this change was being proposed to open the way for discontinuing the air service altogether at a later date. Such was the scale and sustained nature of the community’s resistance efforts, however, that the recommendation became politically impossible and was eventually shelved by the government.

More radically still, several of the communities in which I conducted fieldwork physically blockaded their areas against the police and agents of Irish Water, the semi-state body which was charged with installing water meters throughout the country. These meters were widely understood as paving the way for later privatisation of the sort the International Monetary Fund had recommended while directing Irish state finances from 2010-13. One informant from a strongly Irish-speaking area in west Galway who I met on an anti-water charges protest in Dublin in 2015 stated that the frustration he felt at being forced to leave his home to search for work in Dublin had boiled over at a previous protest and prompted him to lead a spontaneous sit-down blockade of a main road in Dublin city centre. Faced with such acts of civil disobedience throughout the country, the government has since abandoned the proposed water charges.

Image from the recent protests by the Toraigh Islanders

More recently there have been a number of protests against the replacement of the ferry to Toraigh Island in the Donegal Gaeltacht with a much older and less seaworthy craft. In February 2018 the islanders and supporters of their cause organised a series of pickets outside state buildings to voice their anger at the way in which they, one of the strongest remaining Irish-speaking areas, are being treated by a state which is ostensibly committed to the maintenance of the Gaeltacht. They have publically stated they will blockade their pier and prevent what they deem as a potentially dangerous boat landing on their island, and are looking for support in doing so when the new service begins in early April.

While, then, the economic and political turmoil of the last ten years has had significant detrimental effects for the vitality of Irish and the communities that speak it, state policies entrenching neoliberalism have met with significant resistance. Although there is certainly much cause for concern regarding the language’s future, recent grassroots mobilisations of Irish speakers contains much that is both encouraging and inspiring to those interested in maintaining linguistic diversity. Although the Leviathan-like forces amassed against minoritised languages can often seem overwhelming, they are not undefeatable. These examples from the Gaeltacht show that these forces can be challenged and that, as in other areas of social justice campaigning, people power can prevail in favour of endangered language revitalisation efforts.

Doing Fieldwork Without Doing Damage to Endangered Languages by Nancy C. Dorian

 (Photos Courtesy of the Author)

We at FEL are deeply honoured to have our inaugural blog post written by Nancy C. Dorian,  Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Bryn Mawr College, USA, whose work has been formative in shaping endangered language research for decades,
and which serves as an inspiration for so many of us as we begin and/or continue our own work in endangered language communities.

In today’s research environment, there are some important requirements built into research proposals that are meant to safeguard the people whom the researcher is studying. For linguistic fieldwork, this means following certain ethical guidelines and offering evidence that the people whose language is under study agree to the presence of the researcher(s). Linguists who choose to go into the field to work on endangered languages sometimes make that choice with the welfare of the language and its speakers in mind. Certainly most would wish to do no damage, and some become activist advocates for the language they study. More and more often now, field researchers express a wish to do some service for the speaker population, for example by helping devise or improve an orthography; creating an archive; creating user-friendly written materials; or encouraging local speakers to preserve traditional material digitally, on film or in books. Since all of these positive developments seem to be growing more prevalent, why raise the issue of doing damage?

There are actually certain potential hazards built into the fieldwork undertaking, some more obvious, some less so. Deciding on  which speakers become “sources” (if there are enough speakers to allow a choice, that is) sets up many opportunities for provoking rivalries of one sort or another. If we settle on one or two excellent speakers to work with, are we enhancing their status and leaving other fine speakers feeling diminished? Favoring only the most elderly, or the most traditional, or only speakers with 100% local parentage, or even – as I found in my own fieldwork– one spouse over the other (she was reliably local, he was subverted by Bible literacy), can cause ill-feeling. If there are already opposing camps within the speaker group, more serious factionalism may appear, with one group belittling information given by another or undermining any maintenance or revitalization efforts that the other group supports.

Dialect differences pose a related problem. Speakers in one location are often acutely aware – even hyperaware –  of differences between elements of their own speech and corresponding elements in the speech of people in another location very nearby, whether in phonology, morphology, or syntax. Ideally, researchers would like to recognize clear-cut forms that represent local consensus. But they may instead have to decide to what extent they will acknowledge the linguistic untidiness that often surfaces.

Deciding to work in just one among a string of villages or hamlets with very closely related but locally distinct speech forms (from the local populations’ point of view, that is) may be a matter of practical necessity because of limited time or money. It may be advisable, too, because one location is more accessible than others or because the fieldworker has a certain entrée in one location but not the others (thanks for example to a dissertation adviser or colleague who knows the area and can provide some introductions).  But dialect differences as a marker of local identity are so potent that any strategies that can reduce the sense of exclusion among other villages’ populations are worth adopting, to avoid the possibility that people from the “excluded” villages will resist orthographies, dictionaries, storybooks, or any other maintenance and revitalization initiatives that feel alien to them.

There is also the issue of the observer vs. the observed. The linguist or linguistic team comes to the fieldwork setting with a certain expertise that may or may not be recognized by the local speaker population, and once there asks people from a culture not their own to allow their speech (and usually some of its context as well) to be observed and recorded. Even if the request is formally granted, the uses to which specialists like linguists and anthropologists put the recorded materials are usually obscure to people who have no experience with scholarly literature. This very fundamental problem strikes at the heart of the “informed consent” issue, since it’s hardly possible to consider the consent “informed” if the outcomes are obscure to the people “consenting”. In East Sutherland, I found that simple unfamiliarity with the publication process led to an unforeseen problem. One of the sources who had agreed to be recorded for an oral history I was preparing asked for, and got, removal of one or two sensitive matters from a draft of the book’s manuscript. After publication, when it was no longer possible to remove anything from the book, she urgently wished to have two more matters removed.

Most fundamentally of all, linguistic fieldwork as a scholarly undertaking calls for a degree of detachment that is mostly absent in other protracted and intense social interactions. When local people have done months of close work with linguists or other fieldworkers, sharing their special knowledge and giving hours of their time, how fathomable can it be to them if the researcher(s) one day tell them that the time has come – from the scholars’ point of view, that is – to leave for good, possibly to take up the same sort of work in another place with speakers of a different language? Successful fieldwork relationships often have elements of friendship, and this is not the way friends treat friends. Especially if the fieldwork has been done with great intensity and apparently avid interest, perhaps by a team of researchers and nowadays almost invariably with a good deal of visibly expensive high-tech equipment, there’s likely to be a sense of shock and even betrayal on the part of speakers who have been reliable and cooperative sources and who consciously or unconsciously imagined a more ongoing connection.

This does not exhaust the possibilities for causing some sort of damage while doing well-intentioned linguistic fieldwork, but being aware of potential problems like these may help avoid them, or at least reduce the researcher’s surprise if they do crop up. Much of the advice and instruction available to prospective fieldworkers deals with how to get good information. But how to get good information without causing discomfort or inconvenience to our sources, and without causing social rifts within the speaker population, is worth special consideration.

What can we do to do better, then?

If the researcher is going to need a good deal of multisource information, it can help to make it known from the start that the kind of study being planned involves working with a number of sources. Forewarning the first source or two that the researcher will be interviewing other sources as well can avoid raising expectations that that those first sources are to be the only, or the favored, source of information.

We may be able to describe the speech form in question linguistically with only limited input from any larger group of speakers (dissertations have been written relying on one or two speakers who act as sources for a university class or project). But a grasp of how that speech form is used and the shapes it takes in a variety of different circumstances goes well beyond analyzing how it expresses the plural or the past tense (if it does). Recognizing that consensus is not always available in speech forms without a history of codification, and that individual renditions of what is offered in response to the same question or stimulus may vary systematically or unsystematically according to gender, or degree of acquaintance, or age, or style, may lengthen the time needed for the work but do the language (and other scholars) more service.

In the case of an endangered language, it can be especially important to learn how older people respond to any aberrations or simplifications that are in use among younger people. Finding out what differences the oldest and most fluent speakers take exception to, and how strongly, can suggest what the chances are that younger speakers will try to carry the language forward or will instead give up using it because older and more conservative speakers criticize the way they speak.

Researchers who aim to represent the language under study with the greatest degree of accuracy and depth have their best chance of achieving this if they make an effort to learn the local language, or so I would suggest based on one instance in which I learned to speak the local language and another in which I didn’t. Assuming that the researcher is received with something short of a deliberately distancing cautiousness or hostility, showing interest in acquiring the local language offers a degree of validation that nothing else quite matches. The researcher’s results may not be impressive in terms of reproducing native speaker models accurately, but as even tourists know, the effort is often appreciated. (A sense of humor helps, of course, for surviving local speakers’ enjoyment of our inevitable mistakes.) Whether or not the researcher is trying to learn the local language, fieldwork results can benefit a great deal from a researcher’s expressions of interest and appreciation as more of the local language’s structure and expressive potential comes to light.

The discipline and restraint needed to take the age and physical condition of potential sources into consideration can be hard for zealous fieldworkers to muster. Pressing for just a few more examples or just a little more explanation, a common temptation for all intense and eager fieldworkers, can have an element of bullying. If we’re lucky and are allowed to carry on working in spite of our failings, we usually find that older and less robust sources respond better to an interviewer who shows patience along with interest. Very elderly sources who are less exhausted are also more likely to be willing to agree to more sessions.

If they become well-wishers, linguists who describe often also advise, something that’s harder to do than linguistic analysis. In this connection we need to remember first and foremost that the language belongs to the community in which it’s spoken. As linguistic researchers we come, go, and to some extent participate, in so far as local speakers are willing to let us. But those local speakers (and often non-speaking but aspiring members of the ethnic group) are the ones who are in charge of the future their language will have, and the essential decisions that will impact their linguistic future are always theirs.

Welcome to the FEL blog

Welcome to our blog.  The aim of FEL is to support, enable and assist the documentation, protection and promotion of endangered languages. We envision this site as a dynamic space where those involved in endangered language research and activism can share ideas and experiences.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments sections.  If you have an idea for a blog post, feel free to contact Cassie Smith-Christmas at cassie@ogmios.org.