Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Development of the Foundation

The Foundation was first proposed by the editor of this newsletter in a mailshot of 27 November 1994, and has so far held two meetings. Reports of these meetings follow.

Readers will note that the Foundation is now gathering suggestions to select a set of language communities whose survival and progress will form the starting focus for our work. If you have a direct link with such a community, and wish to enlist the Foundation to work on its behalf, please contact the editor for a questionnaire. This will make it possible for us to see its place within the multifarious diversity of Language Endangerment.

Aims of the Foundation

In the last few years there has been a surprising surge of interest in the fates of small human communities, and in the cultures that they maintain. Journalistic interest has tended to focus on the political dimensions of this (as with the Baltic states, with Chiapas in Mexico, or with East Timor on the borders of Indonesia) or the ecological or even pharmacological losses (Yanomami in the Brazilian rain-forest) which may result from greater expansion of large, usually Western-inspired, states at the expense of the small communities. But there is also sometimes a focus on the cultural heritage of these groups as being of interest more widely than to the people themselves. Among other things, some of the moral and spiritual teaching of these groups has found a place in new approaches to fulfilment even within Western societies. And the cultural vitality of smaller communities within nation states (e.g. Wales, the Pais Vasco) makes more and more news.

There has also been some interest, beyond the persistent, but perhaps marginal, community of “Whorfian” linguists, in how other languages may support different world-views and ways of thinking. In the past, the extinction of old ways, as smaller languages make way for the spread of their larger neighbours, had seemed a loss only to those who were giving them up. Now there is a fear that along with the gain in ease of communication there may be serious loss in the long run, not only for the people most closely affected, but even for monolingual English-speakers. The potential for danger lies in loss of diversity, on the analogy of genetic biology, where it can be shown that increasing standardization and uniformity holds dangers for the long-term survival of the population as a whole.

I am currently setting up a Foundation for Endangered Languages, which already has links with UNESCO and CIPL’s Committee on Language Endangerment. Its activities will no doubt develop and expand over time, but at the outset the Foundation will provide:
• a Newsletter

• a Means of Contact with field-workers, language support and maintenance initiatives and efforts

• formal links with other appropriate institutions;
e.g. university departments, charities, cultural institutes in the UK;
literacy programmes world-wide

Other functions that would be appropriate in future might include courses in languages, field-methods, conferences, a bibliographic and software database, a library, a journal, a book series. The Foundation will also cast its net much wider, providing links to:

• schools at all levels, and forms of education other than universities;
• film, TV, radio, multi-media

Later, it would begin to make sense to think how the Foundation could begin to be a force in its own right, offering support for fieldwork expeditions, scholarships, financial aid for local programmes in support of endangered languages.

If you are interested in such a Foundation, and initially perhaps in becoming a member of an Association, please contact the editor at the address above.

Report on Meeting 1: DTI London, 27 January 1995

The meeting, convened by Dr Nicholas Ostler (independent consultant in linguistics and language technology), was attended also by Prof. R.H. Robins (emeritus, London School of Oriental and African Studies, and President of the Permanent International Committee of Linguists), Mr Allan Wynne Jones (European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, and Menter a Busnes), Dr Andrew Woodfield (Dept of Philosophy, Bristol University, and organizer of April Seminar on Conservation of Endangered Languages), Dr Roger Blench (independent consultant, inter alia on Language Survey of Nigeria), Prof. Greville Corbett (Surrey University, and President of the Linguistic Association of Great Britain) and Prof. Dick Hayward (London School of Oriental and African Studies, and Member of the Consultative Project Committee of the UNESCO Endangered Languages Project).

Although they could not attend, Professors Suzanne Romaine (Oxford University), Ian Roberts (University of Wales at Bangor) and Dr Marilyn Martin-Jones (Lancaster University) had asked to be kept informed of proceedings.

One emphasis of the meeting was the need for more fieldwork to be organized. Here the main requirement seemed to be for finance, and a thumbnail calculation suggested that a budget of £35,000 per language was needed to provide a basic (“A-level”) grammar and dictionary of an undocumented language, assuming two years of work on the language by an individual linguist. Since data gathering was a much faster process than the subsequent analysis and publication, it should have priority where languages were really on their last tongues.

Another emphasis was the need to raise the profile of Language Endangerment as an issue with the general public. In principle, there was no reason why this issue, which touched many people’s identity so closely, indeed perhaps touched a majority of the world’s people, should be less emotive than many others which had achieved mass appeal. In the developed West, however, there did seem to be particular problems in gaining sympathy. One difficulty in reaching the English-speaking public in particular was their general inexperience of bilingualism; another, which was more widely a problem in characterizing the effects of language loss, was the intrinsic abstractness of language itself: where exactly should one locate the subjective, and the objective, value in the diverse features which were giving way to uniformity? a third, which militated against an effective unity of approach, was the diversity in predicament of language shift itself: different languages were endangered in different ways, and called out for different means of help, even as different communities had quite different aspirations for their languages’ future.

Often international bodies (the World Bank was cited) show surprising unawareness as to the importance of languages in human development, even among other cultural items. It was suggested that a convenient way of coping with this was to include languages under some general blanket-term, which would include more familiar goals of the funders -- e.g. a request to study the “national treasures” of a people.



In some cases, the threat came more from the increased access to consumer society than through any material danger to the speakers themselves. Techniques of marketing could be useful, however, as a means of sensitising language planners and those who would develop new materials in a language to the variety of issues which might need to be addressed.

Some encouraging, if isolated, facts and events were recalled. Some governments even of vulnerable and developing states took a positive attitude to their citizens’ linguistic diversity (Cameroon and Eritrea were quoted here). Sometimes, even where the government was less helpful, private enterprise might step in with assistance: a group of businessmen in Lagos, Nigeria, had commissioned a dictionary of the Isekiri language. Academic interest in a language devoted to recording it could have useful social side-effects in increasing the speaker-community’s self-confidence. Prof. Hayward mentioned that language planners in Eritrea seemed anxious to receive help in their Herculean task of establishing literacy programmes for all its nine indigenous languages.

On the other hand, even positive developments were not always what they seemed. A linguist had taken an interest in the last two speakers of Gafat in Ethiopia, and was recording their language; but taking them out of their own environment had made them catch cold and they died. High prices could mean that materials produced to describe and document a language were not available to the home community. Recent positive census figures for Welsh, recording an increase in the numbers who knew the language, might be disguising an actual fall in the frequency of the actual use of Welsh. The USA probably leads the world at the moment in academic interest and effort devoted to arresting language loss: however, it may be just there that the rate of language loss is currently at its highest.

The meeting’s conclusions were general ones. There was a crying need for more publicity of the problem in the developed world, to arrest complacency and awake concern, especially among the young and in international fund-holders. Direct action on behalf of endangered language communities required extreme caution, since the political balance between communities was often delicate. More concrete aims were deferred until the second meeting.

Report on Meeting 2: Bristol University, 20 April 1995

The meeting was attended by Dr Nicholas Ostler, Prof. R.H. Robins, Mr Allan Wynne Jones, Dr Andrew Woodfield and Prof. Dick Hayward, all of whom had been at Meeting 1. Two new members were Mr Christopher Moseley (BBC monitor of Latvian broadcasting and co-editor of the Routledge’s Atlas of the World’s Languages) and Howard Webkamigad (Algoma University College, Ontario).

Robins updated the meeting on the UNESCO supported CIPSH/CIPL initiative and his meeting with Prof. van Sterkenburg of Leiden University: the Tokyo Clearing House due to hold its first meeting in November. He emphasized the need for effective exchange of information between all the various activities being set up world-wide.

Ostler mentioned a number of suggestions about potential alliances for the Foundation. Prof. Ian Roberts, who again could not be present, had suggested the possibility of a link with GLOW (Generative Linguists of the Old World), a predominantly European theoretical linguistic society which he himself currently chaired. Ostler had also highlighted the Foundation at a recent business meeting of the Linguistic Association of Great Britain (held at Newcastle on April 11) at the invitation of its president, Prof. Greville Corbett. On a different tack, Ostler had contacted the Minority Rights Group (MRG) and Survival International (for Tribal Peoples), both based in London. Both had been positive, but stressed that they had little experience still in-house of the initial phases of setting up a group like this. They would prefer to wait until our Foundation had defined its own identity, aims and methods further before discussing co-operation. Survival International had suggested a particular avenue to explore would be to provide messages for inclusion in “Radio Survival”: this distributed news about tribal peoples in the medium of cassettes, often for later broadcast by radio.

Ostler had examined material from the Charities Commission, but thought it better to leave the necessary process of defining the Foundation’s legal identity until its goals and preferred mode of operation had been made clearer.

Wynne Jones, as part of a proposal to reconcile differences between the concerns of documenting moribund languages and the concerns of taking action to preserve and promote languages that were threatened, proposed an acronym for the Foundation: FIRST. This would stress the importance of first languages, i.e. mother tongues, which might not be those most widely understood in a community, but were likely to be the ones in danger of loss. I.R.S.T.: Indigenous and Regional Spoken (or Stateless?) Tongues. The letter F is usefully ambiguous, standing for any of “Foundation for”, “Federation of” or “Friends of”, representing the different roles of the organization as research institute, a solidarity body for communities, and a charity for support of the communities in the wider world. The proposal was left on the table; no decision has yet been taken on it.

Crowning a discussion of what the primary role for the Foundation should be, agreement was reached on Woodfield’s recommendation that it should be a fund-raising organization. However, this required more clarity of purpose on where the funds should be directed. It was vain to characterize the body as a co-ordinating group when it was unclear what activities could be co-ordinated, or as a public relations group dedicated to raising awareness, if it was unclear what activities needed the oxygen of publicity.

Members spoke briefly on languages in danger known to them: Hayward on the Wozzaqa project in Ethiopia (involving Gats’ame, Harro, Hararo, and Mosiye spoken around the Rift Valley Lakes), and elementary level Literacy Programmes in Eritrea; Moseley on Latvian and Livonian; Wynne Jones on Welsh.

The main decision of the meeting was a procedure to gather a representative set of concrete language issues which would define the central activities of the Foundation. The key point is to enlist the experience that experts in our area have of particular language problems. It should then be possible to mobilize around these.

Ostler was requested to send out a questionnaire to all those who had expressed an interest in the Foundation, to get a characterization of language issues known personally to them, and in particular to get a frank statement of what help an umbrella organization such as the Foundation could offer. The questionnaire was to be distributed by the beginning of May, with responses to be returned by the end of May, and a discussion of the results at the next meeting, which is to take place in the last three weeks of June.