Foundation for Endangered Languages
2. Development of the Foundation
Since the first issue of Iatiku on 1 May 1995, there have been three more meetings of the Foundation, on 12 June in London which appointed an Executive Committee, on 4 October at High Wycombe, which discussed a draft of the Foundation’s manifesto, and on 15 January 1996 again in London, where a number of future activities were mooted. Brief reports of these meetings follow, including a copy of the Manifesto as it has emerged.
The next meeting is scheduled for 11 April 1996, to be held in the lead-up to the meeting of the Linguistic Association of Great Britain at the University of Sussex. Again, see below for the Agenda.
Taking into account member’s suggestions we have also selected a draft list of language communities whose survival and progress will form the starting focus for our work.
Aims of the Foundation
Here is the new Manifesto for the Foundation, taking into account discussions at the Fourth and Fifth Meetings of the Foundation.
1.1. The Present Situation
At this point in human history, most human languages are spoken by exceedingly few people. And that majority, the majority of languages, is about to vanish.
The most authoritative source on the languages of the world (Ethnologue, Grimes 1992) lists just over 6,500 living languages. Population figures are available for just over 6,000 of them (or 92%). Of these 6,000, it may be noted that:
At the other end of the scale, 10 major languages, each spoken by over 109 million people, are the mother tongues of almost half (49%) of the world's population.
More important than this snapshot of proportions and populations is the outlook for survival of the languages we have. Hard comparable data here are scarce or absent, often because of the sheer variety of the human condition: a small community, isolated or bilingual, may continue for centuries to speak a unique language, while in another place a populous language may for social or political reasons die out in little more than a generation. Another reason is that the period in which records have been kept is too short to document a trend: e.g. the Ethnologue has been issued only since 1951. However, it is difficult to imagine many communities sustaining serious daily use of a language for even a generation with fewer than 100 speakers: yet at least 10% of the world's living languages are now in this position.
Some of the forces which make for language loss are clear: the impacts of urbanization, Westernization and global communications grow daily, all serving to diminish the self-sufficiency and self-confidence of small and traditional communities. Discriminatory policies, and population movements also take their toll of languages.
In our era, the preponderance of tiny language communities means that the majority of the world's languages are vulnerable not just to decline but to extinction.
1.2. The Likely Prospect
There is agreement among linguists who have considered the situation that over half of the world's languages are moribund, i.e. not effectively being passed on to the next generation. We and our children, then, are living at the point in human history where, within perhaps two generations, most languages in the world will die out.
This mass extinction of languages may not appear immediately life-threatening. Some will feel that a reduction in numbers of languages will ease communication, and perhaps help build nations, even global solidarity. But it has been well pointed out that the success of humanity in colonizing the planet has been due to our ability to develop cultures suited for survival in a variety of environments. These cultures have everywhere been transmitted by languages, in oral traditions and latterly in written literatures. So when language transmission itself breaks down, especially before the advent of literacy in a culture, there is always a large loss of inherited knowledge.
Valued or not, that knowledge is lost, and humanity is the poorer. Along with it may go a large part of the pride and self-identity of the community of former speakers.
And there is another kind of loss, of a different type of knowledge. As each language dies, science, in linguistics, anthropology, prehistory and psychology, loses one more precious source of data, one more of the diverse and unique ways that the human mind can express itself through a language’s structure and vocabulary.
We cannot now assess the full effect of the massive simplification of the world's linguistic diversity now occurring. But language loss, when it occurs, is sheer loss, irreversible and not in itself creative. Speakers of an endangered language may well resist the extinction of their traditions, and of their linguistic identity. They have every right to do so. And we, as scientists, or concerned human beings, will applaud them in trying to preserve part of the diversity which is one of our greatest strengths and treasures.
1.3. The Need for an Organization
We cannot stem the global forces which are at the root of language decline and loss.
But we can work to lessen the ignorance which sees language loss as inevitable when it is not, and does not properly value all that will go when a language itself vanishes.
We can work to see technological developments, such as computing and telecommunications, used to support small communities and their traditions rather than to supplant them.
And we can work to lessen the damage:
In order to further these aims, there is a need for an autonomous international organization which is not constrained or influenced by matters of race, politics, gender or religion. This organization will recognise in language issues the principles of self-determination, and group and individual rights. It will pay due regard to economic, social, cultural, community and humanitarian considerations. Although it may work with any international, regional or local Authority, it will retain its independence throughout. Membership will be open to those in all walks of life.
2. Aims and Objectives
The Foundation for Endangered Languages exists to support, enable and assist the documentation, protection and promotion of endangered languages. In order to do this, it aims:-
(i) To raise awareness of endangered languages, both inside and outside the communities where they are spoken, through all channels and media;
Reports on Meetings 3, 4, 5
Meeting 3: DTI London, 12 June 1995
At this meeting an Executive Committee was appointed, with particular responsibilities as follow:
Meeting 4: SIL High Wycombe, 4 Oct 95
Present: Nicholas Ostler (Chair), Allan Wynne Jones, (Secretary), Roger Blench, Bruce Connell, Keir Hansford, Gillian Hansford, Stephen May, Christopher Moseley, Bob Robins, Clinton Robinson, Janet Pearson, Mahendra K Verma, Andrew Woodfield.
The main work of this meeting was to discuss the Manifesto which appears above.
The Secretary led members through the decision making process contained in papers provided by the Welsh Cooperative Centre, and the meeting agreed that “Company Limited by Guarantee” would be an appropriate status for the Foundation under the laws of the UK. This allowed the Foundation to pursue all kinds of activities (including revenue-earning ones), protect members from significant liability, but to retain the status of a charity. Any trading surplus built up by the Foundation could never be distributed to members.
Andrew Woodfield offered a connexion with the University of Bristol, which was welcomed by the meeting.
There was also some discussion of the relation of SIL to the Foundation. While it welcomed co-operation in the pursuit of its objectives, the Foundation stressed its own independence.
Meeting 5: DTI London, 15 Jan 1996
Present: Nicholas Ostler (Chair), Nigel Birch, Christopher Moseley, Daniel Nettle, Ian Roberts, Bob Robins, Clinton Robinson, Colin Williams, Andrew Woodfield, Allan Wynne Jones
Apologies: Allan Campbell, Greville Corbett, David Crystal, Dick Hayward, Rosaleen Howard-Malverde, Marilyn Martin Jones, Marilyn Martin-Jones, Steve May, Frances Morphy, Glanville Price, Anna Siewierska, Graham Turner, Mahendra Verma, Meurig Williams
Selections from the Minutes:
Allan Wynne Jones announced that he would be unable to continue as Secretary as he had just been appointed President of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages.
(3) Election of New Secretary: Nicholas Ostler proposed Andrew Woodfield. This was seconded by Dan Nettle. Unanimously approved.
(5) Engineering and Physical Science Research Council:
Nigel Birch outlined the structure and assessment procedures of the Council, which draws upon a pool or college of potential assessors when setting up ad hoc selection committees to consider grant-applications. These committees rely heavily upon peer reviews.
The EPSRC currently supports research in cognitive science in addition to the support offered by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council). The Computer Science section is divided into 6 programme areas, one being Human Factors including speech and language. This area is described as 'The analysis and solution of problems relating to people's interactions, as individuals, groups or organisations, with information, artefacts, technologies and systems'. Its breadth of scope opens the door to possible funding for research projects on topics of interest to FEL.
Four themes are emphasised: People, Domains of Application, Technologies, Effectiveness. EPSRC funding also includes a component for basic research on language and languages, provided that the research holds out some prospect of benefiting British society. Multi-lingual issues, including issues relating to immigrant languages in the UK, are within the HF brief. EPSRC can provide support for workshops and meetings, and for the development of IT tools.
Various ideas were floated during the ensuing discussion. A Remit Statement for the EPSRC summarising its relations to the other Research Councils will be available in February. Nigel Birch said he would be happy to supply a copy of this document. He invited members to approach him for advice on the acceptability of projects and for assistance on how best to present them. The Chairman thanked Mr. Birch for his informative address. Many of those present had been unaware of the EPSRC's involvement in this area.
(6) Agreeing a Constitution:
- first appoint a Constitution Sub-committee. Let the Sub-committee meet to review the draft and adapt it to FEL's needs.
- Obtain informal legal advice on the redrafting.
This suggestion was welcomed. Allan Wynne Jones then proposed that the process of incorporation be set in motion. Seconded by Nicholas Ostler, this was approved.
The meeting then elected the following officers to serve on the Constitution Sub-committee: Nicholas Ostler, Dan Nettle, Chris Moseley, Steve May, Andrew Woodfield. It was agreed that they should meet on Monday February 5th at a suitable location in Bath or Bristol, to review the Memorandum and Articles draft.
(7) Post Box and Bank Account
No objections were made, consequently it was resolved to accept the University's offer. After incorporation this would be the Foundation's registered address.
(ACTION Chairman) It was agreed that Nicholas Ostler should open a bank account in the name 'Friends of Endangered Languages' at a suitably located branch of a suitable bank, the first choice being the Co-operative Bank.
(8) Future Activities:
• Designing an interactive exhibition, to be mounted in a space within an existing Museum or Exhibition Centre. AWJ mentioned a project for which a contract has already been drafted, intended primarily as an educational tourist attraction in Bangor or Caernarfon, illustrating the Welsh language in the context of world languages. DN noted that London University planned to do something on 3rd world languages as part of its 'end of decade' celebrations. A project by FEL to mount an exhibit on endangered languages could benefit from the cooperation and expertise of a number of institutions such as the Museum of Mankind (Royal Anthropological Institute), the National Sound Archive oral history section on audio and video tape (part of the British Library, director Alistair Bamford).
At the end of this part of the discussion it was agreed that proposals depend heavily upon the initiative and enthusiasm of individuals, but members with bright ideas should be encouraged to communicate these to the Chairman or the Secretary and to bring proposals to meetings.
An informal document 'The Logosphere Seminar' was distributed. Those present were impressed by the ambitiousness of the project, though several were concerned that other teams of linguistic data-collectors in the world were probably ignorant of it. Logosphere would clearly be a potential source of the most up-to-date and reliable data, which is the crucially necessary basis for conservationist claims and arguments. Prof. Williams was warmly thanked for his presentation.
Conservation of Endangered Languages: Echoes of the Bristol Seminar
Andrew Woodfield, now the Foundation’s Secretary, had organized a seminar on The Conservation of Endangered Languages at the University of Bristol on 21 April 1995. There was some media coverage at the time, especially on the BBC World Radio and TV Services, but some of the echoes are only now being heard.
Andrew Woodfield’s own account, “Having the Last Word” appeared in Nonesuch, the Bristol University alumni magazine for Autumn 1995, but the theme was not picked up in the UK national media until “Death of a Mother Tongue”, by Gail Vines, appeared in New Scientist on 6 January. It came across as based on a string of interviews: but strangely enough, almost every one of the interviewees had given talks at our Seminar, and were saying what they said then. Vines particularly emphasized Mark Pagel’s claims that learning a language alters brain structure.
This article stimulated the BBC TV World Service to seek more interviews with Mark Pagel and Chris Moseley. Then in the week beginning 15 February the French review Courrier International carried a 4-page supplement “2000 langues en pŽril” which began with a translation of Vines’ article, combining it with translations of articles on the unification of Chinese, linguistic minorities in France (alone with Greece in not having signed the EU charter on minorities), and an article by Fernando Savater decrying nationalists’ tendency to turn languages into shibboleths.
Mark Pagel’s views, this time correlating density of languages with climatic zone, surfaced again in a 3-page article by Natalie Levisalles “Aux pays des langues disparues” in the French daily LibŽration of 27 February, which interspersed the views of Michel Launey and various linguists at CNRS.
And that’s just what we’ve noticed without looking.