Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Language Endangerment in the News

Besides the Foundation’s own brief forays in the media (mentioned in the President’s Report above), there have been several language endangerment stories in major journals during the last six months.

The issue of Whole Earth for Spring 2000 contained a special section entitled “More than Words”. In it were articles by Matt Vera on revitalizing Yowlumni (a Californian language); Rosemarie Ostler (no relation) on Disappearing Languages; Richard Littlebear urging readers to “Just Speak Your Language”; Joshua Fishman mooting whether English is a kiler language; Darryl Babe Wilson pondering how Great Spirit can talk to her when she does not know her own language; and a Forum of Compassionate Linguists including Ken Hale, Elena Benedicto, Doug Whalen, Don Ringe, Nora England and Leanne Hinton.

There was also a good selection of references to further reading, including Leanne Hinton’s Flutes of Fire (Berkeley Calif.: Heyday Books, 1994) on Californian Languages, and Laura Bliss Spaan’s video More than Words… The Life and Language of Eyak Chief Marie Smith (AMIPA 1996) (+1-906-279-8433,

The Toronto Globe and Mail, on Saturday, May 13, 2000 contained an article by Margaret Philp: “Aboriginal languages nearing extinction: expert Canada's loss of 'precious jewels of its cultural heritage' called 'ecological' disaster to rival that of any in the world.” Ron Ignace, Chief of British Columbia's Skeetchestn Reserve and chair of the Assembly of First Nations' Chiefs Committee on Aboriginal Languages, spoke of the Government’s seemingly “clear-cut mentality -- clear-cut the forests and oceans, and clear-cut the linguistic diversity of Canada”.

Science for 19 May 2000 (Vol 288) contained under 'News Focus': “Linguistics: Learning the World's Languages – before they vanish.”

Newsweek for 19 June 2000 carried an article (pp. 68-70) by Jeffrey Bartholet, entitled “Sounds of Silence”. It contained three case-studies of endangered language situations: Alaska’s Eyak and Marie Smith Jones, its last native speaker; Montana’s Miami and Daryl Balwin attempting to revitalize it after extinction in his own family, and Coptic, which is still being actively spoken by minority Christians in Egypt, who would like recognition for the Egyptian government that this is the primeval language of that country. Kaurna is quoted as an Australian language that died out in 1927, but now has 50 fluent speakers and university courses to its name. (Cf. the description in section 11 of this Ogmios).



New Scientist on 12 August ran a piece “Lost for Words” by Jonathan Knight. It focused on the plight of Navajo: with 150,000 speakers yet considered endangered because of its pattern of use, and the skewed age-range of its speakers. The article took a fairly detached and analytical view, looking at the statistics of language populations (see figure, just above), before quoting some general remarks by Mark Pagel, Nicholas Ostler, Doug Whalen, and especially Salikoko Mufwene of the University of Chicago, all trying to give a clearer picture of the link between survival of a language and maintenance of a culture.

Canada’s CBC broadcast on 8 October a programme entitled “Tlingit Teacher Passes On Language, Culture” about the retiring Lucy Wren, of Carcross, Yukon. It can be found in text and audio here

Most recently, on 21 October 2000, The New York Times published an article which is so informative it is reprinted below in the Where to Go, in the World and On the Web section of this Ogmios.

A little earlier, on 30 September 2000, The New York Times had considered the con’s and pro’s of making an attempt at language revitalization in an article named “Speak, Cultural Memory: A Dead-Language Debate”.

Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, who recently published a broadside attack on the movement to protect endangered cultures in Civilization magazine, was ranged against: Jessie Little Doe Fermino, a member of the Mashpee tribe on Cape Cod, who has been on a single-minded mission to revive the language of her ancestors, Wampanoag; Daryl Baldwin (already mentioned), who is reviving the language of the Miami Nation in Indiana and raising his children in it; Akira Yamamoto, a professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas who works each summer at the University of Arizona's indigenous language development institute; Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, apparently a frequent critic of progressive educational fads, but a strong defender of language revival. Faced with a half-hearted claim that communities choose to give up their languiages in the interest of progress, the article goeson to quote the case of Hawa’ii, where outsiders simply moved in and deprived the islanders of their traditions, their independence and their language.

A somewhat unequal debate, some may think, but the fact is that there is rather less to be said anti than pro. As Winston Churchill famously said, the difficulties argue themselves. Once people realize that widespread bilingualism is not only possible, but also - if anything - beneficial to the speakers, there is very little left to say on whether language survival is desirable. To quote Michael Krauss (in Newsweek): “If you see an ancient pagoda, you’re not immediately tempted to bulldoze it; and languages are intellectual pagodas.”

As for feasibility, L. Frank Manriquez, a worker for Tongva, spoken in the Los Angeles area, put it well (in the Whole Earth section, above). Coming away from a conference of indigenous language activists, she said: “How can it be hopeless, when there is so much hope?”