Foundation for Endangered Languages

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10. Reviews of Publications

All in this issue by the editor, Nicholas Ostler nostler(at) Bradley, David and Maya, ed.: Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. xx + 356 pp. US$85 ISBN 0 7007 1456 1 hbk.

This is a volume that offers a variety of linguistic interest and delight quite apart from its declared mission to promote knowledge of language endangerment and maintenance. Hence it reveals some of the diversity of the issues which confront endangered languages, beyond its stated topical breakdown, into ‘language shift’, case studies of autochthonous (Greek for “indigenous”) languages, case studies of migrant languages, and ‘strategies and resources’. The editors have contributed a chapter on the Yi languages in Chinese language policy, as well as an introductory overview, and a final review of some published resources on endangered languages. One of them (David) has also written an early chapter on language attitudes, quoting many little known facts about relations among language groups in South-east Asia.

They distinguish four reasons for concern at language loss: linguistic, ethical, scientific and symbolic. The arguments are familiar, but the nomenclature less so: the linguistic reason has to do with the concerns of theoretical linguists, the scientific with those of humanity at large, threatened with the loss of traditional knowledge that may be lost when the linguistic tradition ceases. Likewise, the ethical concern is for the descendants of the language-speaking community: “we have no right to deprive them of the possibility of retaining or regaining their language and culture” (p. xii). Symbolic importance attaches to a language as a token of its community’s self-esteem and identity — regardless of whether they are all still fluent in it. There is a sense that the editors are preaching here to the converted — or at least the well-informed — since they simply assume that language loss entails knowledge loss, and analogize with the loss of bio-diversity without closer examination. Still, they probably say enough for sympathetic readers to get a good idea of where to look for the concrete arguments in favour of retaining linguistic diversity in general, and languages in particular.

Reading further, one can learn many fascinating things. Here are just a few:
· “… speakers of Lao are highly tolerant of local tonal differences and can readily comprehend and even mimic them; while speakers of Thai are not, and do not feel they can or should understand regional varieties.” (p. 3).
· Each of Lahu and Jinghpaw is a lingua franca in its region, both apparently expanding to replace their smaller neighbours in South-east Asia in the Burma-Chinese border-lands (though according to the current Ethnologue each has no more than a million to half a million speakers) (pp. 3-4).
· Irish is still a compulsory subject in all Ireland’s primary and secondary schools, as well as required for matriculation to the National University; but it was not available in print until the 19th century (pp.46, 48).
· Tsimshian potlatches were outlawed by Canada in 1885 (p. 61).
· Yi documentation has suffered heavily from book-burning, both by Red Guards in the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution, but also from the traditional practice of putting a shaman’s books on the pyre with his corpse (p. 83).
· The Salesian missionaries in Brazil’s Vaupés region in the 1920s promoted ‘civilized monolingualism’ in Tucano over what had been sociable and rule-governed multilingualism (p. 146); the resulting laxity in the use of other languages has perversely led to an enrichment of the Tariana language’s verbal system, presumably through people’s thinking in one language and speaking another.
· English, with its highly unsystematic spelling, is probably the worst European language background for naïve travellers wishing to record local languages, a particular misfortune in 19th-century Australia (p.159), and the 22 languages believed to have been spoken then in Victoria (p.164).



· The Tetum spoken in the East Timorese capital Dili is not mutually intelligible with that spoken in much of the rest of the island, east and west (p. 184).
· The various Anabaptist communities in North America are named after their original leaders: Hutterite after Joseph Hutter, Amish after Jacob Amman, and Mennonite after Menno Simons — himself a former Catholic priest. They embrace their low German for its inferiority to High German, as a badge of their humility, Demut (pp. 205, 215).
· The indigenous Hmong script, Phaj Hauj Hmoob, although written left to right, orders each consonant+vowel syllable right to left. The doctrine that it came through divine inspiration complicates the dispute among various communities, all trying to promote literacy in Hmong, but some attached to a Romanized script (pp. 239, 242).

In some places, the book is too short.

Mühlhäusler tantalisingly comments (pp.36-7) that the necessity of positing linguistic rules “has not only been shown to be erroneous by recent work in the cognitive sciences, it has also been shown to be highly suspect by those who study spontaneous discourses and the syntactic work by Grace and Pawley on prefabricated structures.” This is controversial stuff but unsupported by any explicit references; likewise there is no evidence, even by allusion, for Mühlhäusler’s interesting claim (p. 38) that his reframing of endangerment to centralize the mutual dependence of different languages in an ecology means “abandoning the notion that languages are in competition”.

Bowden’s account of the influence of Malay on the structure of Taba spoken in some islands of Maluku in Indonesia gives a fascinating historical background in the 16th-17th centuries’ spice trade, but never clarifies the relation of modern Taba to the other indigenous languages he mentions — e.g. Ternate-Tidore. This is particularly unfortunate since his placing of languages is not isomorphic with the maps and commentary of the SIL’s Ethnologue (Barbara Grimes, 2000).

The book has some accounts of what is being done to support migrant languages, Hmong in the USA and Australia, Maluku (Moluccan) languages in the Netherlands. There are also reports of plans and stratagems to revitalize languages: Sm’algyax among Canada’s Tsimshian, the English-derived language of Norfolk Island (close to Pitcairn in the Pacific), and Australian Aboriginal languages, which seem to call for something other than courses aimed at fluency, emphasizing cultural aspects and vocabulary rather than the characteristic old sentence structures, probably quite alien to those who have grown up thinking in English or Kriol. There is a sense of the linguists’ abstract “best” struggling against the heritage enthusiasts’ less authentic, but more accessible, “good” — and the writers, all linguists of course, reminding themselves that they have to give potential speaker publics what they want, a language that they can actually get their tongues round and feel good about.

All in all, this is not one of the best books to introduce the concept and the issues of language endangerment, for example in an undergraduate course. For that, David Crystal’s Language Death, or Nettle and Romaine’s Vanishing Voices, are better focused. But it is a fascinating compilation of the kind of issues which arise in small and threatened language communities, particularly in the South-east Asia and the Pacific, and which would probably never occur to someone who only knew those general issues.