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6. Allied Societies and Activities

Hints on the Future from Language Contact in South-East Asia? "Language Endangerment & Language Maintenance: an Active Approach" La Trobe, Australia 29-30 Nov 1999

(My thanks to David Nash for sending me the collection of abstracts and hand-outs for the event.)

This conference was held at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, under the chairmanship of David Bradley. As well as a few talks on aspects of the general phenomenon of language endangerment, there were a larger number of talks on individual languages which may be considered endangered, notably those of Oceania and the Pacific Rim. And a feature of the conference was a final session on technical aspects of language support work: desirable properties of dictionaries and technical tools, and the particular problems that arise when one attempts to re-create a language on the basis of 19th century documents.

Under the general rubric of language endangerment, David Bradley identified attitudes to language in the home community as the crucial determinant of language survival, having its effects through bilingualism, inter-generational transmission, maintenance of linguistic boundaries, and the sense of the language’s historic status. Michael Clyne considered the background properties of language shift (as witnessed in so many immigrant communities in Australia). Sasha Aikhenvald focused on the breakdown of traditional life in Northwest Amazonia and resulting disruption of traditional multilingualism, often perversely through the speakers’ own frustration at the loss of their customary ways. Peter Mühlhäusler’s topic (revealed in the Norfolk Island language of the HMS Bounty mutineers) was the ecologies in which languages could survive, preserving a lively link between language and crucial aspects of local geography. Stephen Wurm was eminently practical, with concrete recommendations on which part of the community to start on for a revival (young adults) and what kind of activities to target for language reintroduction (traditional ones — whether actually or through dramatic recreation).

In the case studies of individual languages, it was possible to discern the current situation of Irish in Ireland and Finnish in Sweden (both under heavy pressure from incursions of English — Anders Ahlqvist), German in Pennsylvania (Kate Burridge), Tsimshian on the British Columbia coast (Tonya Stebbins), as well as many south-east Asian languages: theYi languages in southern China (David and Maya Bradley); Tai languages in Assam (Stephen Morey), and the languages of East Timor (John Hajek); was Taba being swamped by Malay in North Maluku (John Bowden)?

In this geographic area, a special focus of the conference was bilingual phenomena in transplanted immigrant communities. So Aone van Engelenhoven asked how the politically inspired “Alifuru” concept, with its emphasis on Malay as a common language, and designed to preserve cultural solidarity of the Moluccans away in the Netherlands, had affected the survival of their various indigenous languages. (Her answer: very variously, sometimes eliminating the memory of languages (Leti), in other cases breeding a reaction and language revival (Ewav, Allang, Amahei), enabling the renaissance of protoypical languages (Alune, Fordata). Margaret Florey (whose paper appears in this issue of Ogmios) looked into the effects of its new immigrant setting in the Netherlands on the Amahai language, now being revived in later generations. Christina Eira compared the different, and increasingly incompatible, varieties of Hmong which are developing among refugees in Melbourne.

In the technical sessions, Jane Simpson considered features of dictionaries and electronic look-up systems that were helpful (or — as often — not so helpful) to those endeavouring to regain useful knowledge of an endangered language; and David Nash noted the different constituencies which might make use of new tools, with an emphasis on systematic tagging of video records. Barry Blake reviewed the quandaries created in trying to work with a previous century’s relatively amateur documentation of languages in Victoria.

A common theme of the discussions seems to have been the pervasive, and unpredictable, effects of language contact, both in the original and transplanted settings of languages that are now endangered. Since more, rather than less, change and disruption can be expected for most endangered language communities in this new century, these case-studies are likely to form a very useful addition to our knowledge of what may be beneficial or survivable for smaller languages in times of change.

It is expected that the proceedings of this conference will sooner or later be available in a permanent form. In the meantime, there is a dedicated web-page at
and more related material can be found at

Identities in Action: Hunaniaethiau ar Waith: Gregynog, Wales 10-12 Dec 1999

This conference was organized in a picture-book country-house in central Wales, in the midst of the worst of the winter floods. Cosy it was while we were there, listening to Welsh harp-music in book-lined libraries and tucking into slap-up cooked breakfasts, but for this reporter, the most memorable moments were on the way to and from, choices between dashing through 30 cm and more of standing water or slithering over muddy banks, always wondering if my journey was to end there: it never did, but the car’s battery and weak drive-belt could not in the end take the strain — leaving me stranded for two hours in a Welsh wood at dead of night.

But enough of my personal Odyssey. The meeting itself was a farrago of interesting studies in how small cultures and small languages were rising to the challenge of the Globalized Conglomerate. The cultures treated were mostly European but there were contributions from Australia and the Americas too. (I was also lucky enough to strike up a conversation with one East-Timorese, whose native languages were Mambae, Makasai and Tetum.) Many of the sessions were held in Welsh, with simultaneous interpreting provided for the Welshless.

The whole thing had been organized by Meic Llewelyn , whose main active interest was in music. He noted the important role of Zebda and the Fabulous Troubadours for Occitan, Sting and Inmuvrini for Corsican, Denez Prigeunt for Breton; there was festival in Marseilles, the Fiesta del Sud which brought much local music together. This aspect of minority-language culture is direct and moving for native speakers, and also capable of showing those outside the charmed circle something of what they are missing. We need to pay more attention to it in the Foundation, I believe.

The conference had four simultaneous streams, so it was quite impossible for a single participant to take its full measure. I remember discussing the contribution of electronic media to the future of Welsh with Ned Thomas (author of The Welsh Extremist — an amazingly far-sighted book, written in the 70s and re-issued in the 90s, but still fresh as a daisy). As a retired leader of the European study group MERCATOR-Media, he also noted the sometimes perverse effect of growing political independence in leading to greater demands for broadcasts of local news in the metropolitan language, to accommodate remaining non-ethnic citizens: this had happened with English in Wales, Spanish in the Basque country: perhaps the same might be expected for Russian in Moldova?

In the field of broadcasting, discussed by Geo. Jones , in some cases minority-language cultures took up battles which had previously been pursued by larger metropolitan sisters (e.g Catalunya’s struggle with Hollywood to get films dubbed in Catalan); in other cases, they might find that the supra-national culture of global media was a refreshing release from the suffocating local metropolis: he noted how Hollywood’s modern-day cowboys inDallas had gone down differently in Glasgow and in London — but neither appreciating the right-wing flavour that dominated the US take on the series. Circumstances would dictate whether public media would help or hinder minority languages: in Turkey, it needed a private initiative of concerned businessmen in London and Brussels to put Kurdish on the air, in the teeth of a ban in Turkey itself.

Furthermore, as Nicolas Pélissier (Information-Communication, Univ. Nice) pointed out, local languages (and cultures) might still face a prestige deficit, even after effective independence was obtained: in Kazakhstan, Russian culture was still seen as more noble than the Kazakhs’ own, and providing a useful common language. But this was more to dignify the Kazakhs’ relations with their external neighbours, than to show any concern for the 120 separate minorities that still existed in this new state. Edorta Arana , in analysing the Basque content of media north and south of the Pyrenees (i.e under French and Spanish administration), showed how the much greater media concentration in France (i.e. fewer papers [notably just one, Sud-Ouest] covering a larger area) resulted in less Basque focus.

In this area, Enric Llurda spoke of the interesting situation of the Val d’Aran, an enclave of Spain north of the Pyrenees: part of Catalonia, but speaking Aranese, which is linguistically a dialect of Occitan, a language otherwise spoken only in France. In identity, it is very much alone, with few links to its linguistic cousins in France, who border it on every side. Education is rigorously trilingual, with Aranese only from 3 to 8, Aranese, Catalan and Spanish (split by subject) from 8 to 14, and thereafter only two hours of Aranese per week. As a linguistic minority within Catalonia, it stands as a guarantee of Catalonia’s willingness to “do as it would be done by” linguistically. For its own part, its continued loyalty to Spain even though there has only been a tunnel link through the Pyrenees since 1949 is a reassurance that linguistic loyalties do not need to engender divisive political nationalisms.

Details of the conference (and perhaps more of the same in the future?) can be obtained from Meic Llewelyn mml97(at) and at

Linguistic Exploration: New Methods for Creating, Exploring and Disseminating Linguistic Filed Data: Chicago, USA , 6 Jan 2000

On the fringe of the 2000 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Chicago, Steven Bird of the TalkBank project had organized a workshop to bring together proponents of new methods in creating, exploring, storing and disseminating linguistic field data. Exemplary systems were discussed for Nahuatl, Italian, Turkish, Ingush, Bamileke Dschang (Cameroun), Karaim (Turkic), Caddoan-Siouan, Warlpiri (NT Australia), Kru-Kwa-Mande-Kur (Ivory Coast), Yiddish, Quechua, so there was a fair variety of language situations considered. The variety of talents that took part, and approaches that they took, can be found in extenso on the web-site

After a day’s exposition and discussion of individual projects, there was a half-day discussion of what steps might be taken in the future to adopt workable standards for electronic storage of linguistic data, as well as a defensible stance towards the multifarious and insidious ethical problems which arise when scarce linguistic data are deposited: when the data are crucial as cultural as well as linguistic records, and a global anonymous medium such as the World Wide Web is used as a medium for storage, are there any guidelines that will be acceptable across the cultural gamut for regulating access, given that local interested parties, as well as external cultural freebooters (including “World Music” collectors alongside theoretical linguists?) will be pursuing their own agendas.

There will be a follow-up conference at Philadelphia in 12-15 December 2000. Further details can be gathered from

LSA Symposium: Field Relationships: balancing Power and Priorities in Language-Based Fieldwork: Chicago, USA, 7 Jan 2000

This was organized by Megan Crowhurst of U. Texas (Austin), with contributions from Colette Grinevald, Keren Rice, MaryAnn Willie, Bret Gustafsson and Barbara Meek. The languages on which these authors focused were all-American, respectively Popti’/Jakaltek (Guatemala) and Rama (Nicaragua), (Canada), Navajo and Hopi (USA), Chiriguano (i.e. Guaraní in Bolivia), Kaska (in Alaska) and Nahuatl (Mexico). Although each of these speakers had unique insights to offer , I shall focus hear on just two, Keren Rice and MaryAnn Willie.

Keren Rice noted how the centre of gravity of fieldwork ethics had changed in 33 years: minimum standards of respect for linguistic informants as the linguists pursued his or her higher (scientific) goals have come to be replaced by a much livelier concept that the language belongs to the speakers: their aspirations for it may be seen as a higher, and perhaps now more incontrovertible, goal than linguistic analysis per se.

MaryAnn Willie, a Navajo linguist, was in a position to give the liveliest sense of the pathos, and the humour, of real sympathy with native-speaker communities of a language. She told of the poignant break-up of small family groups of Navajos as judgements in the land-dispute between Navajo and Hopi were implemented. Taboos on certain topics might compound an absence of technical vocabulary: for both reasons it had been difficult to explain to people her study on aphasia. But she also indicated the special problems faced by a linguist who was reckoned to be a member of the community she was studying: asking a question, she would often get the answer: “Well, you should know!” ; and if then she persisted, she would be asked herself: “Well, who raised you, anyway?”

Language Endangerment, Research and Documentation: Setting Priorities for the 21st century: Bad Godesberg, 12-17 Feb 2000

This invitational workshop was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, whose new funding programme for endangered languages has been advertised in Ogmios #12.§5. 35 proposals have been received, but only 6 languages are likely to be selected for documentation work.

Authorities on the situation of endangered languages in each of the world’s main subcontinents were invited to view their own areas in terms of a typology of endangerment elaborated by Matthias Brenzinger and others. The aim was to give some basis in relative priority as a background for choosing the languages which Volkswagen funds will support. In addition, a handful of representatives of endangered language charities (your editor among them) attended, so that the results of the workshop could be immediately disseminated and integrated into the pattern of world efforts on their behalf.

As might be expected, there was sustained and enlightening criticism, rather than simple acceptance, of the Brenzinger typology: no comprehensive, much less coercive, categorization of the endangered languages of the world is going to emerge any time soon. However, the typology has been partially applied to many regions of the world. And an immediate result of the workshop will be a volume reviewing the status of languages in each of the subcontinents, which should be a useful successor to R.H. Robins and E.M. Uhlenbeck eds. Endangered Languages (Oxford: Berg 1991), and a beneficial tool for language policies worldwide. Besides linguistic regions, the volume will also discuss major issues that bear universally on language endangerment.

In what remains of this review, I shall simply pick on interesting themes that emerged from individual presentations or the ensuing discussion. Contact the authors for more details, or wait for the book to come out.

The Typology Itself: Selection and Ranking of Languages

The Brenzinger typology had two aspects or “Phases”: Phase I, to assess the level of threat to the languages (in terms of speaker -population, transmission, functions still served, attitudes); and Phase II, to assess to importance of a study (in terms of scientific cruces, existing documentation, availability of good speakers, and political accessibility of the community).

In the preliminary discussion it was pointed out that at present levels of knowledge, it is just not possible to fix all the languages of the world in these aspects, and to do so might be dangerous, by creating spurious data. It was argued too that the sociolinguistic position of a language needed to be considered: was the speaker community gradually transferring to another language through some endogenous process, for example? (See Hans-Jürgen Sasse on Language Decay.) More generally, it was felt that the project of bringing all the world’s endangered languages into a single classification would be seen quite differently in different parts of the world: as an instance, Americanists seemed to be more emotionally involved with the plight of particular languages than Africanists (perhaps because of the sociolinguistics of the languages they studied).

At any rate, any data gathering exercise has to reckon with the uses to which data may be put: and being targeted as a case of “endangerment” may undermine a community’s political position within its country even as it opens the way for concerned support. The best way to recover from weakness is not always to acknowledge it openly.

Ultimately (i.e. after the workshop), Michael Krauss produced a new set of suggestions for classification and terminology of degrees of language endangerment, whose basic terms are given here.

There is a short paper explaining this table, available from Michael Krauss fyanlp(at) It also contains interesting claims about Tarascan in Mexico (reportedly learnt effectively and used only among adults) and child native-speakers of Sanskrit.

Northern Languages: Michael Krauss fyanlp(at)

As one curiosity, Krauss observed that languages that had been dominated by Danish (e.g. Greenlandic Inuktitut, Faroese) seemed to bear up better than others in the Arctic (e.g. in the US, Canadian or Russian domains).

As another, he noted the relatively small lexicon sizes of Northern languages, with counts above 7,000 being exceptional. (He mentioned Bergstein’s dictionary of Aleut with 14,000 entries, but maybe a third of these were place-names, Bible translations, loans from Russian or dialectal variants.) This correlated tantalizingly with the reduced species diversity in the North.

Table 1:Krauss's Proposed Typology of Endangerment

'safe' a+  
stable a all speak, children & up
instable; eroded a- some children speak;
all children speak in some places
definitively endangered b spoken only by parental generation and up
severely endangered c spoken only by grandparental generation and up
critically endangered d spoken only by very few,
of great-grandparental generation
extinct e no speakers

Others noted the different motives that might be served by language documentation, historical linguists valuing large dictionaries, typologists detailed accounts of syntax, and home communities quite likely having their own agenda. Above all, the priority for concerned outsiders should be to raise interest and morale among the speakers, and give them training in documentation methods.

Siberia: Olga Kazakevitch kazak(at), Alexander Kibrik kibrik(at)

Kazakevitch noted that 50% of endangered languages in the Commonwealth of Independent States are written, but in Siberia this proportion is as high as 80%. Everywhere indigenous groups are in a minority, after the influx of Russians during the Soviet period. Furthermore, census figures grossly overstate numbers of speakers of languages, confusing speakers with people of indigenous descent.

For Siberian languages there had been a rush of enthusiasm in the mid 1980s (as in the 1930s) with publication of textbooks, and school teaching arranged. A problem of this official support had been that schoolchildren had often been instructed in dialects alien to their families. But the support had tended to die way again in the mid 1990s, in the face of increasing economic pressure (local languages effectively being seen as a luxury good). There is now only one primary school where Evenki is used. Still, Nenets for example now boasts a few newspapers, and there have been two feature films shot in it. Unfortunately, this public activity is not guaranteeing its continued use in the family.

Today’s greater poverty in Siberia was causing some return to traditional activities such as hunting, and this had a positive effect on language use. From the documentation angle, it could be claimed that all Siberian languages have some sort of description, but often this is very old. For example, there are Selkup literary texts transcribed in 1941: when the same texts are performed now, it becomes clear that the old transcription had pruned some stylistic features, for example the prevalence of recapitulation.

Europe: Tapani Salminen tasalmin(at)

Quoting figures from the International Clearing House on Endangered Languages (the Red Book)
~tasalmin/europe_index.html Salminen recognized 137 languages spoken recently in Europe: of these only 40 were safe, while 21 were either extinct or moribund beyond help; 49 were endangered, and 26 more languages were severely endangered.

Even in Europe, it was not possible to assume that governments would cooperate to support their minorities: Greece had arrested officials of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages who tried to visit Aromania and Macedonian-speaking areas; and France had been persistently obstructive to Breton efforts to reinforce transmission of their language in schools. Despite large numbers of adult speakers, that language was now severely endangered for want of effective take-up by children.

A curiosity is the case of Occitan, successfully being recreated and used as a literary language, but losing touch with the (endangered) spoken language. And an encouraging case is Lule Saami, now used again among children in Norway or Sweden, although it had disappeared from this age-group.

Middle East: Jonathan Owens Jonathan.Owens(at)

This was review of language status in Afghanistan, in South Arabia and of neo-Aramaic.

There is an endangered form of Arabic (“Central Asian Mixed Arabic”), spoken in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Tadzhikistan, distinguished by its very un-Arabic word-order, but very close to classical Arabic in its morphology.

It was conjectured that the language Turóyo is possibly less endangered now, spoken among emigrants in Germany, than it was previously, spoken indigenously in Anatolia.

Owens also adverted to the reality of “threatened extinct languages” in this region: i.e. the practice of deliberately destroying monuments and inscriptions in ancient languages, with the common motive of rewriting history in the interests of the current power.

East Asia: David Bradley D.Bradley(at)

In his very detailed review of the status of some 125 endangered languages (from Mon in Burma to Ainu in Japan) Bradley was keen to distinguish very many kinds of “language death”: gradual or catastrophic, re-absorption by a genetic relative, de-creolization, diversification, transportation (as happened to Thai in 17th-19th centuries).

In the opposite direction, there are occasional cases of re-emergence of a language that had been kept secret. Tu Jia in China is one such case: it turns out to have some 170,000 speakers, though now again in decline. This last may yet happen to some languages in Burma now thought lost.

Australia: Nick Evans N.Evans(at)

Evans's keynote was the potential of linguistic fieldwork continually to revolutionize our preconceptions of what was possible in a language. Hence we need to be very cautious in deciding where important evidence is likely to come from, e.g. when prioritizing languages for documentation and study. He gave several examples:
· Kayardild of Northern Territory, sharing 80% of its vocabulary with coastal languages, but radically different in its syntax (e.g. having category-changing affixes and “case-stacking”, a feature otherwise found in Ethiopia). 20 years ago, on the basis of a superficial analysis, this would have been seen as not significantly distinct from the coastal languages.
· Dalabon (as per Barry Alpher 1982) marks the kin-structure of plural subjects, distinguishing whether are made up of people related by even or odd number of generations—not something a routine sketch grammar would show up.
· Iwaidja and Ilgar (documented by Capel), languages with 8-9 distinct liquid phonemes.

He also noted some sociolinguistic curiosities of the Australian scene: where good speakers might be held not to have the right to talk a language (as Mark Harvey reported of Waray), where restricted auxiliary registers might substitute for languages (e.g. among initiates in Warlpiri and Lardil communities), where terms for one’s own kin might depend on who was being addressed (e.g. in Gun-djeihmi), where people appear to choose which language to speak by the area they are in rather than the known competence of their addressee, and where people go on learning new languages throughout their lives. Multilingualism is very much the norm, and external judgements that certain languages are moribund are sure to be resented: not least because such judgements have often been used to subvert very real land-rights.

There were important problems both for outsiders and for the speakers in the use of electronic technologies. One was the tendency of these to obsolesce: in 1991 David Nash had needed to find a punched card reader to decipher the only records of a dialect of Western Desert. The other was the unresolved, because incalculable, danger of access to private information over the Internet.

Another characteristic of Australia was a challenge to our conceptions of the pace of language change. The evidence was that any common ancestor of the Australian languages was 40-60 thousand years old, 5-10 times the time-depth of Indo-European linguistics. Yet relationships could still be traced.

Western Pacific: Stephen Wurm [fax +61-2-6248 6627]

Wurm noted that the 650 languages of the Pacific from the Philippines to Papua had been relatively unaffected by endangerment forces until recently: there had been few white settlers, small languages (average population 200) with multilingualism and strict linguistic exogamy had been the rule, and in general the speakers of small languages had viewed them with extreme pride. Nowadays, however, personal mobility was on the up, and Tok Pisin (which he described as a Melanesian/Austronesian language with 60% English loan vocabulary) was more and more used not only as a lingua franca but within the family.

Oceania: Darrell Tryon dttryon(at)

Tryon said there were about 500 languages in the area from just west of the Irian Jaya border to Easter Island and Hawai’i. If those with 500 speakers or fewer were seen as endangered (hard to maintain in this area of vast distances and extreme isolation), perhaps a quarter could be so considered. In fact, he felt that Maori, despite its 2,000 speakers among a total population of 100,000, was if anything likely to be the first language in the area to go extinct.

In this cultural area chieftainship was in general non-hereditary, and the maximum domain of a Big Man would be 1,000 people (usually all speaking the same language, but sometimes 1 or 2 more). All marriages would be bilingual, and boys moved to the men’s house at the time of puberty. A pidgin (e.g. Bislama, in Vanuatu) would be used as a lingua franca. There were separate languages learnt after initiation but these were in general not accessible to researchers.

The main force threatening languages was the spread of education: those going to school would go further and further from their island of origin, and they would not come back. Also, as subsistence farming gave way to a cash economy, urban centres were springing up, which would function through pidgin languages.

As for research threats, there was malaria in Vanuatu, and a non-cooperative administration in the Solomon Islands. In parts of Indonesia, field-workers were banned.

Tryon talked of the “taboo room” system he had set up the Vanuatu cultural centre, where community leaders (66 men, 33 women) could deposit records of knowledge (cultural, genealogical, linguistic) in cyclone-proof conditions, accessible only to themselves or their nominees. This was funded by the Australian Government.

Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim Osahito Miyaoka omiyaoka(at), Osamu Sakiyama sakiyama(at)

Miyaoka and Sakiyama briefly described this far-flung project supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, Sport and Culture. “Pacific Rim” is interpreted very liberally, so that it includes sub-projects on Australia, Papua-Niugini, New Caledonia, Cook Islands, Hawai’ian, Tungusic, Palaeo-Siberian, Manchu, Nivkh, Ainu, Palaeo-Asiatic languages of Siberia and Alaska, American Northwest, Canadian Northwest, Burma, Tibeto-Burman, Formosan, Negrito, Philippines, Eastern Indonesia, Northern Thailand and even survival strategies for the Mayan languages in central America. (Only South America and Easter Island seem to be missing!) It also includes 8 projects in Japanese dialects, and 6 methodological projects on endangerment, documentation, and electronic media.

Further details about it can be found at

Africa: Bruce Connell Bruce.Connell(at), Roger Blench in absentia R.Blench(at), Matthias Brenzinger Matthias.Brenzinger(at)

Connell noted the absence of any notion of exclusive ownership of a language in East Africa, even though one may be a badge of ethnicity. More likely motives are shame if one cannot speak the language of one’s own people, and pride if it emerges that outsiders are interested in it. Languages are seen as tools, with widespread multilingualism. As a result it is hard to envisage what a solitary “last speaker” of an African language would be like.



As to North Africa, there was very little diversity, besides Arabic and Tamazight, the varieties of Berber language. This latter had been in retreat since the Arabic conquests in the early 7th century AD, and in some places (e.g. Tunisia) it was in danger of not being passed to the next generation. But in general, transmission continued, though the language was restricted in its range of functional use (public discourse being reserved for Arabic).

Blench had noted the discouraging lack of interest by West Africa linguists in documenting their own languages, even though language diversity was highest round Nigeria, Cameroun and the Central African Republic. Brenzinger said, however, that here was a fair amount of documentation going on, e.g. by Tucker Childes and Sue Hasselbring, and by Angelika Gobi (in the Nuba Mountains).

Brenzinger remarked that Bantu languages were under-documented (Botswana now banning foreign fieldworkers). However, he placed the main concentrations of language endangerment in Africa in East Africa (especially the south of Sudan), and West Africa (especially eastern Nigeria and western Cameroun).

So-called “Mother-tongue education” was common throughout the old British colonies, though nowadays only Ethiopia, Eritrea, and (recently) Malawi have left the choice of language open, rather than imposing some larger African language. The old French colonies, by contrast, had generally stuck with education through French.

The Indian Subcontinent: Mahendra Verma mkv1(at), George van Driem driem(at)

Verma remarked that documentation of minority languages went back to the mid 19th century and Sir George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India. (Grierson was a British magistrate in Patna.) Unfortunately not all the data gathered had been checked thoroughly, and this tradition of partly unreliable data had tended to continue to the present day.

The most endangered languages in India tended to be those of Hill Tribes, especially as tourism eased access to them. (Two examples would be Toda, a Dravidian language spoken by 600-1,000 people in the Nilgiri Hills of the south, and Raji, an Indo-Aryan language spoken by some 600 in Uttar Pradesh in the north.)

On the Andaman and Nicobar Islands too, there were still four languages (Pucikwar, Jarawa, Önge and Sentinel) each with less than 100 speakers. The remoteness of the population was such that any access by the outside world was likely to be deadly in starting epidemics.

Stephen Wurm mentioned that Vartti Tikkaman had informed him that there were just 11 endangered languages in India, and had gathered data on them.

Van Driem took up the tale, mentioning that in Sri Lanka, Vedda had died out recently, victim of an artificial flooding scheme, and that Barodia had died out in the 17th century, after contact by the Dutch and Portuguese.

In the Himalayas, there were large numbers of small languages, mostly of Sino-Tibetan origin, although the relations among them were far more complex than those among the Indo-Aryan languages which had penetrated from the south and west. There are two language isolates, Burushaski in northern Pakistan (with 80,000 speakers, now taking in large numbers of words from Urdu - cf Hermann Berger’s extensive description) and Kusunda in Nepal (now with perhaps 2 speakers or rather rememberers, documented in 1830, and later by Jacob Weinhardt).

He remarked that tourism was a major threat to the Himalayan regions’ languages, particularly in Nepal, the most accessible country. Furthermore, the net effect of overseas tourism appeared to be impoverishment of the picturesque regions, even if money was generated at other points in the value chain between site and foreign consumers. Arunachal Pradesh in India, and Bhutan, which largely prohibited access to foreigners, were therefore more successful in retaining their heritage.

Raw numbers could be very deceptive of the true danger to a language: Gurung, for example, with 225,000 speakers in Nepal, was severely endangered, whereas Tamang with 900,000 was probably OK.

Poignancy of languages on the edge was great: he had known the last speaker of Dumu, who had died in August 1998. The last speaker had died in the bitter knowledge that the language, and — even more important — all its shamanical lore would die with him, the last shaman: yet he recalled that the decision not to bring the next generation up with knowledge of the language had been quite deliberate at the time.

A new book by George van Driem, Language of the Himalayas (EJ Brill, 1997: ISBN 9004103902) provides a demographic mosaic viewed from a historical and comparative linguistic perspective. He has a team of 12 linguists based in Leiden who are continuously engaged in descriptive research in the region.

North America: Akira Yamamoto akira(at)

In the USA, endangered language activists recognize the Native American Languages Act (1990) as a milestone, the result of lobbying organized in reaction to the “English Only” Movement.

Native American language speakers are under-represented in census figures (only 50% of the 194 languages still spoken are in fact registered at all.) Women who have married outside their language group are not counted, and many who work outside prefer not to identify themselves tribally. In fact, saturation of language speakers within a tribal population may be a better indication of language health than absolute numbers. A clear example of this was the Yuman Indians of Arizona: Havasupai, with 530 speakers but 94% of its tribe speaking it, is in better shape than the closely related Hualapai, with 1,000 speakers but only 54% of the tribe.

Unfortunately for researchers and documenters, willingness to cooperate often correlates inversely with the number of speakers, and liveliness of the language in use. Pueblo Indians of the South West often forbid the writing (and even the sound-recording) of a language, with motives reminiscent of those of the Gauls in ancient times: sacred matters are not to be written, and memory improves as reliance is laid upon it.

In a more modern context, the funded Master-Apprentice schemes popular in California especially put non-speakers into contexts where there undertake ordinary tasks — basket-weaving, laundry etc.— with a speaker. It is reckoned that it takes 300 hours of such contact to engender fluency in the learner. These too require that the apprentice takes no written notes of what they are learning — although they may be free to create written materials afterwards, indeed they are encouraged to do so.

Central America (+ Mexico):

This is the most dense and complex area of America for languages, with twenty families and 137 languages. There has been a recent trend all over the area to detach language descriptions form the missionary activity which has traditionally gone hand in glove with it.

Grinevald had information from specialists in different parts of this area, namely: for Mexico, Terrence S Kaufmann topkat+(at)
for Guatemala, (specifically Mayan) Nora England england(at)
for Honduras, Danilo Salamanca 106420.3401(at)
for El Salvador, Nicaragua, herself
for Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, written sources, especially Ethnologue and Carmen RojasChaves (1997) Revitalización lingüística de las lenguas indígenas de Costa Rica (ICA, Quito); also Adolfo Constenla aconsten(at)

Two extreme cases were Guatemala, whose Mayan population has been massively stirred by civil war, to the extent that there are said to be more Jakalteko speakers in Los Angeles than in Jacaltenango; and Honduras, which has more World Bank funds for language documentation and revitalization than it can currently spend.

The sociolinguistic course of languages is said to be very different: for example in Guatemala, England says that Kaqchikel is going down hill (from a relatively high base), while languages like Q’anjob’al, though smaller, are holding steady. Some deaths foretold have turned out to be false alarms: Poqomam and Ch’orti’ appear to be gaining rather than losing speakers, where it counts: among the young.

South America:
Willem Adelaar Wadelaar(at), Denny Moore moore(at)

Adelaar had harrowing tales to tell of deliberate massacres in the 19th century, including Argentina’s Campaña del Desierto in 1830, and Uruguay’s extermination policy in the middle of the century. He provided figures for numbers of speakers, number of ethnic group, transmission and numbers of studies, by county and family, for all the countries of South America except for Brazil and its northern neighbours.

Moore provided such figures for the rest, including Colombia’s Amazonia.

He spoke about the languages as evidence for Amazonia’s prehistory, which was now seen (e.g. through pioneering work of Anna Roosevelt) as much longer (up to 11,000 years) and much more culturally developed than current survivors would suggest of themselves: Aryon Rodrigues believes that the collapse caused by the conquests, and the resulting incursion of an alien world economy, was massive, with as many as 75% of languages driven to extinction in the last 500 years, and the level cultural sophistication and organization greatly reduced. Climatic conditions mean that there can be little physical trace of what may have gone before.

Moore’s institution, the Museu Goeldi, is planning a massive video recording of the 200 languages of Brazil, structured around exhibits, cultural items and texts. One benefit of this is that it should make it much clearer to trace borrowings among languages, and hence cultural contacts. They are already doing video recordings of ceremonies (e.g. the Xingu ceremony among the Awetí.

Moore believed that effective protection of the Indians and their cultural heritage was only likely to be effective when the Brazilian’s own capacity to do research in relevant sciences (ethno-linguistics, anthropology, etc.) was solid: as a result he was strongly promoting doctoral programmes with in the country, employing Brazilian students returning from study abroad (especially at Museu Goeldi, University of Campinas, and University of Brasilia - the last not yet having a PhD programme.)

He quoted Queixalós F., and O. Renault-Lescure (eds.), As Línguas Amazônicas Hoje, Instituto SocioAmbiental, São Paulo, 2000, as the source of the data.

Final Sessions and Wrap-Up

There is no space here for transcriptions of the tabular data which accompanied the above disquisitions: much will be in the resulting book, but the Foundation will be happy to distribute copies at cost, where feasible, to enquirers.

There were presentations by most of the observers present:
· Vera Szöllösi-Brenig, Volkswagen Foundation
· Anke Beck, Mouton de Gruyter
· Barbara F Grimes, SIL Ethnologue
· Ulrike Mosel, Kiel University
· Nicholas Ostler, Foundation for Endangered Languages
· Hans-Jürgen Sasse, Gesellschaft für bedrohte Sprachen
am000(at), · Douglas Whalen, Endangered Language Fund

It may be of interest to readers to know that the next issue of Ethnologue is due out in July 2000. It will contain 6809 languages, with population estimates for 90% of them; the median size of language is 6000 speakers. There will also be codes for social functions served, age-range of speakers, and level of vitality.

The meeting concluded with an assignation of global themes to authors, to include within specific regional chapters.

California Languages in the New Millenium: 4th biannual gathering "Language is Life": 17-19 March 2000

A joint conference of The Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (a project of Seventh Generation) and the California Council for the Humanities, funded by CCH, the Lannan Foundation, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Native California Network was held on March 17-19: it had about 175 native participants, all talking about what they are doing to save their languages.

Administration for Native Americans: toward Social and Economic Self-Sufficiency for Native Americans

The Administration for Native Americans (ANA) promotes the goal of social and economic self-sufficiency of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Native American Pacific Islanders, including Native Samoans. Self-sufficiency is that level of development at which a Native American community can control and internally generate resources to provide for the needs of its members and meet its own economic and social goals. Social and economic underdevelopment is the paramount obstacle to the self-sufficiency of Native American communities and families.

ANA is the only Federal agency serving all Native Americans, including over 550 federally recognized Tribes, 60 Tribes that are state recognized or seeking federal recognition, Indian organizations, all Indian and Alaska Native organizations, Native Hawaiian communities, and and Native populations throughout the Pacific basin. ANA's fiscal year 1998 budget is $34.9 million; the same amount has been requested for FY 1999. ANA provides grants, training, and technical assistance to eligible Tribes and Native American organizations representing 2.2 million individuals.

[…] Language Preservation
The Congress has recognized that the history of past policies of the United States toward Indian and other Native American languages has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of Native American languages that have survived over the past five hundred years. Consequently, Congress enacted the Native American Languages Act (Public Law 102-524) to address this decline. The Clinton Administration plans to spend approximately $2 million in FY 1998 for projects that promote the survival and continuing vitality of their languages and has requested the same amount for FY 1999.


phone +1 (202) 690-7776 fax +1 (202) 690-7441
e-mail: ana(at)]

Language Access Initiative - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission

ATSIC currently supports two language maintenance programs, these being the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Initiatives Program (ATSILIP) and the Language Access Initiatives Program (LAIP).

ATSILIP aims to promote the use and development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages by supporting community-based initiatives and community education activities.

The principal activity under this component is to fund the operational costs of Regional Aboriginal Language Centres and Regional Aboriginal Language Management Committees. The Committees are responsible for developing and prioritising language projects in consultation with local communities. Language Centres provide a base for the collection of information on local languages and provide a platform for community based language projects, such as the recording of oral histories.

The Language Access Initiatives Program (LAIP) is a three year program developed by ATSIC in response to recommendations 12a and b of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing Them Home Report. The overall aim of the program is to increase community access to language and cultural knowledge.

Funding: The ATSIC Board allocated a total of $9 million over three financial years, beginning 1999/2000, towards this program. The funding allocation to date has supported 51 community based projects covering a diverse range of language initiatives throughout 26 regions in Australia.

In Dec 1999 - Feb 2000 ATSIC was seeking submissions from interested individuals and organisations under the LAIP. This was for the second and final round of funds allocated under this program.

Archiving Latin American Indigenous Languages

Letter from Tony Woodbury and Joel Sherzer to various scholars in this field, 24 January 2000:

We are seeking funding to archive a large selection of tape recordings, transcriptions, and translations (including interlinear analyses) of indigenous languages of Latin America on the web. A description of this project is copied below. We think that it is very important to provide students, scholars, and native communities access to these materials. We hope that you would like to be involved in this project, by contributing tape recordings, transcriptions, and translations from your field research.

If so, we would greatly appreciate your writing to us indicating your commitment to do so. Since we believe we represent a community of scholars, including you, your commitment to this project will help us in the search for funding. In your response could you indicated the nature of the materials you would be able to contribute. If you like, you might also suggest other individuals you think we should contact. Either an email or a hard copy mailed response will be fine. Please include the name of your institution or affiliation at the top of your message or letter.

Many thanks, Joel and Tony

Project Description:
The purpose of this project is to create a permanent Web-based archive that makes available to indigenous peoples, scholars, and students unpublished or difficult-to-obtain materials from the indigenous languages of Latin America. This archive will be the first centralized site for these materials and will be accessible to all those interested in the indigenous languages of Latin America through the World Wide Web. This state-of-the-art electronic archive will store materials drawn from the full range of linguistic behavior -- from phonetics to discourse, in the form of primary data and analyses -- making accessible a breadth of data on linguistic behavior not normally available in language archives. Since the majority of indigenous languages are unwritten, most of the archived materials will be sound files, transcripts, and analyses of oral data. In addition to digitized sound files and written texts, the archive will contain digitized image and video data.

The archive will achieve several important goals: the permanent preservation of data from endangered languages; greatly increased access to indigenous Latin American language materials for indigenous people, researchers, and students; and the facilitation of the interchange of materials and ideas between indigenous peoples and scholars. The archive will also be a resource for the preservation, maintenance, and revitalization of indigenous languages in both oral and written form. It will be designed in a manner that maximizes its accessibility internationally; at the outset, the site will be available in Spanish, Portuguese, and English versions, and versions in other languages will be incorporated as is feasible. The Web-based format of the archive will take full advantage of new technologies to resolve numerous difficulties associated with non-digital methods of data storage, including physical space limitations, and the care of perishable media such as paper, magnetic tapes, and photographs. At the same time, this archive will facilitate the archiving of those original materials in cooperation with traditional archives (such as the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music.)

The archive will be a collection of digital sound, text, and image files stored on a central server administered by the existing Linguistic Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Texas. Established in 1988, this laboratory is a state-of-the-art center for the documentation and analysis of language behavior. The Linguistic Anthropology Laboratory will design and develop the archive; carry out digitization of materials; and maintain the archive and its website. The archive will be accessible through a website designed using database-driven webpage formats. The data files in the archive will be stored in universal platform formats, which will allow the files to be viewed on any platform (PC, Macintosh, Unix, etc.) using internet-downloadable readers. Files will be downloadable, and also viewable online. Not only will the archive be accessible from remote sites via the internet, but the universal-format infrastructure will allow files to be remotely uploadable into the archive. The website will support a system of graded access which will ensure the protection of the intellectual property rights associated with the materials in the archive.

As a project of the University of Texas' internationally known linguistic anthropology program, this archive will form an important new link in the extensive network of people working with the indigenous languages of Latin America. It will provide a tremendous range of language data for use in teaching, at all levels, courses in linguistics, anthropology, folklore and other language-related fields. The archive will also test and explore new electronic archiving methods and tools, and make this knowledge available on the website to provide expertise to indigenous peoples and scholars interested in creating similar projects. It will also make possible the electronic publication and dissemination of indigenous language texts, for which it has become increasingly difficult to find either academic or commercial publishers due to the costs of print-based publication.

The principal investigators for this project are Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury, both of whom have carried out considerable research dealing with Native American languages. The initial staff will consist of Chris Beier, Odilio Ajb'ee Jimenez, and Lev Michael, all graduate students in linguistic anthropology at the University of Texas. Beier and Michael have carried out linguistic fieldwork and documentation projects with the Nanti, an Arawakan group of southeastern Peru; Jimenez, a native speaker of Mam, a Mayan language of Guatemala, has co-authored a published grammar of this language. Lev Michael brings considerable computer experience and expertise to this project, as well as familiarity with server technology and website development and design.

Contact them on:
jsherzer(at) (Joel F.Sherzer) and acw(at) (Tony Woodbury).

Endangered Language Fund 1999 Grants

On 26 Jan 2000, the Endangered Language Fund announced its grant awards for 1999. The Fund is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the scientific description of endangered languages, support for maintenance efforts, and dissemination of the results of those two effort to the scholarly community and the native communities. These twelve grants received almost $20,000 in funding, made possible entirely by the support of our members. Please visit our web site at

Elena Benedicto (Purdue University), Indigenous Women as Linguists. The goal of this project is to form a team of Mayangna women in linguistic techniques, so that they can later use that knowledge in the bilingual programs of Nicaragua. This is an indigenous effort to provide educational materials which brings the generations together in a single project. Marianne Milligan (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Menominee Phonology and Morphology. Only a few speakers of Menominee remain, and they show varying degrees of fluency. The Menominee tribe has expressed interest in revitalizing their language, but there is a lack of materials and speakers to contribute to the effort. The present work on the phonology and morphology of Menominee will provide some of the material for a language curriculum. Jonette Sam (Pueblo of Picuris), An Integrated Approach to Language Renewal at Picuris Pueblo, New Mexico. This grant allowed four members of the Language Committee of the Pueblo of Picuris to attend the 6th Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Conference in Tucson, AZ, this past June. The discussions of such topics as language camps, language in sports and other community recreation, language at work, language in religion and culture, language and the media, and language in community historical and cultural research proved very valuable.

Carolyn J. MacKay and Frank R. Trechsel (Ball State University), A Linguistic Description of Pisa Flores Tepehua. This variety of Tepehua, spoken in Veracruz, Mexico, is a member of the Totonacan language family, a group of linguistic isolates in Mesoamerica. The texts and elicited words will be used for a dictionary, grammatical descriptions, and, ultimately, interlinear translations of the texts.

Yogendra P. Yadava (Royal Nepal Academy), A Study of the Dhangar Language. Dhangar is the only member of the Dravidian language family spoken in Nepal. The present work will provide basic linguistic description which will be necessary for any serious language maintenance program. This will include the beginnings of work on linguistic affiliation, grammar, sociolinguistic perspectives, literacy and databased texts and lexicon. Delphine Red Shirt (Guilford, CT), Winyan Isnala: My Mother's Story. From her early days in North Dakota, Red Shirt's mother was a source of wisdom, and recordings of their phone conversations and visits over the past several years included much of the history and lore of the Lakota people. Between the time of the submission of this grant and its being awarded, Red Shirt's mother passed away, making the transcription and editing of those texts even more urgent. The grant from ELF will help make that possible.

Yaron Matras (University of Manchester), A Description of the Domari Language of Jerusalem. Domari is an Indic language spoken by a socially isolated and marginalized community in the Old City of Jerusalem. All of the fluent speakers of Domari are over 40 years of age, most in their 60s, with Arabic taking its place. Very little description of the language exists, and Matras will begin a more complete description based on 20 hours of recordings already collected supplemented by further field work.

James T. Collins (National University of Malaysia), Documenting and Describing the Tola' Language. Many previously ill-described areas of Borneo are inhabited by autochthonous Dayak groups, speaking a number of diverse languages and dialects. The language to be studied, Tola', is an undescribed Malayic variant spoken in four villages. Building on previous wordlists, Collins will begin work on a grammar and on a survey of language use and attitudes.

Hongkai Sun (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), Recording the Last Fluent Speakers of Anong, a Language of Yunnan (PRC). The Anongs are a branch of the Nu nationality, numbering 7,300 but with only 50 or 60 fluent speakers of the ancestral language. Sun plans to augment his fieldwork from the early 1960s, aiming to collect 12,000 words for the dictionary, preserve the oral literature as far as possible, analyze the linguistic structure, make recordings, and assess the state of the language.

Silverio Jimenez (Mexico City), The Nahuatl from Milpa Alta. The Nahuatl spoken in this area of Mexico is relatively conservative in its changes from the Aztec times. Although Nahuatl is Jimenez's heritage language, his own experience of learning only Spanish while growing up is indicative of the endangered state of this language. He will be using modern technology to help document that past, as embodied in the language and the stories of the elders.

Veronica M. Grondona (University of Pittsburgh), Material development for Bilingual Education among the Mocovi. Mocovi is a Waikuruan language of approximately 4,000 speakers in Argentina. Increased contact with Spanish has led to a decline the use of Mocovi, and many speakers are migrating out of the area to look for better work opportunities. Grondona intends to use the material from her 1998 Ph.D. dissertation as a basis for developing bilingual education materials. Grondona will assist native speakers of Mocovi in the development of these materials.

David VanBik (Haka, Chin State, Burma), Lai (Haka Chin)-English Dictionary. In Burma, minority languages such as Lai are not allowed to be taught in the schools, and Burmese is increasingly dominant in the linguistic landscape. The availability of a dictionary from Lai into English will increase the value of the minority language by giving its speakers access to a world language without going through the national language. VanBik has already completed an English-Lai dictionary; the Lai-English version will be of more practical use to the native community.