Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Great Oaks, Little Acorns and the Precautionary Principle

On the week-end when I am writing this, the world, or at least the western media’s world, is as united as we are ever likely to see it. Successive revels and thanksgiving services have circled the globe, as a major milestone of time in the Christian Era is passed. Capital cities have competed at firework displays, and (at least as the UK newspapers tell it) worldwide there have been fewer deaths due to exuberance than on an average New Year. Rejoicing all round, then (unless you happen to live in Chechnya, or the war-strip of Africa, which extends from Angola to Sudan, or some other centre of strife that we hear even less about).

The result has been an occasion for reminiscence on a gigantic scale, but almost too big for our cultures to cope with. What institution, after all, besides Christianity, Judaism and the calendar itself, has survived since the last turn of a millennium? None of our present states, nor even our present languages. The best stab at a coherent single history I saw was the tale of an oak tree in the English New Forest, which had lasted 1,000 years in situ, hacked about by Saxon pollarders and gnawed from within by fungi, even as the countryside around it had kept changing under different lordships, land tenures and systems of agriculture.

(Perhaps it does bear noting that one set of artefacts that has remained recognizable over the last millennium is most of the alphabets we use, though the languages they have recorded have kept innovating and pullulating. Our writing systems are some of the most conservative things we have, despite, or in fact because of, being used so widely. They have most recently ridden out successive blasts of competition from telephony, film, sound recording, television and internet multimedia with hardly even a mark on their impassive typefaces.)

But the effort to get our minds round a unit of time longer than the duration of a human life, or any state’s constitution, or the idea of a university, or even the whole institution of credit and banking, means that we are at least temporarily in a better place to appreciate the immense antiquity of the heirlooms we have in the languages we speak.

It took a millennium to differentiate the Romance languages, and perhaps ten millennia to fan out the variety we see in Indo-European, how long have Caucasian or Papuan been brewing up, or all the stocks and phyla we still find in Africa and the Americas? Current guesses take us back perhaps a hundred millennia. That is how much separate experience was lost when Tasmanian was snuffed out as a nuisance by settlers from Britain only a hundred years ago. It turns out that grammars and lexica, passed on over the generations, and constrained by little more than respect for elders and a need for mutual comprehension, are the longest-lasting monuments we can contrive.


But we have to be careful in our modern researches. When we start to intervene, even when our motive is to know more of what has survived, we are in danger of doing terrible damage. There is a story I cannot track down now, of a linguist in Africa who moved the last two speakers of a language to the city so as to be able to work with them more readily, only to have them sicken and die of a cold. Even more shaking, because more deliberate, is the case of Don Currey, who as a graduate student in 1964, impatient to complete a season’s research on the age of some of bristlecone pines at the edge of Wheeler Peak glacier in Nevada, cut down what turned out to be the oldest known surviving organism on earth.

Our Foundation exists for "the documentation, protection and promotion of endangered languages". Documentation and protection do not always coincide. I think it is clear that protection, within our fallible knowledge of cause and effect, must be paramount.

‘Celebrations’: a correction from Nancy Dorian Nancy writes: [In my guest editorial for Ogmios #12 Celebrations: In Praise of the Particular Voices of Languages at Risk,] one example got mangled in a way that makes it ineffective for its purpose.

The bad spot is on p. 7, in the example given in the 2nd column: 'Her father was an architect here.' This one's important because it demonstrates that the same -īs suffix applies in ESG regardless of person. This is a rare 3rd-person example for ESG ('her father'), but the emphatic suffix remains -īs. The topmost line of the example currently reads "va h a:r-nī arkitek ", but it should read "va h a:r-īs nī arkitek with -īs the emphatic suffix, and nīthe quite separate element meaning 'in-the-state-of'. (It goes with arkitek, not with h a:r 'her father'.)

For people who know more nearly mainstream dialects of Gaelic, this is the only example in the piece that demonstrates the extension of emphatic -īs into the 3rd person - and it's also the only example I think I have in my entire corpus that demonstrates that so irrefutably. The speaker was a really fine ESG representative, generally conservative in her usage, so it's a very precious case for my purposes, and I'd like to rescue it if possible via an explicit correction. Other slightly off things (missing nasalization, etc.) are expendable; only this one is crucial.