Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Recent Meetings

I have attended a number of meetings in the UK and USA over the last two months, on which I give brief reports here.

MIT Seminars

This was a series of small workshops, held weekly at MIT in January 1995, on the major regions of America, Australia, Ireland and the Far North. I was only able to attend the final one, which focused on the Far North (expounded by Jonathan Bobaljik and Michael Krauss), minority, and especially immigrant, languages in the UK (by Mahendra Verma of the University of York) and remedial policy issues (by Ken Hale and Colette Craig).

The Far North presentations laid a heavy emphasis on absolute numbers, and the demographic difficulties in forming a reliable picture largely in areas of the ex-Soviet Union. Verma’s presentation led to some correspondence in Endangered-Languages-L on the Internet, as to the level of concern due for immigrant languages which may not survive in the context of their new homes: the linguistic response to a unique social situation is endangered, but the variety developed is of very recent origin, and usually the linguistic roots in the home country are not at risk.

The presentations by Hale and Craig focused on the language documentation and rehabilitation projects they had undertaken in Nicaragua, on the Sumu and Rama languages respectively. They emphasized the innovative thinking which might be required to get new generations interested in continuing a linguistic tradition, the limited expectations of what could be achieved, even in trying to give effect to a community’s own wished programmes (where the linguist’s own evaluation of what s/he has achieved must take second place), and above all on the crucial dependence of everything on the particular circumstances of particular communities. There would be analogies between policies that worked in different places, but no common remedy.

Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire

This was a two-day seminar organized by the Program in Linguistics and Cognitive Science. It provide an exceedingly rich feast of presentations on the Endangered Languages problem in the Americas, Siberia and Africa.

Michael Krauss, again amid many statistics, emphasised how unnecessary was the loss of the languages of the North (particularly advanced in Alaska -- as against Siberia, Scandinavia, Canada and Greenland) given the possibility of stable bilingualism, seen to best effect in Greenland, where 99% were bilingual in Inuit and Danish. Leanne Hinton spoke of her successes and frustrations in trying, through organized tuition, to bring the languages of California back from near death. Modern theoretically-oriented linguistics proved much less helpful for this than earlier, more wide-ranging, linguistic descriptions. She also discussed the tensions that a language programme could create in the Native American communities. Marianne Mithun gave an extended example of the kind of semantic diversity that a different language could preserve, looking at action classification in central Pomo. She also emphasised some of the diversity of motive, even among the children of a single peer group, and the crucial role of local administrative power (at least in the context of American schools). Ofelia Zepeda described a cultural experiment in the Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) community, introducing unsung poetry recitals. This led to useful discussion on the role of writing in language preservations: it was a sine qua non of expanding a language use into modern contexts, but could inhibit language learning if over-used in the class room.

Turning from North to Central and South America, Colette Craig reviewed the variety to be found there, from the state use of Guaran’ in Paraguay, even by those of pure Spanish descent, to the uncharted but diminishing profusion of languages in the Brazilian jungle. She picked out the Colombian Centre for Study of Indigenous Languages (CCELA) at the University of the Andes in Bogot‡, and Museu Paraense Em”lio Goeldi in BelŽm, Brazil, as shining examples of the recent determination by local elites to start to value their indigenous languages, stressing the futility of “gringo imperialism” in this field. Nora C. England took us through the enterprise of the Mayan peoples to document and officialize their twenty languages, noting that they were profiting from the current lull in human rights violations by their states’ governments, and also from funds from EU, Norway, Austria and Germany. (They had drawn the line though at a proffered grant from Spain in connexion with the Quincentenario!) Ken Hale gave more details on his exertions to give the Ulwa back their language, pointing out the linguistic hierarchization of the local peoples, command of more languages being correlated with a lower position in the pecking order: the Twahka people at the bottom of the pile needed to get by in five languages.

Back in the Far North, Nikolai Vakhtin gave an interesting overview of the Copper Island Aleut creole language, which combined Aleutian lexemes with Russian morphology: another strategy, as he put it, beyond mortality and immortality. Tony Woodbury showed how affective affixes in Yup’ik, played a distinctive role even as a substrate influence on the first generation to lose the language, but could not be expected to survive longer: he quoted this as a clear case of how language use in discourse might be the intrinsic feature of a language’s diversity.

Turning to Africa, Matthias Brenzinger reassured us that language replacement by metropolitan European languages was not widespread, though the voluntary spread of trade-based lingue franche was. He concentrated on the situation in Ethiopia, pointing out how various the position of a language close to death could be: Yaku surviving in its plant names only, Ge’ez surviving as a written language of liturgy, Yen seen as having a thousand speakers in 1976, but now given half a million. AndrŽ Kapanga documented the effects of French and Arabic on Shabu Swahili; Carol Myers-Scotton expounded her theory of code-switching (the Matrix Language Frame Model), essentially claiming that units of one language are always embedded in another, which provides the underlying grammar.



The final session was in some ways the most moving, when various American Indians confronted the impending death of their languages. Richard and Nora Dauenhauer (an American and Tlingit husband and wife) told of their struggles to document and teach the Tlingit language of south Alaska, lamenting in particular that it was phonologically so difficult. What could they offer to motivate consumerist young students? Perhaps an exchange with the Tohono O’odham people, a romance of boats for a romance of horses! Annette Jacobs described her work teaching Mohawk up to B.A. level, in a cultural situation somewhat reminiscent of the Welsh: reprimands delivered in Mohawk, she remarked, seemed to be of greater effect than English ones. Then it was the turn of those whose languages had died, Melissa Fawcett of the Mohegan, whose last fluent speaker died in 1958, Helen Manning, education director of the Wampanoag tribe, whose language died well before living memory. Could these languages be revived, they wondered. Leanne Hinton ended on a note of muted hope, quoting single speakers of the Californian languages Toluwa and Ohlone, who seemed to keep themselves going by sheer will-power: perhaps Ohlone could come back, resurrected from the field-notes of J.P. Harrington. Anyway there would be a workshop in it this summer for twenty or so at UC Berkeley.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

I did not attend the Endangered Languages session of this conference, which was held on 18 February in Atlanta, Georgia, but it seems that a number of British journalists did. There were reports of the general issues of Language Endangerment in The Observer and Independent on Sunday for 19 February. Krauss, Hinton, Hale and Kimbrough Oller of Miami University were all mentioned.

Bristol - Conservation of Endangered Languages

Andrew Woodfield and Dan Brickley (of the Centre for Theories of Language and Learning at the University of Bristol’s Department of Philosophy) organized this event which took place on 21 April. Since most who read this will have been there, I make this report very brief.

Christopher Moseley emphasised the political motivation of governments to distort the statistics distributed about the population of minority language speakers. Two clear desiderata were a mechanism to monitor the actual state of languages, and a general programme to gather corpora of material, not just grammars and dictionaries, in languages world-wide. Apparently Routledge the publishers currently engaged in a first attempt at such a programme. Chris also described some of the problems, but illustrated the excellences, of his new Atlas of the World’s Languages: what a tragedy that its price is set so high!

Mark Pagel began by estimating the upper and lower bounds of the number of languages ever spoken, using current hypotheses of the rate of language change and the age of the language faculty in man. His middle estimate was 140,000 - with a low figure of 31,000 and a maximum of 600,000, which puts into some sort of perspective the 5-8,000 we reckon with now. He went on to compare the statistics of language incidence with other biological phenomena, most interestingly for me pointing out that, in North America, languages, like all biological species, get thicker on the ground as you approach the equator. He also had some suggestive results with neural nets, arguing (by implicit analogy) that if learning different phonological systems can affect the development of our brains, just think of the variety that different grammar and semantics may make: and what the human race will lose, in terms of knowledge of its potential, if the diversity of languages available is markedly reduced.

Dick Hayward gave an orbiter’s eye view of the babble of languages to be found in Ethiopia, as well as a historical account of how the situation got to be so complicated. Most interestingly, he talked of the strange variety of socio-linguistic arrangements that could be seen, how the macho dynamics of the Oromo cowboy culture had left those on highlands safely away from the routes of their truculent expansion, how the Elmolo fishermen assimilate their language to their neighbours as they pass over the centuries. It is important to realize how impoverished is the set of the linguistic norms that we naturally become aware of, even if quite knowledge of the sweep of European expansion over the millennia.

In the afternoon, things were brought very much closer to home, with Allan Wynne Jones pointing out how marketing concepts could help in organizing modern society to make a place for Welsh (and implicitly other minority languages in the Western world), and Si‰n Wyn Siencyn standing up proudly for the role of women in choosing which language(s) will be transmitted to the next generation. Andrew Woodfield inspired us all by holding his ground when his recce came under her sustained attack. Stirring stuff, but reassuring to know that they are both on our side.

In the final discussion, a little of the potential for conflict in this field came to the surface, with strong differences even over terminology (“Are we endangered or are we marginalised?”), tactics (“Is it effective in the long run to up the ante, and use shock and scandal to make a point?”), and long-term goals (“Can there ever be a stable bilingual relationship with a juggernaut language like English?”)

A stimulating day all round, but without any new snap answers to the philosophical questions of value and justification that Andrew Woodfield set us all when he invited us to the seminar.