Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. An Out-of-season Fruit or the Makings of Bibles?

Three meetings: Linguistic & Cultural Diversity (Icelandic Government: Reykjavik), Language Documentation (Linguistic Society of America: Harvard), The World’s Indigenous Languages (Canadian Government: Aichi)

Nowadays, there seems to be a profusion of meetings that emphasize the value of the diversity among the world’s languages, and try to arrive at some policy response to language endangerment. I am certainly privileged in my access to these meetings, and you – dear reader – are kind enough to pay a subscription to be kept informed of how these issues are shaping up. The result is is something of an obligation on me to make some sense of all these discussions, and let you all know what is being said, what is being thought, what is being planned.

Since the last issue of Ogmios was written, I have attended an invitational workshop in Reykjavik to honour ex-president Vigdís Finnbogadottir with a meditation on Linguistic & Cultural Diversity, within a programme of five concurrent conferences on the theme of Dialogue of Cultures – this is how ex-presidents are honoured (14-15 April); an open (but well-focused) conference on Language Documentation – Theory, Practice and Values, within the vaster framework of a two-month-long Linguistic Institute summer school in Cambridge, Massachusetts (9-10 July); and an International Symposium on the World’s Indigenous Languages, organized as a cultural event in the Canadian Pavilion at the World Exposition EXPO 2005, where the overall theme was The Wisdom of Diversity (9-11 August).

They provided three different perspectives on this common global predicament.

The Icelandic meeting ( ) attempted to provide some guidance to diversity and language history in each different continent, with a background question: what to make of Iceland’s experience, where an admittedly small language community has managed to maintain some control over its destiny, resisting outside influence and apparently even linguistic change? Can this be reconciled, or even become a model, for communities that typically have to share their national governments with many other languages, and must in practice seek survival amidst a profusion of change and external pressures?

The American meeting ( ) was an orderly attempt to address six aspects of documentation, on the presumption that “the quality of documentation available for an endangered language can determine the success of its revitalisation”. So it tried to tell attendees the requirements of field training, the concerns of heritage communities, the kind of documentation that is adequate, the uses that have been made of the documents in communities, the role of field linguistics in linguistic careers and the ethics and practical guidelines for archiving. None of these could be treated exhaustively, of course. But there was a sense of ‘covering the ground’.

The Canadian meeting ( ) was less intellectual and policy-oriented, more aimed at building contacts among activists in different language communities. As such it brought together not just a range of Canadian and Japanese aboriginal language activists, but also language workers from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and southern Africa. There was no way in which such a meeting could be considered exhaustive, it did endeavour to construct a dialogue among the community workers and less locally rooted people such as government civil servants, writer-journalists and linguists (such as me).

* * *

At Reykjavik, amid much learned recounting of the language situation on different continents, it was interesting to see the uneasiness of many linguists in the face of the rather straightforward – and apparently successful – long-term policy of language purism pursued in Iceland. For whatever reason, there was little linguistic change in Iceland throughout the 2nd millennium AD, and they don’t intend to start encouraging it now. But small languages above all, David Crystal felt, must avoid prescriptive attitudes, which set one generation against another and may put youth off the language all together: this was symbolized by the plight of the Welsh pop group Manic Street Preachers, who in 27 Sept. 1998 tried to advertise their album This is My Truth - Tell Me Yours. in Welsh as Dyma'n ngwirionedd - Dwêd un ti., but were met with a putdown: “pidgin Welsh and grammatically incorrect ... It should be Dwêd dy un di.” The Icelanders in the audience, including the country’s President, and the Minister of Education, Science and Culture, seem to have remained unconvinced, even if they received more enthusiastically David’s somewhat whimsical suggestion that it was time for a new prize, for progress in linguistics, that might be named – after their ex-President (and now UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages) – the Vigdís.

Meanwhile Jens Allwood attempted to tease out some practical content for idea of Iceland as “Home of the World’s Languages”. He suggested that the ability to mobilize state resources behind a small language might be generalized symbolically: Iceland could act as a promoter of appropriate technology to back languages, such as globalized TV, solar energy panels to power education systems, mobile phones and a network of distributed databases, perhaps archived in Iceland too. Some of the responses served to emphasize how hard it is for any nation to attempt to lead, even in benignity, such a non-aligned movement as the endangered language communities of the world. But those developing corpus networks and language archives might like to remember that there is in Iceland an as yet unfulfilled desire to put out some effort – and perhaps some finance – for the benefit of such language work.

In Harvard, there was a far greater number of practising linguists, all looking for guidance – historical, ethnographic, practical, ethical – on how to record languages in a way that would benefit in the long-term both science and the language communities themselves. As might be expected, the answers on offer were extremely diverse, but this is inevitable in a field where, truly, “all human life is there”: scientific goals range from grammatical analysis to sociotherapy, and communities may want the data to inform simple language primers or intricate court cases on which their future livelihoods depend. It is amazing that the blessed trinity of “grammar, dictionary and text corpus” has proved so widely useful to linguists as a minimum requirement in documenting a language. Now that it is possible to record so much digitally, whether auditory or visual, without analysis, it is unsurprising that minimum requirements for adequacy of excellence are much less clear; it is easier to say simply that materials should varied, and they should be big.

Standards for ‘best practice’ are emerging (e.g. ), but in such a varied environment, all documenters are going to have to make some radical decisions on what aspects are of interest, and hence which are not, at least for their primary purposes. The scholars of today are finding that even the greatest documenters of yester-year left out some things that we should like to have had: Laura Buszard-Welcher pointed out that Charles Hockett had missed the conversational morphosyntax of the north-eastern American language Potawatomi, since he had only collected its narratives. It seems unlikely that we shall do much better.

The conference was followed by one of the major events of the Linguistic Institute, namely the Inaugural Ken Hale lecture on 10 July, given by three Australian linguists (and students of Ken) Mary Laughren, David Nash and Jane Simpson. The theme was “Let it emerge”: Ken Hale’s approach to field linguistics. Emotional – and musical – evocations of Ken by friends and family members were followed by recordings of his informant sessions, where the chief problem was to understand who was the linguist and who the informant in what seemed like a monolingual chat, and sometimes one Australian language was being examined through questions put in another, e.g. Warlmanpa and Warumungu through Warlpiri. It all showed an intellect channelled outward, to bring others' language consciousness to full flower. As well as these echoes of language life in Australia, there were tales and traces too of Ken’s enthusiasm for language recovery closer to home, when Jessie Little Doe told of Wampanoag revitalization since 1993, while dandling the first soon-to-be native speaker of the language for over 250 years on her knee. This had been the language of Eastern Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620.

A month later, at Aichi's Expo 2005 World Fair on the opposite side of the world, there was another reunion of enthusiasts for language revival among North America and Australia, but with noted representation from Japan, south Asia, the Pacific and southern Africa to boot. The effect of Ainu, Michif and Secwepemcin (Shuswap) prayers was to create an atmosphere of shared reverence in which each day’s contributions were pondered.

Here are some quotes from those three days: so many reactions to the plight of endangered languages:

“We don’t share our gods, or our mother: why should we share our language?”

“There’s been more effort to save the Florida manatee than the American Indian.”

“When the words of all people become one, that will be the end of the world.”

“If we lost our language, we should be taught another, but we’d crave for it sometimes, like an out-of-season fruit.” (Siraiki)

“We mustn’t expect people to hold down a day job, and then work on language transmission in the evenings, on their own time.”

“Success is a word only in the English language.” – violently opposed.

“Language death does not happen in privileged communities.”

“Artists are the true leaders, but they must be given space.”

He mana ko ka ‘olelo – “there’s power in the language”. (Hawai’ian)

“Language appropriation was a tool of conquest, turning our languages into Bibles.”

“Where’s the Government accountability for 200 years of low outcomes?”

“We don’t want our languages to be captives of schools.”

On the Californian Master-Apprentice program: “It really works; but you have to work it, to make it work.”

When I went through and became a fluent speaker of my language, it was the best gift I ever gave myself.”

“You need to show off who you are.”

“This is a new kind of pride, in forgetting one’s mother tongue.” (India)

“Our eldest son was murdered. It was so hard; we thought that he would carry on our work.” (Secwepemc, British Columbia)

On greeting Christopher Columbus: “One day they saw big old soap bubbles out at sea: the next day they were the ships.”

“Writing in Yiddish is an act of witness that the Nazis failed.”

“Firebombs distinguish the conceptions of Provençal and Occitan.”

“So much depends on the stories we tell.”

“Don’t just believe: announce it!”

“We have an obligation to the seventh generation, whose faces we see coming towards us.”

“Most of us don’t really know what we know; we’ve forgotten what we did with grandfather.”

Words of a louse: “Don’t crush me: I’m a grandmother.”

“Education in the mother-tongue may be the most effective remedy against extreme poverty.”