Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Language Endangerment in the News

Lost for words, and in the silence a world disappears: Conference Coverage in The Australian

Coverage of this year’s conference began in advance, with an interview of the president Nicholas Ostler on ABC Radio Kimberley, based in Broome. It was broadcast live on 17 September at 5 pm, four days before the conference was due to begin. The ABC interviewer, Greg Hayes, also visited the conference, and talked to more speakers there, notably Nigel Crawley.

The conference was also attended by the leading journalist on The Australian, Nicholas Rothwell. His article only appeared a month and a half later, in the issue for November 12, 2003. Still, it was worth waiting for. Here it is, illustrated with the editor’s own photograph of June.

© Nicholas Rothwell-Australian 2003

In the heart of the country, linguists are fighting to keep traditional language alive, writes Nicolas Rothwell

WHAT does it feel like, as an indigenous Australian, to speak your traditional language? June Oscar, the Bunuba-speaking head of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre based in Hall's Creek, Western Australia, knows.

June Oscar
"You can communicate your feelings in a way you can't in English," she says. "You can really hit things on the head, you can feel and understand what's being said to you. When we're using language in our country, we feel that country's listened to this language from the beginning of time. I'm happy and proud to have the chance to do that; it's different from everything else we do with the rest of the world."

And what does it feel like to have lost your language? Like many others, Danny Thompson, lead singer of the rock group Yugal, from Ngukurr on the Roper River in the Northern Territory, knows -- he has just written a rap for his new CD, putting absence into words: "The last time my language was spoken was by my Dad, but he finished up in 2001. I didn't speak our lingo; we weren't allowed to at school. I still feel a strong feeling, wishing to speak my lingo. You have your identity if you have your language. If your clan doesn't have language, then you feel like nothing. Being somebody is important."

Language extinction is the hidden holocaust under way in today's Australia. There is no doubt, no ambiguity about what's going on; the only thing that's not quite clear is whether all Australia's remaining Aboriginal languages will be dead in 50 years or whether a handful of the strongest -- maybe Yolngu-Matha in northeast Arnhem Land and Warlpiri in the Western Desert will survive in some form.

A benchmark study, carried out by linguists Patrick McConvell and Nicholas Thieberger two years ago, traces the vanishing. Perhaps 250 distinct languages (with hundreds of dialects) flourished across Australia before contact with the European world. By 1980, one-quarter were extinct. By 1990, half were gone or nearly so.

By now, only about 17 Aboriginal languages can still be classified as strong -- used by all age groups. The percentage of indigenous Australians speaking their language is about 13 per cent and dropping like a stone.

Most of these native speakers -- about 50,000 people -- live in small, marginal, economically disadvantaged communities in the Top End, Kimberley and Central deserts.

These figures are sketchy, though. The true picture may be darker still. Aborigines, in surveys or census checks, can tend to overstate their language skills; they are proud to know even a pared-back version of their grandparents' many-layered languages.

Interviews with indigenous language workers across remote Australia conducted by the HES during the past year paint a national portrait of deep linguistic vulnerability: the younger the Aborigines in bush communities are, the less likely they are to speak their languages well. Sometimes, a hybrid version of traditional language comes in. More often, a Kriol or English-based tongue makes inroads: indeed, Kriol, admired by some for its efficiency, derided by others as "newspeak", is today by far the most common Aboriginal language, spoken across the centre and north by thousands of people in its various regional versions.

With each dying traditional tongue, a world view dies -- a way of thinking, feeling, saying, that has been refined down scores of generations. If the desert Anmatyere people lose their language, who will know its special word for the white powder that forms on the mulga apple? If East Kimberley Mirriwong fades away, who will remember jowaljobu, the word for "the temperature that makes one feel good"?

Recently, in acknowledgment of the crisis, the Foundation for Endangered Languages, the premier international body for language protection, held its annual conference in Broome -- the first time Australia has been under the spotlight in this way.

There was a vivid keynote speech from Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson, calling urgently for more funding for language centres; there were stirring accounts of language rediscovery in the Kalahari Desert. Fascinating, subtle questions hovered in the air: do indigenous people have the right to own their language and restrict outside experts from wholesale access to its deeper registers? Can linguistic communities be revived, along lines being tried in northwest NSW? How can Western educators help preserve threatened languages?

FEL's British-based president Nicholas Ostler knows what needs to be done. The pattern is similar across the world. To have a good chance of survival, a threatened language needs a home territory and a recognised political status. It helps if its speakers are isolated, have a strong literary tradition and a self-conscious cultural pride of the kind that has sustained Jews and Basques through centuries of exile or conquest.

Aboriginal languages don't have most of these things. In many cases, all they really have going for them is the will and courage of their last few speakers. David Newry, the determined chairman of Mirima Council in Kununurra, WA, who has run his Mirriwong people's language centre for 20 years, understands from his own life what having language means. "If I hadn't been brought up the language way, I wouldn't have been disciplined," Newry says. "When people were on the stations, they used to enjoy their language. If you really speak it, it makes you as proud as any Hollywood actor. Kids today growing up the Western way are undisciplined. If a lot of the things associated with language were taught to our children, if they saw the traditional view, they'd be better off. If only people in the wider world knew about this, maybe they'd be kinder and help us more."

Language, in other words, is more than language, more than mere cultural identity; it is social order, and self-belief, and the backbone of a distinct philosophy. For fluent speakers, it's not a relic but a way of shaping the future. Hence the fervent campaigns being waged by workers such as the Kimberley Language Resource Centre's Oscar. Maybe 100 of her 800-strong Bunuba people speak their language; she wants to double that total in the next 20 years.

The methods of language defence are basic: recording the knowledge in old people's memories, teaching the young, using every technique that works. Jeanie Herbert, the dynamic Warlpiri language queen from Lajamanu in the NT's Tanami Desert, is blunt about what needs to happen: "It's about time governments recognised that indigenous languages are really Australian and that English is just the language of the dominant society. We want our languages to be on an equal footing. I'd like to see Warlpiri people taking control of their lives, reading and writing in both languages." A high ambition, even for Warlpiri, perhaps the strongest traditional language in Australia, with close to 3000 speakers.

The picture is just as ambiguous in Alice Springs, home of the Arrernte people and base for many of the centre's pioneering linguistic preservation programs. Veronica Dobson, a celebrated native linguist who taught herself to read Arrernte and compiled the dictionary of her language, sees, for all her efforts, the change sweeping across her world: "Language is my life, Arrernte language. I live it, I am it. It's the hardest of languages to learn, with its double-r words, its prestopped nasals and its sneezing sounds; a beautiful language, though, in its effect. But today it's not really well spoken by young people, they speak in a different way, with words coming in from television. Yes, Arrernte's in trouble. It's debatable whether the language I speak, the old Arrernte, will survive. When the old people die, it will die with them. It makes you feel sad. I think in 100 years all Arrernte people will be speaking English. That's just the way it is."

That pattern is repeated a hundredfold across Australia. A quiet, deep pathos surrounds the story of each Aboriginal language in its individual encounter with the modern world.

IS there, then, any viable way forward, a strategy, beyond simply documenting, studying, watching as the dissolution of languages takes place?

A fall-back option is the unspoken aim of most language programs in remote Australia. Many of the linguists at the Broome conference, and many language workers who live on the front line, are engaged in projects to promote or finetune two-way learning programs, designed in a bid to keep indigenous tongues alive -- if necessary as subsidiary languages -- alongside English.

Why, though, such a fight against the odds to preserve language, when the more immediate problems confronting remote Aboriginal Australia are so pressing: the medical crisis of kidney disease and raging diabetes, the economic void, and housing shortages, the epidemics of alcoholism, the drug abuse, the domestic violence?

Partly because language loss may be near the root of that upsurge of chaos. Partly, too, because of the natural desire of native speakers to keep the deepest threads of their tradition alive. But even beyond the Aboriginal world there is a compelling argument in favour of language defence, an intellectual one, which the FEL puts squarely in its manifesto: "As each language dies, science 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."

For the languages of Aboriginal Australia, the hands of the clock stand close to midnight. The battle is almost over, the extinction near-total. As its linguistic patrimony vanishes forever, there is at least a case for thinking that mainstream Australia should be aware of what is being lost a little more with each new day.

Words are not enough
Jowaljobu: The East Kimberley Mirriwong word for the temperature that makes one feel good
Weche mema: Cape York Peninsula Pakanh word for splash, ripples in water
Mampu-mani: Walpiri for to take care of something
Bolwo gin: Northern Territory's Wagiman language group meaning cold windy weather
Walawala: Storm, from the Kamilaroi language of northern NSW
Tau-wa-tau-wa: Awabakal word meaning eat heartily, spoken in the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie region
Tanadlariburka: A sulky fellow in the Kaurna language around Adelaide

Most endangered languages

Throughout the remote north, Cape York and the centre, languages are dying. Even the seemingly strongest are threatened by the spread of television and the need to use English to function in the modern world. Here are five endangered tongues.

* Wanyi: Once spoken in the Nicholson River region, north of the Barkly Tableland, this language has only two surviving speakers. Its fate is clear.

* Warwa: The original language of the area where the Kimberley town of Derby stands, Warwa is no longer spoken by the Aborigines who live in the town, most of whom come from other language areas. Linguists know of only two Warwa speakers: a brother and sister, both old and linguistic exiles on their own soil.

* Pertam: This language of the southern Arrernte group was once spoken by people from the Finke River southeast of Alice Springs. Only a handful still know it and they have to use other languages to communicate effectively with their neighbours.



* Kaytetye: Kaytetye is known by about 200 out of the 700 odd Kaytetye people; about 50 of these live at Neutral Junction, by Barrow Creek, close to the heart of the Northern Territory. But even on their own land Kaytetye speakers are in a minority, so they adopt other tongues as a matter of survival.

* Gija: Although spoken by some of the most famous artists in Australia, Gija, the home language of Warmun in the Kimberley, faces a bleak future, with no more than 240 speakers. The youngest fluent speakers are in their 40s and 50s. Although Gija children still learn their language, it is easier for them to use the snappy Halls Creek regional Kriol to speak to outsiders.

Unesco Adopts International Convention to Safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage

Paris, 17 October 2003
Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage, the performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, as well as knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe and traditional craftsmanship, now benefit from an international legal instrument to safeguard intangible heritage through cooperation.

The Member States attending the UNESCO General Conference at Headquarters (September 29 to October 17), today adopted by overwhelming majority the International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage*, which completes the Organization’s existing legal instruments for the safeguarding of heritage.

“The safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is of general interest to humanity,” states the Convention, which underlines its “invaluable role” in “bringing human beings closer together and ensuring exchange and understanding among them.” The convention requires a minimum of 30 States Parties to enter into force.

UNESCO’s Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura welcomed the Convention, which “expresses the urgent need for action in this domain,” he said. Mr Matsuura added, “Now I hope that many of you will ratify it, so that it may enter into force as quickly as possible.” According to the Director-General, “Such an outcome is a good example of the work of mediation and dialogue which our Organization is capable of achieving on the most complex and controversial subjects.”

Algerian judge Mohammed Bedjaoui, a former president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague who chaired the intergovernmental experts’ meetings to draft the text, added that “Despite all its complexity, this concept of intangible cultural heritage has affirmed and finally imposed itself on all of us as a key concept in understanding the cultural identity of peoples […]. Every word of this convention is a grateful tribute to the creators and artisans of this wonderful heritage, to the great and also to the humble and anonymous, to the authors and the guardians of the temple of the traditions and knowledge of peoples.”

The convention specifically provides for the drawing up of national inventories of cultural property to be protected, the establishment of an Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, composed of experts from future States Parties to the Convention, and the creation of two lists - a Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity and a List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

To the first list will be added in due course the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, proclaimed in 2001 by the Director-General on the recommendation of an international jury presided by Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo. This programme will continue until such time as the Convention enters into force.

The adoption of the new convention is the result of a long process of awareness raising, which intensified in recent years but began with the 1982 Mexico City Conference, where UNESCO’s Member States first evoked the concept of intangibility to refer to the body of humanity’s expressions of spirituality. In 1989, UNESCO adopted the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, but the fact that it is not legally binding has limited its impact. The proclamation of the first Masterpieces in 2001 considerably stimulated interest in intangible cultural heritage and brought greater understanding of its essential role in the cultural identity of peoples. The second proclamation will take place November 7, 2003.

The complete text of the Convention can be found at:
Given the recent adoption of this Convention by the 32nd Session of the General Conference, the text will be subject to linguistic adjustment in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.
The 19 masterpieces are:
1. Garifuna Language, Dance and Music (Belize)
2. Oral Heritage of Gelede (Benin)
3. Oruro Carnival (Bolivia)
4. Kunqu Opera (China)
5. Gbofe of Afounkaha: the Music of the Transverse trumpets of the Tagbana Community (Côte d’Ivoire)
6. Cultural Space of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit of the Congos of Villa Mella (Dominican Republic)
7. Oral Heritage and Cultural Manifestations of the Zápara People (Ecuador-Peru)
8. Georgian Polyphonic Singing (Georgia)
9. Cultural Space of Sosso-Bala in Nyagassola (Guinea)
10. Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre (India)
11. Opera dei Pupi, Sicilian Puppet Theatre (Italy)
12. Nogaku Theatre (Japan)
13. Cross Crafting and its Symbolism (Lithuania)
14. Cultural Space of Jemaa el-Fna Square (Morocco)
15. Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao (Philippines)
16. Royal Ancestral Rite and Ritual Music in Jongmyo Shrine (Republic of Korea)
17. Cultural Space and Oral Culture of the Semeiskie (Russian Federation)
18. Mystery Play of Elche (Spain)
19. Cultural Space of the Boysun District (Uzbekistan).

Modelling the Dynamics of Language Death, in Nature

A one-page “brief communication” appeared under this title in Nature (vol. 424: 21 August 2003), p. 900.

Its rather simple model suggest that there can never be stable equilibrium between two languages in a population. However, the model includes the assumption that all speakers are monolingual, and that populations are highly connected, with no spatial or social structure.

Any readers who are interested, and do not have access to Nature, can obtain a copy from the Editor of Ogmios.

A Loss for Words: article in Foreign Policy Nov-Dec 2003

A two-page spread, with some simply illustrated statistics, written by Ogmios editor Nicholas Ostler, appeared on pp. 30-31 of this Washington DC journal .

Charts illustrated Living Languages By Location, Nearly Extinct languages by Location, The World’s Leading Primary Languages (with projections of the changing rankings 1950-2000-2050) and Welsh Revival among 3-to-15-year-olds.)

The article was not restricted to endangered languages as such, but found room to make a couple of less than complacent points about English, namely that it seems set to have a population more or less equal to those of Hindi-Urdi, Spanish and Arabic by 2050, all of them less than Mandarin Chinese by a factor of some 2.5; and that the effect of book publishing on Latin from the 15th century set a rather alarming precedent for the long-term effect of the Internet revolution on English: market-led communications revolutions will no necessarily favour the existing dominant language.

The article also led to an opportunity to address an hour-long phone-in program on Wisconsin National Public Radio on 5 November 2003.

Near-Extinct 'Whistling Language' Returns SARAH ANDREWS, Associated Press Writer, 17 Nov 2003

SAN SEBASTIAN, Canary Islands - Juan Cabello takes pride in not using a cell phone or the Internet to communicate. Instead, he puckers up and whistles.

Cabello is a "silbador," until recently a dying breed on tiny, mountainous La Gomera, one of Spain's Canary Islands off West Africa. Like his father and grandfather before him, Cabello, 50, knows "Silbo Gomero," a language that's whistled, not spoken, and can be heard more than two miles away.

This chirpy brand of chatter is thought to have come over with early African settlers 2,500 years ago. Now,educators are working hard to save it from extinction by making school children study it up to age 14.

Silbo" the word comes from Spanish verb silbar, meaning to whistle" features four "vowels" and four "consonants" that can be strung together to form more than 4,000 words. It sounds just like bird conversation and Cabello says it has plenty of uses.

"I use it for everything: to call to my wife, to tell my kids something, to find a friend if we get lost in a crowd," Cabello said.

In fact, he makes a living off Silbo, performing daily exhibitions at a restaurant on this island of 147 square miles and 19,000 people.

A snatch of dialogue in Silbo is posted at
and translates as follows:
"Hey, Servando!"
"Look, go tell Julio to bring the castanets."
"OK. Hey, Julio!"
"Lili says you should go get the kids and have them bring the castanets for the party."
"OK, OK, OK."
Silbo was once used throughout the hilly terrain of La Gomera as an ingenious way of communicating over long distances. A strong whistle saved peasants from trekking over hill and dale to send messages or news to neighbors.

Then came the phone, and it's hard to know how many people use Silbo these days.

"A lot of people think they do, but there is a very small group who can truly communicate through Silbo and understand Silbo," said Manuel Carreiras, a psychology professor from the island of Tenerife. He specializes in how the brain processes language and has studied Silbo.

Since 1999, Silbo has been a required language in La Gomera's elementary schools. Some 3,000 students are studying it 25 minutes a week" enough to teach the basics, said Eugenio Darias, a Silbo teacher and director of the island's Silbo program.

"There are few really good silbadores so far, but lots of students are learning to use it and understand it," he said. "We've been very pleased."

But almost as important as speaking, sorry, whistling Silbo is studying where it came from, and little is known. "Silbo is the most important pre-Hispanic cultural heritage we have," said Moises Plasencia, the director of the Canary government's historical heritage department.

It might seem appropriate for a language that sounds like birdsong to exist in the Canary Islands, but scholarly theories as to how the archipelago got its name make no mention of whistling. [In fact, its name means the “Doggy Islands” - ed.]

Little is known about Silbo's origins, but an important step toward recovering the language was the First International Congress of Whistled Languages, held in April in La Gomera. The congress, which will be repeated in 2005, brought together experts on various whistled languages.

Silbo-like whistling has been found in pockets of Greece, Turkey, China and Mexico, but none is as developed as Silbo Gomero, Plasencia said.

One study is looking for vestiges of Silbo in Venezuela, Cuba and Texas, all places to which Gomerans have historically emigrated during hard economic times.

Now, Plasencia is heading an effort to have UNESCO declare it an "intangible cultural heritage" and support efforts to save it. "Silbo is so unique and has many values: historical, linguistic, anthropological and aesthetic. It fits perfectly with UNESCO's requirements," he said.

Besides, says Cabello, it's good for just about anything except for romance: "Everyone on the island would hear what you're saying!"