Foundation for Endangered Languages

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2. Development of the Foundation

FEL's Fifth Conference, Agadir Morocco, 20-23 September 2001

This was duly held as scheduled, and despite the absence of all participants coming from the USA — due more to turmoil in their air-space than excessive caution on the part of our US members — it was well attended. Especially strong was the attendance by Moroccan scholars and students of Berber/Tamazight, mostly of the local (High Atlas) variety called Tashelhit.

We were informed that our conference taking place in the Berber calendar's year 2951, dating from the accession in 950 BC of the pharaoh Sheshonq I, which initiated 238 years of Libyans, i.e. Berbers, on the throne of Egypt.

The programme can be found on the Foundations' web-site, or better, in the volume of Proceedings which came out soon after our retiurn home from the conference, and has sold 130 copies as this goes to press. It is available, as our all our Proceedings, at a concessionary rate to members. (See the back cover.)

In the Annual General Meeting, a number of suggestions were made as to how the Foundation might increase the financial support in the future, especially for conferences:

· allow payment by vouchers from UNESCO or the British Council;
· set up a scheme to people to sponsor attendees from non-convertible currency zones;
· apply to the European Cultural Foundation for grants to support conference attendance;

It was also suggested that Foundation should suggest the set-up of panels with endangered language relevance, at other conferences; and in general have more contact with other organizations with a view to collaboration.

A variety of suggestions were also made for topic for future conferences.

President's Report on the Year to August 2001

Dear Members,

Our report this year is formulated at a sombre time: a savage, anonymous, attack on places at the heart of the USA, premeditated and executed with breathtaking strategy, has without warning killed thousands of people, and left the whole world stunned. None of us quite knows what comes next, but fear is everywhere.

That fear has blighted the attendance at our conference this year. And first of all, I want to thank you, all of you that are here today, for your courage. You have been prepared to cross the world, to stand up and be counted as supporters of other people’s rights.

All in all, I find it is a time that evokes compassion, and makes clear to everyone our common need and vulnerability as human beings, regardless of the wealth of our economy, or the power of our state.

Our presence here today marks our concern for one of those common needs, the need to live freely with our own language, wherever we live in the world. So I also want to thank you for the work that you are doing.

We look back over a year when the Foundation has not been able to do as much as it would like, hampered by losses from our last conference. Since we have no financial strength at all to fall back on, we have simply had to be patient, go on doing the work that we could do without money, and wait for the situation, gradually, to resolve itself. This has now almost happened; so I also want to thank those few people, not many of them present here but certainly with us in spirit, whose generosity in making donations, or remitting debts, has made it possible for us to get back to solvency within the year. One of them is Blair Rudes, the Charleston conference chairman, who had to suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous global hotel chain.

During this year, our main activity has been publicity activities and campaigns.

In November 2000, I was interviewed by the Bristol free-sheet Spark magazine, and an article profiling the Foundation duly appeared. I was also interviewed by the BBC World Service in June this year.

As pre-figured in my last report, I did participate in the UK Foreign Office TV documentaries, Beyond Babel - English on the World Stage, released in July 2001, which devoted about a quarter of its length to the struggle for endangered languages in the modern era, and the future of multilingualism. In bringing this rather enlightened theme into a Government production, it helped that the scientific consultant was David Crystal, very much “Professor Language” for the UK media at the moment, but also one of our members.

Dr Eugene McKendry has introduced the the Foundation and its aims into a “Languages Bus” travelling around Ireland, organised by ITE/Linguistics Institute of Ireland, as part of the European Year of Languages.

We have been represented at various conferences over the year. In November 2000, I attended the Kyoto conference run by the Japanese Government’s project Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim, and stressed the need to involve young people in all aspects of the Endangered Language support (above all, in speaking Endangered Languages!) Just last month in Helsinki, I attended the Finnish Linguistic Association’s conference on Linguistic Aspects of Endangered Languages, which will have boosted knowledge of us in Russia and the Baltic countries. We have also sent a greeting to the International conference Language and Culture held in Moscow last week, as they requested it.

Others who were not on the Committee have also helped us to get the word out, Belle Matheson organizing a network of supporters at US universities, Joseph Tomei beginning to represent us in the unique Japanese setting.

Our campaigning this year has mainly concerned the Celtic world. Our Campaigns Manager, Alasdair MacCaluim has worked for:
· inclusion by the UK Government of the Cornish language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages,
· retention of the Frisian Studies Programme in the University of Amsterdam, · a Manx-medium school in the Isle of Man;

Specifically for Scottish Gaelic, which he speaks, he has campaigned for
· a Gaelic census form,
· a Gaelic policy for the national parks, and
· a Gaelic language act.

Meanwhile, our Secretary Nigel Birch is leading a language challenge, to engage members in sponsored personal study efforts, which is part of the Foundation’s contribution to the current European Year of Languages. (He himself is severely challenged by Welsh!)

Another member of our Committee, Louanna Furbee, has been involved all year in a campaign to encourage electronic and other archiving of materials from endangered languages. (She is also representing the Linguistic Society of America, for which she serves as archivist.) She reports that several other groups are also active (e.g. LinguistList, the Univ. of Pennsylvania’s Open Language Archive initiative, the Volkswagen Stiftung’s DOBES project, and SIL), and in general the archiving issue seems to have taken hold in the community. She is concerned to foster a discussion on ethical issues with respect to endangered languages and their archiving. She and I both represented the Foundation at a LinguistList workshop on these matters in Santa Barbara in June 2001.

Three new issues of Ogmios have been published this year, as well as the new volume of proceedings for the Agadir conference on Endangered Languages and the Media that you have in your hands. This of course is the fruit of much more than simple book-production, since it represents the full effort of organizing an international conference. This too we have been able to complete without prior assistance, but never, of course, without your support. This is something else for which I would thank all of you here today.

Although the Foundation has not been able to award any grants this year, we hope that this year we shall be able to return to this tradition, despite the adverse situation in which we have had to hold our conference.

As ever, this conference has been an inspiring event, our own small act of trust for the future, and indeed defiance against forces which are too vast and coarse to regard the interests of smaller communities. We are very few; but the love of people for their language is more poignant when it is shared by only a few.

I can only end by thanking you, once again, for your courage in all your work. And with some of the very few words of Tashelhit Berber that I was able to find before I came to Agadir. They are curiously fitting, I hope:

Sellum flfamilenik Say hello to your family.

Report on Our Final Event: Banquet in Azzimim

After the conference, I was requested by the BBC to do a report on our reception by the village of Azzimim, which is in the High Atlas mountains and the home of our conference chairman Hassan Ouzzate.

Here is the text as I delivered it: a fair amount was omitted in the broadcast, including any detail of how to contact the Foundation. (Especially sad, since Isabel Hilton gave blanket coverage of how to access the events tangentially related to the other participants.) But there...

As they say in Tashelhit, (according to Abdallah El Amountassir's excellent grammar and language tutor):
a y''awn rbbi "May God Come to Help" (someone taken up with a task)

Crossing the High Atlas, from the coast of Morocco at Agadir, to Marrakech, was an eerily familiar experience. As our bus left behind the dry coastal plain, the dried-out river-beds, and the groves of palm-trees that cannot survive in the steep and high places, the ground got redder, and began to rise up in long mesas stretching from one horizon to another, and buttes that ended suddenly and precipitously. The High Atlas in the Tizi Machou pass is like nothing so much as Arizona.



Our Foundation for Endangered Languages had held its annual conference this year among the playing waters, and playing tourists, of Agadir. We had been talking about the impact of the mass media: the implications of commercial TV programming for Breton, and whether a radio station could be seen as the modern equivalent of the teueikan drum that spread news and good spirits among the Atikamekw Indians of North-Eastern Canada.

And of course we had heard about the ancestral language of this part of Africa. It is called Berber or, more properly, Tamazight, and spoken over half a dozen countries from the Straits of Gibraltar deep into the Sahara Desert. It has been spoken there for over 3,000 years. In that time the Roman Empire has come and gone, and before them the Carthaginians. Even Arabic here is just an overlay language, although it has been with them for the last twelve hundred years. And Arabic has long monopolized all the written media here. Was Tamazight too a language in danger of extinction, despite its many millions of speakers? Educated Amazigh live their lives in Arabic and French. Would the recent announcement of the King Mohammed, that it will at last be taught in Moroccan schools alongside Arabic, really make a difference?

Perhaps the fate of Quechua, the language of the Incas, could provide a clue. It too is facing a similar challenge on the other side of the world up in the Andes mountains. There the challenge is not from Arabic, but from Spanish. Like Tamazight it is riven into smaller dialects, and there has been little contact among them. But now, thanks to radio, speakers of different dialects are beginning to understand one another again, something that had not happened for 500 years, since the days of the Inca Empire, the far-flung Tawantin Suyu.

This, and much else, was the stuff of our talk in Agadir.

But now we were bound for a destination known only to our host, the village of Azzimim in the High Atlas. Here we would hear Tamazight spoken without embarrassment, since it was the only language that most of the people knew. Here we would meet with Berber hospitality, on a scale and in ways that we could only guess. The Berbers are so called because outsiders saw them as barbarians (not speaking a civilized language, which in those early days was Greek: now Greek has gone back to Greece, and the language of civilization here is Arabic, or perhaps French - neither of them even heard of when the Berbers were given their unflattering name). We already knew the gentle geniality of Berbers as hosts from our time in Agadir - and in many ways, Morocco was the best of places to shelter from the storm of war hysteria that has gripped us in the last three weeks: Islam here is very true to its name - the religion of Peace.

As we passed the vast and pudgy massifs of the Tizi n'Tichka heading west from Marrakech, expectancy in our bus was growing. We came to the river Zate, suddenly making sense of our host's name, Hassan Ouzzate, "Hassan by the Zate". As we lurched off the road and up the track into the mountains we began to make out groups of children, all little boys, on ridges and hilltops. They waved, and we waved. Two or three more ridges and the bus ground to a halt. As the sun dropped low, we found ourselves climbing up a gravelly slope, surrounded by friendly children (now with plenty of girls in amongst them), trying out their one or two phrases of French: "Bonjour", "donnez-moi un stylo" - there is a vast unsatisfied need here for cheap pens, it would seem. All the better for them to write in Tamazight, of course!

As we reached the top of the slope, we were greeted by a row of well over a hundred gentlemen, all nodding and smiling. Never had any of us felt so much like royalty - though with no common language, it was difficult to stop for the odd friendly word as we processed up the line to the highest building in the village. As we reached it, the sun set, and our greeters re-grouped: now they were facing east, and it was the hour for prayer, namaz. We visitors went on up into the house. From its roof-top terrace, we could look out on the surrounding mountains, where other villages glinted like stars in the gathering gloom, or inward, on a close-packed crowd of ladies and girls, draped from head to toe in magnificent colours, striped and swatched, and grabbing a quick repast, bread and couscous, before the dancing to come. We could see fires lit in the courtyard, and men using them to warm the bendir, the round drums like tambourines of which we would hear so much that night.

It was dark now and we went down into a brightly decorated tent, where couches had been laid out, and it front of them half a dozen round tables. As we sat down, and attempted to relate to our hosts, learning our first few words of Tamazight: Brrkat dar-ngh "Welcome", Manza kinn "How are you?" Bixir "Very well", the drumming, and the singing began.

When we went out to join them, we saw that that a hundred or so women were gathered in a large but tight circle, where they swayed in rhythm, while within there was another smaller circle of men, all carrying bendir, and beating out another rhythm. The women would all sing a chant together in unison, and then the men would answer with the same chant. From eight o'clock to midnight the chants kept up. In my heart the strongest feeling was one of awe at the cooperation of the two sexes: all the women, and all the men, celebrating the same festival in their complementary ways. It's not a common feeling in the west, outside a church choir - but here it was the whole village singing.

Meanwhile there was more to be done than sing and dance. There were five whole roasted sheep to be eaten, and score upon score of chickens. As we broke off from the dance to stuff ourselves, the main hazard was the sheer heat of the roasted meat, since we ate it with our fingers: it was tender, but still it needed a good yank to get a piece: "ouch! phew! mmm!" And indeed the Tamazight for "it is tasty" is Immim. No vegetables were served at all, but there was cinnamon linguini to follow (again to be eaten with the fingers), then fruit, and finally - the pièce de résistance - a large bottle of Coca Cola on every table. Never have I been so glad to see it - a digestif was precisely what we needed at that moment of extreme stress for our stomachs.

Back to the circle for more dancing, chanting and drumming, and gradually, ever so gradually, the dancers fell away, succeeded first by children, anxious to have a go, and then by quietness and silence.

We later learnt that there had been over 1200 people at this party, put on specially for us of the Foundation, as it would be for a wedding. These are not the poorest of people - they have electric light (as we well realized when they suffered a power-cut in the midst of our festivities, though they soon fixed the fault), and their sons and daughters may be working all over Morocco, in a bank in Marrakech or a university in Agadir. They have their own self-help organization, called TAGMAT or "Brotherhood", working to provide waterworks, roads, health and education, quite independently of the Moroccan government. They would appreciate help from outside, but they are coping, and making progress, in any case.

But development does not mean Westernization, still less Arabization. Few Americans made it to our conference, and one of those who had to cry off was unwise enough to express the view that Morocco was probably the most benign of Arab countries: straight back came the response from Hassan, our host, that 80% of Moroccans would profoundly resent being considered Arabs - they are Berbers, Amazigh. Indeed next month in Kabylia, the Berber south of Algeria, there is to be a general demonstration against militant Arabo-Islamism. The USA will find more to make common cause with it in the Muslim world than perhaps it ever realizes. "Abroad" is a complicated place, and nowhere more than in the world whose faith is Islam.

Like the Tamazight-speaking villages dotted across the High Atlas mountains, there are little pockets of otherness, small language communities, in remote corners all over the world. There is good-heartedness, and friendship in these places, (as well as every other feature of human life): their languages keep them together, as marks of their identity, and links to their past. Our Foundation for Endangered Languages, under the auspices of Ogmios, our Celtic god of eloquence, exists to protect, and make better known, their heritage. If you want to contact us we're on

What these communities need from the rest of the world is serious respect, and sincere good will. Like the dancers and feasters of Azzimim, they can take care of the rest.
Nicholas Ostler
Hassan Ouzzate's charitable foundation is:
Tagmat Development Association
90 Blvd Almassira,
Les Amicales, Agadir, Morocco
A New Committee

The new committee looks as follows:

Elected members:
Chairman, & Editor of Ogmios Nicholas Ostler nostler(at)

Treasurer Christopher Moseley Chris_Moseley(at)

Secretary Nigel Birch Nigel.H.Birch(at)

Grants Officer Blair Rudes BARudes(at)

Campaign Secretary Alasdair MacCaluim staran(at)

Member-ship Secretary Patrick Williamson gaaozaae(at)

José María Flores Farfán flores(at)

Salem Mezhoud salemtro(at)

Louanna Furbee furbeel(at)

Karen Johnson-Weiner johnsokm(at)

Co-opted members:
Conference Chairman McKenna Brown mbrown(at)

Webmaster Paul Baker bakerjp(at)

Japanese liaison Joseph Tomei jtomei(at)