Foundation for Endangered Languages

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2. Endangered Languages in the News

BBC: In defence of 'lost' languages
19 January 2005
Duncan Walker, BBC News

Of the 6,000-odd languages in the world, one is said to disappear every fortnight. Should the English-speaking world care?

Somewhere on the remote Timor Sea coast of north Australia lives Patrick Nudjulu, one of three remaining speakers of Mati Ke. It is problem enough that one of the other speakers doesn't live nearby and speaks a slightly different dialect. But the 60-year-old Aborigine also has to cope with the fact the other speaker is his sister - who traditional culture has forbidden him from speaking to since puberty. Patrick's language then, is almost certainly going to die out. It's not the only one.

The problem is repeated to various degrees in practically every country, with dialects vanishing under the weight of major languages like English, says the writer Mark Abley. It was 10 years ago that Mr Abley's interest in these disappearing dialects was sparked by an elderly woman in Quebec, Canada, trying to teach Abenaki to other members of her native American community.

WORDS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED Coghal - big lump of dead flesh after a wound is opened (Manx) Tkhetsikhe'tenhawihtennihs - I am bringing sugar to somebody (Mohawk - Canada and USA) Puijilittatuq - he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface (Inuktitut - Canadian Arctic) Tl'imshya'isita'itlma - He invites people to a feast (Nootka - Canada)

"I thought it was poignant and pathetic," says Mr Abley. "But I later realised it was also very interesting that she had the passion to do everything she could to revive her language."

Movies, computer games, music and TV shows do not get made in minority languages and so the dialects start to become the preserve of the old, says the author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. "One of the main things that's happening is that young people all over the world are being exposed to 21st Century culture, which is very often arriving in the form of English," he says.

That languages occasionally disappear is nothing new. Some 200 years ago the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt stumbled upon the village of Maypures, near the Orinoco river, in what's now Venezuela.

MORE WORDS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED Onsra - to love for the last time (Boro - NE India and Bangladesh) Sjonvarp - television (Faroese - a language in good health) Nartutaka - small plum-like fruit for which there is no English word (Wangkajunga, central Australia) Th'alatel - a device for the heart (Halkomelem, Canada)

While there he heard a parrot speaking and asked the villagers what it was saying. None knew since the parrot spoke Atures and was its last native speaker.

But such changes - whether they are caused by war, famine, marriage or mass media - should not mean the loss of dialects is acceptable, says Mr Abley. English and other major languages, while often acting as a democratising force, do not always reflect the breadth of meaning in the language they supersede. The Inuit language of Inuktitut, for example, has many verbs for the word "know", ranging from "utsimavaa" - meaning he or she knows from experience to "nalunaiqpaa" - he or she is no longer unaware of something. "The point is that it's not just picturesque details that are lost if a language dies out, it's also a whole way of understanding human experience."

Most attempts to revive threatened languages flounder, but they can succeed - particularly if they become a part of popular culture. Think Lisa Simpson and her recent flag-waving on behalf of Cornish and the teaching of Manx in Isle of Man schools. But it is Welsh that stands out as a "great example", with popular TV soap operas made in the language and bands like Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci recording in it. There's even been a pornographic novel written entirely in Welsh. "That's all for the good because it means the language is flourishing," says Mr Abley.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2005/01/19 10:39:39 GMT

Language intergroup to work more closely with the council of Europe 17 January 2005
Strasbourg, Simone Klinge

The new European Parliament Intergroup for National Minorities, Constitutional Regions and Regional Languages, met in Strasbourg on Thursday with representatives from the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML) to hear an update on progress with the Charter and to exchange views on its capabilities. The Intergroup and the Council of Europe’s ECRML Secretariat agreed to work more closely together.

Center Works to Preserve Yiddish a Book at a Time 19 January 2005
Michael Powell, Washington Post

AMHERST, Mass. History arrived not so long ago in a thousand-pound crate postmarked “Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.” Workers here wrestled the crate inside the National Yiddish Book Center and opened it. What treasures they found: Yiddish travelogues from Belgian Congo, accounts of Yiddish ostrich farmers, a famous history of the Russian Socialist Party. The last synagogue in Bulawayo, a tree-lined city on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, was closing its doors, and a rabbi packed this crate and mailed it to the Center with no notice. “You have no clue, none, what you’ll find when you open these boxes up,” said Aaron Lansky, the Yiddish Book Center’s founder and chief zamler (a person who gathers scattered things). He pulled out a history book and turned the pages. Yellowed parchment flecked off like sand. “It’s our lost history,” Lansky said, “literally crumbling in our hands.”

Lansky has created the world’s greatest repository of books in a language spoken and written by 11 million of the world’s Jews until the 1940s, when the Holocaust nearly consumed that culture. The Center, modelled on an Eastern European shtetl and set in an apple orchard at Hampshire College, houses 120,000 Yiddish titles. Another million or so volumes sit in an old silk mill in Holyoke, where the weight of so much literature causes the support beams to bend: and still the books arrive, 100 on Monday, another 500 on Thursday. “Early on, I found myself interested less in the details of the Holocaust than by this question: So who were these Jews they wanted to murder? What was this culture they wanted to destroy? Lansky said. “I discovered in Yiddish the language by which Jews made sense of the modern world.”

Enlisting hundreds of volunteer zamlers – many of them Holocaust survivors – Lansky has passed a quarter-century ferreting out Yiddish novels in attics and cellars in the Bronx and Cleveland, discovering musical score sheets in a garage in Borough Park and stacks of histories in abandoned bookstores on New York’s Lower East Side. In 1981, he discovered a dumpster filled with Yiddish books: history’s dustbin come to life. He and friends conducted a Perils of Pauline night time rescue, with a U-Haul van and a dozen friends forming a de facto bucket brigade to load the books of Zionist theory, memoirs and Yiddish translations of the Torah before the rain ruined them.

“Half of our books have come from New York City, but we have our surprises,” he said. Lansky has hopped secret flights to Cuba to rescue books from a synagogue and sifted through volumes left in a San Francisco carriage by a socialist, Yiddish chicken-farming commune in Petaluma. He’s taken receipt of Yiddish books from Nome, Alaska, and with the help of movie producer and director, Steven Spielberg, his Center is turning the collection digital.

Not for nothing did he title his memoir Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. There is a boyish quality to the 49-year-old man with the blue eyes, wire-rimmed glasses and dishevelled hair. “When I began I consulted with academic experts and they said, ‘Oh, there’s about 70,000 Yiddish books in the nation,’” Lansky said. “Now I have 1.5 million books.”

Yiddish, as such things go, is a relatively young language, formed around the 10th century from a linguistic bouillabaisse of Aramaic, German, French, Italian, Hebrew, Belarusian and Ukrainian. “It was spoken by more Jews than any language in history,” said Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard University, who taught Lansky in the 1970s.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Yiddish had become the conduit by which Jewish peddlers and merchants introduced the Enlightenment to the East – from Poland to Hungary and Bulgaria and Russia. Jewish intellectuals responded to this ferment by writing in Hebrew, the language of scholars. But there was a problem. “It was like writing in Latin. No one understood them,” Lansky said. “They turned to Yiddish as a necessary evil.”

The first modern Yiddish novel was written in 1864. Then a sort of cultural combustion occurred: The great masters of Yiddish literature, Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, Moyshe Kulbak and H. Leivick, began turning out novels and poems and plays that played with memory and surrealism and sex and modernity.

“The power, the velocity, of this literature was astonishing,” Lansky said. Israel promoted Hebrew over Yiddish, which was the language of exile. In the United States, assimilation took its toll on the language. Only the Hasidim, the ultra-orthodox, speak Yiddish any longer. And they will not touch Yiddish literature, which they consider worldly, and sexualized, and therefore treyf (impure).

The Yiddish modernists wound up marooned. Lansky recalls how the elderly editor of the avant-garde magazine, Zayn, handed him the old copies and turned away. “I could not possibly understand what he felt,” he said. “It’s the ultimate tragedy of their lives that they had helped create modern culture and now their children literally could not understand their language.” Lansky was no different. He grew up in New Bedford, Mass., hearing Yiddish without quite understanding it. “My parents spoke Yiddish as a language of secrets,” he said. He came to Hampshire College in the 1970s and took a course in the Holocaust and another in Yiddish and somewhere the hook slipped in. “I remember our Yiddish professor yelling at us: ‘Just because your grandmother spoke it doesn’t mean you’ll Learn it by osmosis,’” he said.

Only in time did Lansky realize that his collecting was as much about saving a generation’s memory as about their books. In July 1980, he received a letter from an 87-year-old. “I have books . . . [but] I am a very old man and I’m afraid that after I will be gone they may throw them in the trash. Please do help me out. Respectfully, Norman Temmelman.” Lansky drove to Atlantic City and found Temmelman in a fifth-floor apartment, a place piled high with boxes of Yiddish books. Temmelman showed him the poetry books that he had shared with his wife, and yellowed accounts of the history of interwar Europe. “It became clear to me that he was handing me an inheritance, his yerushe,” Lansky said. “I was his hope.”

For a decade, Lansky worked 15-hour days, travelling constantly, making calls from graffiti-covered phone booths, climbing tenement stairs, reaching under beds and into closets for those books. In 1997, he scraped together the $7 million needed to build the Center. Arranged as sort of post-modern shtetl, it has a museum and the digitalization program and visiting scholars. He used money from a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1989 to pay himself a steady salary for the first time in his life. Now he has the aches: his knees, like those of any good schlepper, are going on him. And there’s the modest salary and pension. Talk of this and Lansky shakes his head. “Eh! Not for a second did I ever think I was living in poverty,” Lansky said. “My work has meaning; I’ve been blessed.”

Watchdog to investigate ‘only 7% Welsh language’ radio station
1 February 2005
Martin Shipton, Western Mail

THE row over Welsh language radio in West Wales has taken a new twist, with Radio Carmarthenshire to face a new inquiry over its use of Welsh. An investigation by S4C current affairs programme, Y Byd ar Bedwar, has revealed only 7% of Radio Carmarthenshire’s output is in Welsh, highlighting serious doubt over their commitment to the language. Broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, has announced it will investigate the programme findings.

Following protests about the lack of Welsh content on Radio Carmarthenshire, Ofcom issued a yellow card warning to the station last October. The warning was lifted in December, when Ofcom found several changes had been made by the radio station. Now following the new S4C research, Welsh language campaigners have criticised Ofcom’s readiness to give the station a clean bill of health.

When Radio Carmarthenshire made their initial application for a licence they had indicated that 30% of their output would be in Welsh. Three weeks ago Y Byd ar Bedwar monitored the station for 24 hours and found that 93% of the speech content was in English, with only 7% in Welsh.

Preservation of ethnic minority languages urged on China 2005-04-29 09:33:59

BEIJING, April 29 -- Scholars from some famous universities in the mainland and Hong Kong have called for measures to preserve China's ethnic minority languages, at a seminar held in Guangzhou on the language and culture of ethnic minority groups.

Experts say many of China's 120 minority languages face extinction due to under-use as society is dominated by the Mandarin language. They say it is the nation's obligation to record and preserve them as cultural treasures.

Their suggestions included the use audio and video equipments as means of preservation.