Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


11. Reviews of Publications
All in this issue by the editor, Nicholas Ostler nostler(at) Languages in Britain & Ireland. Ed. Glanville Price.
Oxford: Blackwell. 2000. xi + 240 pp. £60.00 ISBN 0 631 21580 8 hbk, £16.99 ISBN 0 21581 6 pbk.

This book is a collection of sociolinguistic sketches, aspiring to give a complete picture of every language known or conjectured to have been spoken in the British Isles (and, as an added bonus, Channel Island French). It gives a refreshing impression of these islands as a focus of linguistic diversity over 3000 years, a profusion that seems to be being renewed at the moment with the advent of the “community languages” reviewed in the last chapter, gathered in from all over the old Empire.

The book is arranged like a dramatis personae, with languages listed in order of appearance, and the editor has achieved a remarkable concinnity among his authors: different styles are apparent, from professorial to politically correct, but no disagreements of substance. There are eleven contributors in all, but Glanville Price has written half the chapters (including all the highly speculative ones, e.g. on Prehistoric Britain, British, Cumbric and Pictish), and about a third of the text. But there is very little in the way of an Introduction, and no Conclusion.

In general, the book gives concise and well-documented pictures of how each of nineteen languages or groups have been affected by historical fortune (though I missed any reference to the only two inscriptions putatively in British, recently emerged, undecipherable, from the steaming waters of Bath: see Tomalin 1987). But in all the variety of the language histories, their linguistic substance scarcely appears: there is scant quotation of words, phrases or texts, and no analysis of form, synchronic or diachronic. But these were a very diverse set of languages, differing not only in vocabulary but in the significance of word-stress, in fundamental word-order and prefixing or suffixing morphology, in propensity for noun compounding and subject-verb inversion, in the structure of tense and aspect. Yet the reader ends up none the wiser on what any of the languages was really like on the lips of their speakers.

Price explicitly sees English as the villain in this company, twice terming it “a killer”: but this raises an important general question that he and his co-authors ignore. Why has the British Isles developed such a monolingual culture, so that political unification has, since the advent of the Saxons, led on to linguistic levelling, each of the neighbours driven back and back over the centuries? (Suggestively and ironically, Price’s account of the language most widely spoken in the world says nothing about recent influences from other languages.) How could the British hold on to their language for 400 years in competition with Latin, but not with English?

Although answers are hard to come by, such questions deserve some attention, not least because the outcome has been so different just across the Channel. There is another land in many ways like Britain: speaking a form of Gaulish until around the turn of the first millennium, then subdued by Rome, and overrun by Germanic invaders 400 years later. Yet where France today speaks Latin with a Gaulish burr and few Germanic loans, Britain has buried its older history, and speaks Germanic with a heavy French infusion. The book is judicious in its sociolinguistics, giving chapter and verse on what actually happened (and so offering excellent concise guidance to advanced students); but it never asks what determined this outcome, rather than so many other possibilities.

Beyond its wealth of terse detail, though, the greatest value of this book is likely to lie in its lingering effect on its readers. It reminds even the most monolingual student how varied has been the field in which English has bloomed.

Tomlin, R.S.O. (1987). Was ancient British Celtic ever a written language? Two texts from Roman Bath. Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies / Bwletin y Bwrdd Gwybodau Celtaidd, vol. 34, 18--25.

Leanne Hinton (with Matt Vera & Nancy Steele) — How to Keep Your Language Alive. Berkeley, Calif.— Heyday Books, 2002: ISBN 1 890771 422; $15.95 (available also though the publishers on +1-510-549-3564)

This book’s subtitle calls it a Commonsense Approach to One-on-One Language Learning, and that is exactly what it is, derived from the authors’ experience in the famous Master-Apprentice language teaching schemes. Except for the (unglossed) speech-bubbles in some of the chapter-opening cartoons, there is in it no language but English — but there is a fizz of wisdom effervescing from this book. It’s all about teaching and learning native American languages, but I rose from it, determined to re-immerse myself somehow in my ancestral Irish, and with a new respect for my sometime múinteóir who tried to conjure a response as gaeilge to the tawdry modern reality of life in a Swindon front room. This book could help people learning an endangered language anywhere — on indeed any language when a functioning speaker community is not accessible to the would-be learner.

In the midst of all the practical advice, there burns a sense that these authors have struggled with the seemingly impossible task of moving to a life in a another language, and have thought of down-to-earth ways of slipping around most of the hitches and snags. The difficulties lie to an extent in the weakness of will of the learners (after all, for all Linguaphone’s disingenuous advertising, people learnt their language as children without conscious effort or direction, and that’s not going to happen again), but as much in the adversity of the situation: some traditional situations where the language was spoken may be no more, and many modern situations — the laundromat, the parking lot, the doctor’s surgery — may never have been negotiated in some ancient languages, ever.

And so the book is full of practical advice, to respond to discouragement, to recognize its causes, and to accelerate off in a different direction. Slogging is going to be needed, but this book is pretty short on worthy injunctions: rather, it warns against getting too comfortable with the language, in case familiarity, and an absence of new challenges, grind down the learning the process. Find yourself something new to talk about! And (as the book never ceases to encourage) find someone new to talk it to!

Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale ed. — The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice San Diego — Academic Press, 2001: ISBN 0-12-349353-6 hbk $99.95; 0-12-349354-4 pbk $49.95

This large compilation contains documents that illustrate in detail actions taken in a variety of language communities, but especially those in the USA, to revitalize their languages. In a way, it addresses the same need as the other volume by Leanne Hinton reviewed in this issue of Ogmios, namely to encourage and inspire those who would breathe new life into a language. But instead of providing a practical guide, made up of ideas for teaching strategies applicable to any language, it offers a record of actions taken in the past, documents from recent community struggles. The sustenance, then, is at a deeper level, reminding revitalizers of how the struggle has been waged in recent years, in many parts of the USA, in the Celtic realms of the UK, and across the Pacific.

The documents are placed in sections with titles that suggest their major point, starts with four “reasons for optimism”, the cases of Lardil (Mornington Island, North Queensland), of Tuahka (Nicaragua), Wampanoag (Massachusetts) and Irish (Belfast). Then we have: Language Policy (as evidenced by the process of passing the US Native American Languages Act), Language Planning (recounting past assessments of the problems confronting three languages of New Mexico and Arizona), Maintenance and Revitalization (of three particularly spunky national languages which had fallen on hard times — Welsh, M?ori and Hawai’ian), Immersion (applied to Karuk a Californian language, and Navajo — enthusiasm moderated by Ken Hale’s sage remarks on the sheer complication of the Navajo verb, and the strain that this will put on any attempt to teach the language without explicit grammar instruction), Literacy (and its role in the attempt by the San Juan Paiute , neighbours to the Navajo in Arizona, to draft a constitution in their language), Mass Media (featuring the effects of broadcasting on the Warlpiri (central Australian) numerals, the trials in making an Arapaho-scripted version of Bambi, the radio stations that get Irish on air, a CD-ROM to propagate the Mono language in California, and of course the role of the Internet), Training teachers (for Navajo, Inuktitut and more languages of south Arizona) and finally “Sleeping Languages” (How can recorded documentation be used to ring a language back, illustrated in the case of the Ohlone languages of the Bay Area in northern California).

It is evident that there is a wide range of experience recounted here, and reading it is rather reminiscent of the sense of reading one the Foundation’s Proceedings volumes — though three times as long, better produced, of course, and more deeply commented and explained by the editors. Ultimately, though, this is what endangered language presentation is about: a variety of stories are told, and as many different community activists become familiar with what has been achieved — and the problems encountered — in defence of other languages all over the world, the power of knowledgeable solidarity will grow. In that sense this is well named the Green book, for green is explicitly for Hinton and Hale, the colour of fertility.

(All things considered, though, it really is a shame about the price.)

Joe Vikin — Galician-English / English-Galician (Galego) Dictionary
New York — Hippocrene Books, 2000: ISBN 0 7818 0776 X; $14.95 (paperback)

This dictionary bills itself as the first Galician dictionary for English-speakers, a claim that seems likely to be true, and in itself a claim to glory. Its 8,000 headwords are drawn from the Pequeno Diccionario c/a Lengua Galega, of the Galician Royal Academy in Corunna. It should be useful to foreigners brought up on Castilian, and hoping (for whatever reason) to make the transition to this ancient regional language of north-western Spain. Although the introduction gives a small amount of historical information about great works of literature from the Cántigas de Santa Maria to Salvador de Madariaga, and world figures whose families hailed from Galicia (including both Fidel Castro and Francisco Franco), there is no specifically linguistic information, e.g. to point out the close affinity (partly disguised by Hispanic spelling) with its neighbour Portuguese, and the historical reasons for this.



The book has the size of a pocket dictionary, but in many ways the comparison to this genre is invidious: Collins Gem Dictionary of Spanish for example, (Mike González et al., 4th ed., 1998), although almost exactly the same thickness has less than half the weight (150g to 310g), and only about 60% of the gross volume; yet it contains 18,000 headwords, and includes substantial coverage of phrases, a feature quite absent from Vikin. (Of course, its paper is thinner, its type is several points smaller, and its pages contain far less blank space.) The target audiences are arguably different (since the Hippocrene’s users can all be expected to know Castilian, and will very likely already possess Collins Gem), but foreign learners of Galician may still be better served (perhaps in a later edition) by a work that emphasizes the contrast of the two languages, and includes something beyond isolated words to show that the two really are different, not only in look (and sound) but also in feel. Phrases, clichés and proverbs, after all, carry the real soul of a language; but the user of this dictionary will only be prepared for Galician words linked into standard Spanish phraseology.
Suzuko Tamura — The Ainu Language
Tokyo — Sanseido, 2000: ISBN 4 385 35976 8; ¥3,000 (paperback)

Ainu is sadly famous as an endangered language. A few hundred years ago it was spoken as far south as the northern parts of Honshu, the Japanese main island, and more recently all over Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin; perhaps even in Kamchatka. Like Livonian at the other end of the Soviet domains, it suffered for its border status. After the Second World War, all the Sakhalin speakers were moved to Hokkaido, and despite a certain concentration of speakers that this must have caused, these proved to be the last generation to use the language. Disruption caused by the migration was compounded by the unsympathetic approach of surrounding, and increasingly intrusive, Japanese society. There are still some elderly rememberers of the language in Hokkaido. But a survey in 1963 in the (to this day) disputed Kurile islands showed also that Ainu was no longer spoken there.

Ainu has hitherto been studied almost exclusively by its metropolitan neighbours the Japanese. The impenetrability of their language to the world at large, and hence of the grammatical accounts they had written, has tended to deter passing interest from linguists outside Japan. But the first word list was compiled by a Jesuit, Girolamo de Angelis in 1602. And curiously, two early students of the language were emissaries of the Church of England: Walter Dening published his Vocabulary of Ainu Words and Phrases in 1881, and John Batchelor his Ainu-English-Japanese Dictionary in 1889, as well as writing an (apparently unpublished ) grammar. Nevertheless, this book (at 292 pages), written a century later, is the fullest account of the language yet available in English. In origin, it is a translation (impeccable but unattributed) of an article in Japanese produced for the 1988 Sanseido Encyclopaedia of Linguistics. It stands with Kirsten Refsing’s The Ainu Language (Aarhus 1986), and largely surpasses the most accessible recent treatment in English — the first 86 pages of M. Shibatani’s The languages of Japan (Cambridge UP 1990) — though Shibatani still gives a bit more insight than Tamura into historical developments in the language. Tamura’s work stands well as an independent book, and is probably more useful in this form than it was in the midst of an encyclopaedia.

It is not possible for me to comment on the accuracy of this work, but Tamura is claimed by Prof Kazuto Matsumura (in the preface) as currently the leading expert in the Ainu language. From her exposition, it is evident that she is most familiar with the Saru dialect of southern Hokkaido, although in the current state of the language there is not much room for coherent dialect areas.

There is an introduction which describes the dialects as they were, and the origin and relations of the language. Nothing radical or new is proposed:
Based on a comparison of structural characteristics, one could say that Ainu and Japanese more closely resemble each other than other languages… It is thought that there is a long historical relationship between Ainu and Japanese. However, it is difficult to think of this relationship as common origins… it is perhaps appropriate to consider Ainu as one of the formants of Japanese, or a substratal language… (pp. 4-5)
There is a chapter on the history of Ainu studies, followed by a chapter on phonology, which is not complex, and so leaves space for some general remarks about syllable structure and phonotactics. In general, the exposition is well set out, and easy to follow, with something of a functionalist bent: although the grammar is organized largely by part of speech with formal descriptions of paradigms etc., they are never far from description of semantic and discourse constraints on their use. In fact, the main expository chapter (Syntactic Elements and Syntax) is in the form of a (very meaty) sandwich, with the exposition of morphology preceded by a section on conceptually-based principles of Word Order and followed by one on Sentence Structure, where verb-phrases and noun-phrases are anatomized more formally, in terms of their elements. There is then a chapter on Word-Formation, followed by one called obscurely “Methods of Expression”, which turns out to refer to speech acts, staring with simple declarative sentences, and ranges through many topics, such as Invitations and Expressions of Desire to end with Greetings. Then a chapter on vocabulary includes numbers (explicitly vigesimal), demonstratives (spatial reference is quite distinct from conceptual) and colours. (There are only two primary terms beside black and white: húre, focused on the colour of blood, and siwnin, focused on grass, or water.) Then there are a few pages on the pattern of Ainu literature, and a grammatical bibliography.

The whole book’s style is accessible, and at difficult points informative rather than mystifying. So in treating the vexed issue of Ainu’s verbal plural, Tamura starts (p. 39) by saying that, as against French and English, “in Ainu, number relates to the action expressed by the verb and the number of events… For example, no matter how many people are involved in the hunt, if one bear is killed, the singular rayke [kill] is used, and if two or more bears are killed, the plural form ronnu is employed. Accordingly, for transitive verbs, the number often agrees with the number of the object.” She then goes on to review more dubious and obscure borderlands of pluralization. Contrast, e.g., Shibatani, who begins (p. 51) with a statement that the two systems of verb and noun plural are “characteristically different”, but never quite gives a guideline to predict their incidence, simply dwelling on one curiosity after another.

This is a grammar, then, which gives ready access to points of conceptual interest, and in so doing strikes a blow for the importance of all languages, even endangered ones, as repositories of human diversity. The only (odd) exception to its adequacy is in the matter of texts. Although Tamura provides copious examples of sentences and phrases in Ainu (all in roman script), and a full bibliography of published editions, she does not include a single connected passage in the language. Remedying this gap would make this far more useful as a general introduction to serious study of Ainu.

Michael Longford –The Flags Changed at Midnight
Leominster, Herefs. – Gracewing, 2001: ISBN 0 85244 551 2

Despite its title, this book is not about Tanzania’s independence, but about ten years in the life of its author, who served as one of its last colonial officials. As it happens, there is now a slew of imperial retrospectives in British bookshops: this one, told from personal experience, might, I thought, excel many of the others if it could reveal something of the temper of the life lived as a guardian, a kind of relationship across borders that no longer exists. In a way, it achieves this, by displaying a Briton’s demeanour abroad: practical, concerned to act justly and decently, open and straightforward, but fundamentally living in a different world from the people around him. It is in effect a section of an autobiography, with chapters bearing the names of each new posting, and retailing the major events that occurred there.

For FEL members, the most interesting section may be “One Lingua Franca or Many Tribal Languages”, when Longford describes his attempt to learn Kihehe, a Bantu language described as tribal; SIL’s current estimate of its speakers is three quarters of a million (perhaps 2% of Tanzania’s population). He notes the practical difficulties caused by the sole textbook being written in a language (German) that his teacher could not understand, and the rather more deep-seated ones of never getting clear about the tense morphology of the verb (Longford ended up contenting himself with paraphrases using “finish” and “want”, through he could understand the verb forms when they were spoken to him). All the same, he got through his interpreter’s exam (part of which was to try in the language a (quite genuine) theft case – those were the days!), and rewarded his teacher with the gift of a gramophone. Alas, the bonhomie did not last:
The following day he came to me looking much less cheerful than usual. He asked me not to recommend him to any other Europeans as a Kihehe teacher… he had been warned that, if Europeans understood Kihehe, the Hehe would then have no more secrets from the Government.

It leads Longford to some general remarks about the rights of minority languages to be preserved. He feels that the intentions of the speaker community are absolutely essential in determining any government policy. But he played a role, later in his career, in getting language rights included in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. And he also enters a final plea for an effort to document languages that appear to be going out of use.

I should be tempted to offer the phrase “Decency at a Distance” as a title for the whole work, if I did not know that the author has now taken the initiative (with explicit support form the President of Tanzania) in organizing a new organization to document endangered languages in that country. Longford is still a man of action.