The direct and indirect impact of Covid-19 on people speaking endangered languages in Brazil

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Sebastian Drude, who is based in Belém, northern Brazil.

Brazil is home to at least 150 Indigenous languages, currently spoken by around 220 groups whose ancestors were there before the arrival of Europeans about 500 years ago. They comprise a total population of less than a million, or under 0.5% of the current Brazilian population. All of these languages, even the largest (Tikuna, with more than 40.000 speakers, and  Kaiwá, with around 25,000 speakers), are to some degree endangered, as they all are under enormous pressure from and being replaced by Portuguese in more and more domains of use.

Endangered languages in Brazil according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger

The vulnerability of Indigenous peoples

Because South America was the most isolated continent over many millennia, all its Indigenous people now are survivors of numerous epidemics resulting from outside settlement, including smallpox, measles, and influenza. These diseases were brought to South America from other continents, in particular from Europe, and the inhabitants originally did not have any immunity defence against them. The survivors have either developed some immunity by now, or depend on vaccinations for their well-being.

Many groups have been contacted only over the last 50 years, during a massive expansion into large parts of the Amazon region, promoted in particular by the military dictatorship (1964 to 1985) and by later developmentalist governments, including in particular the current one. For all of these, the Indigenous people were seen as an obstacle. These recently-contacted groups in particular are still recovering – in numbers and culturally – from the dramatic blow that contact with the dominant society has usually meant. In most cases, even with vaccinations, only a fraction of the original group has survived, and much cultural knowledge was lost with the many who died, and important practices were interrupted.

In view of such a scenario, it is obvious that the vulnerability of all Indigenous peoples in Brazil (and their languages and cultures with them) is of special concern during a pandemic. Isolation of these groups is recommended – the more recent the contact, the more vulnerable they are.

Indigenous peoples, Covid-19 and information

There are some initiatives in Brazil that focus on bringing information about the Covid-19 disease and counter-measures like isolation and regular hygiene to the Indigenous people in their own languages. These initiatives are, as far as I can tell, hardly promoted by the government, for instance through its agency FUNAI, which is responsible for Indigenous matters. Indeed, the only mention of Covid-19 on FUNAI’s web-pages is a link to the official site with information in Portuguese by the health ministry (without any special information on the situation pertaining to the Indigenous population), and a refutation of supposed fake-news that FUNAI would have to respond to an official process due to inertia or omission in the pandemic crisis. Instead, FUNAI affirms, “the execution of the activities with a R$10.8 million (approximately $US 2 million) contribution for actions to combat Covid-19 is occurring at an accelerated pace” (my translation). However, apart from some general plans, there is no information about how these funds are actually being used.

We are, therefore, dependent on other sources of information, in particular the well-known Instituto Socio-Ambiental, which is certainly the most prominent Indigenous-support activist NGO in Brazil. Not only does its main website contain many relevant pieces of information related to Covid-19, but it has also set up a special site, monitoring the impact of the disease on Indigenous peoples and providing related information. They are also, in some crucial areas, one of the most prolific agents providing the Indigenous peoples with information in their own languages.

Social activists and the Wayuri Network join in the prevention of Covid-19 campaign in São Gabriel da Cachoeira | photo: Ana Amélia Handam

Side-effects and counter-measures worse than the disease?

When we try to assess the negative impact of the pandemic on Indigenous populations, we may focus on the numbers of (reported) infections and deaths from the disease. Here, by the way, the same caution is in order as with official numbers elsewhere, because in Brazil deaths FROM the disease may not clearly enough be distinguished from (often unrelated) deaths WITH the virus. As tests may not be reliable, and we are informed only of the absolute numbers of people showing a positive result (without putting this in relation to the total number of tests and the selection criteria applied to the people tested), the published numbers in fact may be misleading. The same may be true of the derived assessment of mortality levels and future projections. This holds also in the case of Indigenous peoples – after all, pulmonary diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis have always been among the top causes of sickness and death among this population in Brazil, even before the new virus arrived.

More importantly, focusing only on the Covid-19 numbers is way too narrow. Officially, as of the time of writing, 27 Indigenous people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus in Brazil, and three have died (Indigenous organizations like ABIP, however, claim that there are other unrecorded or unreported cases, and demand better monitoring). But that is just part of the whole picture: There are many other threats to Brazil’s Indigenous peoples during the current pandemic, some of them created by the measures against Covid-19, others exacerbated by them.

The most important agents harming the integrity of Indigenous peoples and their territories are not confined to their homes during quarantine, but are very much active right now. These are the illegal loggers, farmers and estate-agents stealing Indigenous lands, miners (in particular, gold prospectors), and others. With open support by the current government under President Bolsonaro (a blatant ally of agribusiness and mining corporations), their illegal and extremely harmful activities – including the frequent murder of Indigenous leaders who try to resist – have skyrocketed since January 2019.  Now, not only do these harmful agents bring the virus close to Indigenous villages, but they are even more emboldened as everybody else, e.g. the media, is focused on worrying about the pandemic. Many of those who should protect Indigenous peoples are in quarantine or for other reasons not working as necessary, meaning that the opportunities to pursue such criminal activities without any reporting or consequences have grown even more.

In addition, as is the case with many informal workers in Brazil, the quarantine restrictions are harming the Indigenous population who depend on activities in urban areas, such as selling their goods. Economic activities have mostly stopped, but unlike other sectors of Brazilian society, the government’s emergency programme is hard or impossible for Indigenous people to access, because it demands a social security number and a mobile phone, in addition to online-access and reading knowledge of Portuguese in order to apply. Large parts of the Indigenous population, including some living in cities, do not meet some or all of these requirements. Indigenous people thus have to choose between either not applying (and having no emergency income), or seeking help in a nearby town, thereby exposing themselves to the risk of infection, and to the even more severe risk of taking the virus back with them to their home villages. The same holds for necessary activities such as buying food and essential commodities, or receiving payments (wages, pensions, welfare) – for all of these they have to expose themselves to the risk of contracting the virus.

On a positive note: Missionary activity with uncontacted groups banned

For the reasons given above, groups living without any contact with the dominant Brazilian society are the most vulnerable peoples of all, even more so in times of a pandemic. They are, however, the preferred target of fundamentalist Christian missionaries who dream of an ‘untouched fresh slate’ to receive the ‘gospel’. In the past such missionaries have brought much harm to many Indigenous groups, not only by bringing diseases, but also by demonizing their traditional cultures, thereby culturally and socially dividing and weakening them, especially the most recently contacted ones.

Map of uncontacted peoples in Brazil, according to FUNAI

It is, therefore, very worrisome that at the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020 the current government, which has close ties to the quickly growing Fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christian sectors of Brazilian Society, put Ricardo Lopes Dias, a missionary and former member of Ethnos360 (formerly known as the ‘New Tribes Mission’), in charge of the division of FUNAI which is responsible for the protection of uncontacted and recently contacted peoples. This is a blatant conflict of interest.

Amidst this, frankly, terrifying scenario with and around the pandemic, there has now been one piece of positive news: a Brazilian judge has recently blocked evangelical missionaries from approaching uncontacted groups in the Javari Valley, home to the greatest concentration of such peoples anywhere on Earth. Although the decision explicitly refers to the current special circumstances which restrict such religious activities, we can only hope (and demand) that it will be enforced, and extended to other such areas. It is important also that the ban continues after the end of the current acute threat created by the novel corona virus pandemic.

Postscript

In 2019 FEL registered its concern at the avowedly unsympathetic policies of the present Brazilian government towards Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. FEL relies on witnesses such as Sebastian Drude for fair comment on recent events, and presents such comment to readers to inform their own judgement. FEL has no independent validation of this report.

Jacinta Tobin and Dharug songs

This post, which arose from an interview in Sydney, Australia in 2019 with Indigenous singer-songwriter Jacinta Tobin (JT), was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Eda Derhemi (ED). It is an edited version of a story that appeared in Ogmios Newsletter 66. (Unless otherwise indicated, photographs are from Jacinta Tobin’s website.)

JT: When people ask me ‘how can I be indigenous and so fair’ or ‘what part of me is Aboriginal’, I say: “It’s that part that never left; it’s the part of me that has a deep connection and responsibility to this country”

ED: I first met Jacinta during the 23rd annual conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) which took place in Sydney, Australia, in December 2019. As bush fires grew everyday around Sydney, the Pacific ocean reflected red and smoky skies. The conference dealt with causes of linguistic endangerment and language loss today, and as we met during conference sessions, we thought about consequences as much as causes, and the ecological disaster that was related to that loss. The conference organizers could not have found a better activist to open the conference: she began with a story told in song about how tragic and complex the consequences of language loss are. Her words and songs moved us and framed this international conference in a way that brought the Indigenous Australian voice in to view during the whole conference. Her Aboriginal spirit of the past, which for her lives also as vibrations in the air, has the face of all women, and of community, Earth, and resistance.

JT: Some of my songs like Blacktown Joe were given to me by Aunty Gladys Smith, one of my elders. The Kookaburra song was given to me in language by Aunty Joan Cooper and Aunty Betty Lock. Most of the songs I have written myself, influenced by spirit. Weerawee was written with Cindy Laws and Michelle Laws. Cindy also gave me the words for Ancestors Plea which was given to her by spirits. I’ve also done music with Aboriginal women from other groups, such as Nardi Simpson and Sheily Morris. Recently, my son and I wrote music for his school, Katoomba High School, which was given an award. Very proud! I don’t do clubs or pubs; I do community events, and my public is everyone from government departments to non-government, to family and friends’ gatherings, and other communities and councils. I also sing for women, Earth Day, and for schools and universities.

ED: The research of my colleague Pilar Martinez-Quiroga at the University of Illinois focuses on the triple rebellious nature of female writers from linguistic and cultural minorities in Spain. There is something about growing up a woman in a minority whose rights are not guaranteed that brings them to the front of social activism as feminists, minority leaders in the fight for language and cultural rights, and artists. I saw all these features rooted that first day in Jacinta’s words, songs, and language.

19th century representations of Benelong (courtesy Natural History Museum, London)

JT: My ancestor Maria first married Dicky, the son of Eora senior man Woollarawarre Bennelong. After Dicky she had a second choice and married a convict called Robert Lock at Parramatta on 26th January 1824. He was a convict, but he stayed with Maria and raised nine children (theirs was the first mixed marriage in the settlement). He had blond hair and blue eyes. He was a carpenter — very good with his hands. Maria was daughter of a karraji (indigenous healer) leader of the Richmond clan of the Dharug (or Darug) people, and passed away on 6th July 1878 at Blacktown. The son of Maria and Robert, called William Lock, married Sarah Ann Castles, who became Granny Lock; she was of the Gannemegal clan of the Dharug language group.

ED: At this point in her story I am concentrating hard, trying to keep up with all the information given in brief sentences that appear like formulas of a recited ritual with more background knowledge than I can handle. It all seems fascinating. The elaboration and cultural depth of the sentence with the convict and the non-judgmental (as a matter of fact, embracing) attitude Jacinta transmits, fascinate me. Granny Lock, I think, must be Jacinta’s grandma.

JT: Granny Lock was known to have walked from Eastern Creek to Parramatta to see the first steam train. She was also a language informant for R. H. Matthews (surveyor and self-taught anthropologist). Their daughter called Theresa, married Edward Joseph Moran who was born on a boat from England. Their daughter Kathleen (Flo) Moran married a Burke; they were my grandmother and grandfather. Their daughter Valerie married my dad Kevin Tobin, then there’s me. I have two children: one is Jasper Daruga, my Falling Star, and Killimai, my Bright Eyes… and they follow culture because their mother does… but they have a choice… if they choose to or not when they get old enough.

ED: Boy, was I wrong about Granny Lock (Sarah) of the first half of 1800s, being Jacinta’s grandma! Granny Kathleen (called also Flo) was instead her grandma. Jacinta’s description of Maria and the Blue-eyed Robert Lock, as much as that of Granny Lock who walked for days to see the first train, then of Theresa and Kathleen and Valerie, were told with the same historic certainty and expressive detail, as stories about the schools and activities where Jacinta preferred to sing today. I made three different family trees to understand the lineage of members until I got it right. In my defence, I must say that the whole interview was not only a very strongly knit narrative, but the countless characters described in it interacted with each other in a supratemporal dimension, all brought to the interlocutor with the same ease and expressivity as those who, according to me, “really” lived in the present. And the answer to why her perception is not that which I am used to, and is shaped with particular strength and timelessness, is clear in what she said next.

Map of Sydney clan locations prepared by Brittany Crocker, based on work by Anita Heiss & Melodie-Jane Gibson.

JT: I’m a descendant of two clans of the Sydney language group: the Gannemegal from Prospect and Buruberongal from the Richmond Greater Sydney area … I come from an unbroken women’s line to Gannemegal Prospect. This is a vibration and frequency that lives in my DNA. I live in the country where my ancestors on my mother’s side have always been born; that’s how I know I’m Indigenous. I have a blood line responsibility. We have something to offer the 21st century and maybe, being a fair-skinned person, you might listen to us.

ED: Jacinta’s language has features mine does not. It is coded. It has a depth that mine is missing. As I listen and read and reread her answers, I find myself wondering about the meaning more than usual and questioning my logic and worldview, which have become obstacles. As I do, I decide to send her questions about our first interview and then more questions about the answers to my previous questions. The more I read and reread her answers, the better I understand that what I considered some sort of mysticism or Magical Realism in her world view is in fact her sense of duty to the world and her ancestors, a conceptual structure that sees all of us in all continents and all times, humans as part of nature, of past and future, as related in an uninterrupted line. It is an ecology that we have forgotten and which we as humans are having a hard time to re-establish. I understand that I am not part of the “I” and “we” Jacinta mentioned above. I lack her natural and effortless sense of ecology that includes climate, language, culture, forests, behavior, change, philosophy, physics, and her children as well as her remote ancestors. Jacinta lives, speaks, and sings it. I try to reach it as knowledge outside of me, and make it part of my life. But there are so many social and cultural filters (most of which are beyond my awareness) that weaken this connection for me. Jacinta lives her life with a clear mission, which I should join for my own good. For Jacinta, language, song, and culture are indivisible, and are also a way to save the future of our planet. Her voice in the planet comes through her songs, which are also her language and Aboriginal knowledge.

JT: I wrote my music to tell a story. Our story is our song. I sing to let people know we are still here and also to hopefully touch base with ancestors, landscape, animals, and family in our Aboriginal way. Through the vibration and frequency of country in Dharug and English … Music has always been a way to map our country, it is our title deed you could say. Our music, our song, reflects our realities maybe through quantum physics and other theories that are coming to light. Hopefully, in the future we would be able to see music as a science and not just an art or just a song. The connection of language and song is our strength; it is the way of saying prayer and showing gratitude to being able to be part of this existence. The messages in the language and song in our country also help the natural environments that are our home vibrate and become healthier. This is not about song for song’s sake … if we could understand a little bit more. In my country, music is seen as a school subject, and not a way of life as it was in times past. My understanding is that more music in one’s life means a more compassionate society. My song and language are for a sustainable living, understanding that we’re not the only living creatures on this earth and that there is a way to work in harmony with all that is. We need to stop being arrogant as humans and realize we are part of nature and we have a responsibility to it.

Jacinta teaches Dharug language

ED: I interviewed Jacinta right after months of fires all around Australia, but I did not ask any questions about the fires. Nonetheless, in her ecological view Jacinta sees her country and the world as her personal responsibility – the same way she sees language, music, and her ancestors’ culture as closely related agents for a better future. Her clear ideas and strong opinions make me realize how correct and useful her insights are in these grim days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As she says, “we are all connected in this world”.

JT: The absence of language and song is so present in my country. I believe this is why we are burning. It’s time for us to actually learn and relearn old lessons, and to join with other Aboriginal nations who know the connection to their country through song. I am an optimist. I believe that we can bring the 21st century into a new way of living together. I pray that FEL will help people understand vibration and frequency which have been the Aboriginal science of this country for a millennium. That’s why language is important in this country. Some of us are relearning and we thank the universe that some of the Aboriginal people still preserve that knowing. FEL, through its network, should work more to lift up those people in Aboriginal communities who have this knowledge. They may speak five languages, but when you hear their broken English, they are judged as people with simple minds. Please lift them up! FEL should continue to stress that language is part of environmental knowledge, language is part of health issues, language is part of education, language is part of music and song — and that we are all connected in this world. Thousands of generations have sung for me in language, and now I need to sing for thousands to come.

For more information about Jacinta Tobin’s work readers may wish to explore this video report, which includes her involvement in Big Sing in the Desert 2019 organised by Rachel Hore.

FEL 2017 grant: Development of an Uchinaaguchi karate and kobudo handbook

This is the fourth in our series of posts on grants awarded by FEL in 2017.

Overview. Uchinaaguchi ( ウチナーグチ ) is the most widely-spoken of six Ryukyuan languages in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, however it is expected to disappear within a few generations unless immediate revitalisation efforts are made. Sadly, if Uchinaaguchi disappears, so too will much of the rich vocabulary and concepts specific to Okinawan cultural arts, such as karate and kobudo ( 古武道, Okinawan fighting with weapons). Therefore, in collaboration with members of the Uchinaaguchi-speaking and martial arts practitioner communities, this project will collect and develop specialised martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi terminology into an Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Handbook, thereby promoting the use of Uchinaaguchi in the domain of Okinawan martial arts. Each page of the handbook will contain one Uchinaaguchi term, proverb, or place name, as well as Japanese and English translations, an illustration, and sample sentences. In addition to providing an opportunity for Uchinaaguchi speakers to use their language, the handbook will be a tangible Uchinaaguchi learning resource that will be made accessible to Uchinaaguchi speakers and karate and kobudo practitioners in Okinawa and abroad in print and via the internet.

Grantee. This project is led by Samantha May.

Samantha was an Okinawa resident between 2009 and 2015, and holds a 2015 PhD in Comparative Culture and Area Studies from the University of the Ryukyus, with a thesis entitled Uchinaaguchi Language Reclamation in the Martial Arts Community in Okinawa and Abroad. During her doctoral studies she began compiling the Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Handbook. She also holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics and Communications from the University of the Ryukyus. She has a third degree blackbelt in Meibukan Goju Ryu, and second degree blackbelt in Shorinkai Shorin Ryu. She has spent more than ten years practicing Tesshinkan Ryukyu Kobudo, collaborating with Okinawan martial arts instructors and other Uchinaaguchi speakers. She has 15 years’ experience in language teaching, and developing language learning materials, having also worked in graphic design and social media.

FEL 2017 grant: Trilingual electronic dictionary (Kryz-Azerbaijani-English) with Kryz pronunciation

This is the third in our series of posts on FEL grants awarded in 2017.

Overview. This project aims at preservation and language revitalization by creating the first dictionary for Kryz, an endangered Caucasian language spoken in the alpine villages of the Qrız, Cek, Əlik, and Hapıt in the Republic of Azerbaijan. According to the 2016 census these villages had a total of 1,602 inhabitants. In order to create a modern trilingual (Kryz-Azerbaijani-English) electronic dictionary, data on Kryz words will be collected during fieldwork and translated in Azerbaijani and English. The dictionary will be supplemented with audiovisual recordings to indicate the correct pronunciations of individual words. The end product will then be uploaded on to a dedicated website. Scholars and researchers, the Kryz people, and the world community will have free access to this content.

Grantee. This project is led by Elnur Aliyev.

Elnur holds BA and MA qualifications in Areal Linguistics and Caucasian Philology from Tbilisi State University. From 2015 he has been enrolled in the PhD programme there working on The position of the Khinalug language among Dagestanian languages. In 2016-17 he was a visiting researcher at Malmö University, Sweden. Since 2010, he has made research visits to different scientific centres, libraries, and archives of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan (Russian Federation), Turkey, and Sweden, working on endangered Caucasian languages of Azerbaijan.

Regional Interest Groups of the Foundation for Endangered Languages

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Tjeerd de Graaf.

The Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) has various relations with regional organisations and groups which co-ordinate local activities about endangered languages, and it stimulates the creation of such groups. In those groups one or more representatives have the following tasks:

  • establish and strengthen the relation of specialists with the endangered language communities and organisations in their region;
  • report on best practice experiences of such EL communities in the field of language maintenance, revitalisation, etc.;
  • disseminate Endangered Languages news stories and inform mass media about them;
  • build links with linguistic and other professional organisations (national, local);
  • contribute to (the preparation of) FEL conferences and publications in the FEL blog, Ogmios and on the FEL web site;
  • support the documentation of endangered languages in their area and provide an inventory of existing material (archives, sound recordings, teaching materials, literature, etc.);
  • set up fund-raising events and look for possible sponsors of the work of FEL in the area;
  • join a network for area representatives, with whom information can be exchanged. For this purpose the internet plays an important role.

One of the organisations involved in working with (endangered) minority languages is the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning. This is an independent and recognised centre for researchers, policy makers and other professionals. The Centre is hosted by the Fryske Akademy in the Netherlands, which concentrates on fundamental and applied research related to the Frisian language, culture, history and society.

Illustration 1. Mercator

The Mercator Centre is an academic platform where experts and policy makers can meet and exchange knowledge through conferences and workshops. With its Database of Experts, Mercator offers an overview of European expertise in the field of lesser-used languages. Via its Network of Schools, Mercator provides contacts between schools that teach lesser-used languages and the possibility to exchange ideas about their challenges.

The Centre shares knowledge via its publications:

Mercator gathers knowledge from all European countries about multilingual education and legislation and provides information to places all over the world. As an example, one can mention the Regional Dossiers, which in recent times are also published about some of the endangered languages of the Russian Federation (Nenets, Khanty, Selkup, Udmurt). In this sense, there exists an important link with the work of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Illustration 2. Nenets dossier in Russian

Dossiers about these languages are also published in Russian in order to reach more local people. We have safeguarded and published historical language material, not only texts, but also sound recordings. The reconstruction of endangered sound archives  provides material that can be used for the study and teaching of these languages, many of which are spoken in Siberia. This work can be considered as one of the aims of another regional organisation: the Foundation for Siberian Cultures, which works for the preservation of indigenous languages of Northern Eurasia. Learning tools and teaching materials by and for indigenous communities in Siberia may help to counteract the forces bringing about the loss of cultural diversity and the dissolution of local ethnic identities. Relevant learning tools have been and will be produced together with local experts using modern technologies. They are used for the teaching of the endangered languages to members of the local communities.

Illustration 3. Teaching in Siberia

FEL 2017 grant: Mapuzugun immersion camps in southern Chile

This is the third in our series of posts on grants FEL awarded in 2017.

Overview. Mapuzugun is an endangered indigenous language currently spoken by around 120,000 people (45,000 fluently) in southern Chile and Argentina. Throughout 2017, the Mapuzuguletuaiñ team of language activists organised language camps in rural areas of southern Chile where the language is still spoken, funded by FEL. Each camp consisted of an intensive schedule of language classes and immersion activities, including traditional Mapuche games. The aims of the camps were to create spaces where Mapuzugun is the default language of interaction, to improve the Mapuzugun proficiency of participants, and to foster a network of (neo-)speakers who interact with each other in Mapuzugun. An additional aim was for younger learners of the language to interact with fluent older speakers who live locally, thereby making the most of a small time window that exists when fluent first-language speakers still exist and there is a group of learners (mostly in their twenties) enthusiastic to learn from them.

Grantee. This project is led by Robbie Felix Penman.

Robbie completed an MA in Language Documentation and Description at SOAS, University of London, in 2016. On his third trip to South America in 2015, he researched the officialisation of Mapuzugun and the language policies of NGOs, for a course in language revitalisation and for my dissertation, respectively. He also presented at a SOAS conference on Mapuzugun revitalisation in connection to the so-called “Mapuche conflict”. Since finishing his MA he has been living in southern Chile, where he has been working on language revitalisation, particularly by advising the Ministry of Education on language pedagogy for Chesungun, the variety of Mapuzugun spoken in Osorno province. He speaks fluent Spanish and some basic Mapuzugun, as well as having a Trinity certificate in English teaching and professional experience in TESOL and translation. This project is being carried out in collaboration with the Mapuzuguletuaiñ team of Mapuche language activists.

FEL 2017 grant: Printing and presentation of an Ambel-Papuan Malay-English dictionary

This is the second grant that FEL awarded in 2017.

Overview. From 2013 to 2018, the grantee, Laura Arnold, carried out a major documentation project on Ambel, an endangered Austronesian language spoken in West Papua province, Indonesia. On the basis of materials collected in that project, she worked with members of the Ambel community to produce a trilingual dictionary (Ambel-Papuan Malay-English), with reversal entries. In this FEL project, she plans to publish and print the dictionary in a hardback format so that it will be durable, and travel to the Ambel villages to present the text to the local community. She will also organise workshops that will instruct the Ambel on the correct usage of the dictionary, and encourage its use in classroom activities targeted at younger members of the community.

Grantee. This project is led by Laura Arnold.

Laura is a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh working on Synchronic and diachronic investigations in Raja Ampat-South Halmahera, a little-known subbranch of Austronesian. For her PhD project she documented and described Ambel, an Austronesian language spoken in the Raja Ampat archipelago, Indonesia, and spent over a year living in Ambel villages. She has also worked with speakers of a range of other languages, such as Dogri, Luo, and Mee. In 2018 she wrote a FEL blog post about how our current research can tell us things about the past histories of communities. She loves the social and intellectual aspects of documentation work, and is particularly keen to help to preserve the wonderful linguistic diversity of our planet while the opportunity is still available.

FEL 2020 grant: Kinyindu song book project

This is the last grant awarded by FEL for 2020.

Overview. Kinyindu is an endangered Bantu language spoken in the Lwindi district in South Kivu, an eastern Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo by about 2,000 people. The overall objective of this project is to safeguard, strengthen and promote Nyindu indigenous cultural heritage by publishing a book of Kinyindu traditional songs. A Nyindu researcher, Kadogo Mujumbi, collected a range of songs from singers in the early 1970s and printed a draft collection with Shahidi Press based in Bukavu, however these are no longer available. This project will digitise them and make books available to younger members of the community. This work complements other revitalization activities to produce a lexical database (funded by grants from the Endangered Language Fund and Cultural Survival) and a collection of proverbs in Kinyindu (through a previous FEL grant).

Grantee. This project is led by Michel Musombwa Igunzi (in Kinyindu, Ndhashuba Michel).

Michel is a Nyindu man who grew up primarily speaking his heritage language until his family moved to a non-Nyindu area when he was 13 years old. As a result of Belgian colonial activities and killings from the 1920s many Banyindu took foreign names and joined with neighbouring communities, and as a result the language is now highly endangered with 90% of children not speaking it. Michel graduated in Social Sciences (Management and Development), and in early 2010 together with other Nyindu people created the Association for the Survival of the Nyindu Indigenous People’s Cultural Heritage (ASHPAN). This Association aims to promote and revitalize Nyindu indigenous cultural values, including the language, and to support other indigenous languages in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

FEL 2020 grant: Stories and literacy materials in Urhobo, Nigeria

This is the seventh grant awarded by FEL for 2020.

Overview. Urhobo is an endangered South-Western Ediod language spoken in northern Nigera. The Urhobo Studies Association has developed a 9-year basic education curriculum in a bid to revitalize the language. This is aimed at ensuring that the language is taught as a subject at primary and secondary schools where Urhobo is the local language. However, the lack of reading materials in Urhobo seems to limit all the efforts made so far. This project seeks to collect stories that are suitable for higher basic education reading material, develop them into reading materials, as well as develop questions to test comprehension of each story.

Grantee. This project is led by Emuobonuvie Maria Ajiboye

Emuobonuvie is from Oria-Abraka in Ethiope East Local Government Area, Delta State, Nigeria, and is married to a Yoruba man. She is one of the foundation members of the Urhobo Studies Association, domiciled in the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Delta State University, Abraka, and served as its first secretary. She was the first staff member to be engaged by the University to teach courses in Urhobo Language and Linguistics, and has supported use of the language in football commentaries, rap music, and some aspects of information technology. . She entered Urhobo language studies via an undergraduate field assignment in her second year at the University of Benin where students were asked to collect and document oral narratives from their home villages in their native tongue, and to translate them into English. She has attended training and conferences in Africa, the US, and Germany, is a Fellow of the National African Language Resource Centre, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a Fellow of Ife Institute of Advanced Studies of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. She is currently undertaking a PhD programme in syntax and semantics at the University of Benin, focusing on a morphosyntactic study of vowel reduplication in Urhobo.

FEL 2020 grant: Blablanga orthography and literacy materials development workshop

This is the fifth in our series of posts on FEL grants awarded for 2020.

Overview. Blablanga (also called Blanga) is an endangered Oceanic language spoken by approximately 1,150 people Santa Isabel Island, in the Solomon Islands. It includes a communalect called Zazao or Kilokaka that was previously considered a different language. Blanga lacks a standardised orthography and spelling system. There have been sporadic attempts at writing it, but speakers use conventions developed for a neighboring vigorous language (Cheke Holo) which has a different phonological system. This project comes as a response to a request from the community to establish a practical and emblematic orthography, and to publish literacy materials. These would be used by children and adults to learn how to read and write in their own language, including, but not limited to, a primer, and a collection of oral literature. To prepare for this there will be a two-day workshop during which community members, chiefs, elders, catechists, teachers, youth leaders, and interested others will come together for the first time to discuss and decide on orthography and spelling issues. The FEL-funded workshop will be integrated within a larger project funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Grant, which investigates Information Structure and Intonation in Blanga.

Grantee. This project is led by Rados Voica.

Rados (or Radu) Radu (a.k.a. Rados) is a post-doctoral researcher at SOAS, University of London. He holds an MA in Language Documentation and Description and a PhD in Field Linguistics from SOAS. Between 2007 and 2010 he was an Endangered Languages Documentation Programme grantee (ELDP grants IGS0048 and IGS0048-supplement) and did fieldwork on Santa Isabel Island, Solomon Islands, where he documented Blablanga and Kilokaka, and subsequently showed that the two are varieties of a single language. Rados’ British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship involves fieldwork and analysis of Blablanga, aiming to elucidate aspects of intonation and information structure. He has also taught Descriptive Linguistics and Field Methods at SOAS. His main research interests are in language documentation, endangered languages, field linguistics and linguistic theory, information structure, syntax-semantics-pragmatics interfaces, predicate-argument relations, Role and Reference Grammar, prosody, autosegmental metrical models, historical linguistics, Austronesian languages, and Romance languages.