Foundation for Endangered Languages
3. Endangered Languages in the News
Local MP swears oath in Cornish
May 12, 2005
An MP from Cornwall has used the Cornish language during the swearing of allegiance to the Queen in Parliament.
The St Ives MP, Andrew George, has fought a long campaign to get the language officially recognized. As a result of the campaign, in 2002, the European Union granted Cornish official "minority language" status. In 1997 Mr. George became the first MP to use the Cornish language in the Commons as part of his maiden speech.
The swearing-in must be done before an MP can take their seat. It reads: "I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."
In Cornish, that translates as: "Me a le gans Dew Ollgallojak del vedhaf len ha perthy omryans gwyr dhe hy braster an vyternes elisabet, hy Erys ha Sewyoryon, herwyth an laha. Ytho Dew re'm gweressa."
Speaking after the ceremony, Mr. George said: "Although we acknowledge that there are few speakers of the language, there is symbolism in using a tongue which has been widely spoken during the lifetime of our Parliamentary democracy. "It is right that we should both recognize and celebrate the diversity of cultures, languages and histories of the country in the Houses of Parliament. "This small but significant action helps to put Cornwall on the map for the right reasons."
All MPs are obliged to first swear the oath - or affirm their allegiance - in English but some choose to repeat it in Welsh or Gaelic as well. Labour's Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) and Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire) were among those who proclaimed their loyalty in Welsh.
BBC NEWS, 2005/05/12:
Spelling Row could see Cornish Go West
The government money is on the table and the political will in Whitehall and Europe is apparently growing to help Cornish speakers turn their native tongue into a viable, living language. But there is one stumbling block: Cornish speakers cannot agree on how their language should be spelt.
Three main groups who have driven forward the revival of Cornish are at loggerheads over how the language should be written. The issue has become so divisive that yesterday two of the groups called for an independent panel of linguists to be appointed to referee the row.
A conference is being organised in September at which the warring factions will again try to agree on how Cornish - or, depending on your fancy, Kernewek, Kernowek, Kernuak or Curnoack - should be spelt. Until a single system is agreed, it will be difficult to launch a credible language programme across Cornwall. Disputes over issues such as road signs and place names will also continue to slow the spread of the language.
Last month the government announced that it would fund the language by up to £80,000 a year for three years - but the worry is that the cash flow will dry up if agreement over spelling cannot be found.
Paul Dunbar, a director of a Cornish bookshop in Liskeard which stocks dictionaries, Bibles and children's books in one version of Cornish, said the development of the language was important at a time when many local people argue that they should have more independence from England.
"The language has tremendous importance for Cornwall," Mr Dunbar said. "It's an icon of identity. It's the one thing that is uniquely, undeniably Cornish." He expressed frustration that the spelling problem was holding the language back: "There's certainly more heat than light in the debate." His feelings about the champions of rival systems? "It varies from murderous to totally pissed off."
The revival of Cornish began to gather pace in the 1920s when a version which came to be known as Unified Cornish was reconstructed using language found in medieval miracle plays and borrowing from related Celtic tongues such as Welsh and Breton. Forty years ago, as interest grew, the Cornish Language Board was formed. Some members felt Unified Cornish was inaccurate and came up with a new system, with different spellings, Common Cornish. In the mid 1980s, another splinter group set up the Cornish Language Council and championed a third system, Modern Cornish, based not on medieval manuscripts but the way the language was last spoken in the 1700s.
The row over whose system was best began in earnest. It has not yet come to blows, but the quality of debate has not always been scholarly. The factions understand each other when they speak Cornish, but do not seem to comprehend why their rival groups insist that their spelling system is correct.
Ray Chubb, secretary of Agan Tavas (Our Language) which supports Unified Cornish and an updated version of it called Unified Cornish Revised, accused the supporters of Modern Cornish of "mucking around with historical sources" and claimed that Common Cornish speakers had the arrogant attitude that their system was perfect.
George Ansell, a supporter of Common Cornish, said that version was easiest to teach. "If people can't agree, it will become a Darwinian situation - the survival of the fittest." Mr Ansell, who chairs a language strategy group set up by Cornwall county council, said the debate often became overly personal. "People have invested a lot of time and effort in the various forms and do not like to see their work challenged."
It is nigh on impossible to judge which group is best placed to survive, as nobody agrees on how many people use each version. In all, it is thought that several hundred people speak Cornish reasonably fluently and a few thousand have some knowledge of it. Two secondary schools and a handful of primary schools have begun to teach Cornish.
Neil Kennedy, who is in the Modern Cornish camp, said: "It may sound absurd that a language which not many people speak has several different spellings, but that is what we face. We have to find a way of working together to sort it out."
The groups supporting Modern and Unified Cornish issued a statement yesterday saying that there was a "historic" opportunity for the movement to build a "thriving Cornish language", and called for an independent advisory panel.
Professor Philip Payton, director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, said the dispute threatened long-term support from Westminster. "Some sort of agreement is necessary. Otherwise it gets confusing at best and at worst faintly ridiculous."
Origins in history of Celtic Britain
In 1935, listeners to the BBC were puzzled but interested by a music programme from Plymouth. When the BBC explained that the St Austell choir was singing in Cornish, it was bombarded by requests to know more. Even the Cornish seemed to have forgotten about their historic tongue.
Cornish is a direct descendent of the language spoken by Celts who settled in Britain before the Roman conquest. As Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Norman invaders confined the Celts to Cornwall (as well as Wales, Scotland and Ireland), the language developed regional dialects. By the 9th century, certainly, there is concrete evidence of a distinctive language in Cornwall, and it is believed that by 1200 it was spoken by most of its people. But simultaneously, use of English was spreading into the east of Cornwall; the Reformation sped up the decline when Edward VI decreed that the Book of Common Prayer be used in Cornish churches; rebellions by the Cornish were put down. By the start of the 17th century there were few monoglot speakers left, mostly in the far west. The reputed last one, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777. Bilingual speakers could be found until the late 19th century, but the region's sinking economic fortunes were mirrored by its language's continued decline.
Asked why the Cornish should learn Kernewek, the father of the revival movement, Henry Jenner (1848-1934), had a simple answer: "Because they are Cornish."
Nheengatú, first language of Portuguese Brazil, rising again
(Based on material Larry Rohter's article in the New York Times, 28 August 2005, with historical corrections and clarifications from the editor Nicholas Ostler.)
When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil five centuries ago, they found a language known as Tupinambá already widespread as a lingua franca among more than 700 language-communities in what became the territory of Brazil. With an admixture of Portuguese and African words, Tupinambá became their língua geral, or "general language".
In 18th-century Brazil, changing views of Portugal's imperial role, together with a collapse in support for Jesuit missions, led to the promotion of Portuguese, and the banning of the língua geral, which largely died out. But in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a remote and neglected corner of the Amazon where Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela meet, the language has not only managed to survive, it has made a comeback in recent years.
"Linguists talk of moribund languages that are going to die, but this is one that is being revitalized by new blood," said José Ribamar Bessa Freire, author of Rio Babel: a História das Línguas na Amazônia and a native of the region. "Though originally brought to the Amazon to make the colonial process viable, tribes that have lost their own mother tongue are now taking refuge in língua geral and making it an element of their identity," he said.
Two years ago, in fact, Nheengatú, as the 30,000 or so speakers of língua geral now call their language, reached a milestone. By vote of the local council, São Gabriel da Cachoeira became the only municipality in Brazil to recognize a language other than Portuguese as official, conferring that status on língua geral and two local Indian tongues.
As a result, Nheengatú, which means "good talk," is now a language that is permitted to be taught in local schools, spoken in courts and used in government documents. People who can speak língua geral have seen their value on the job market rise and are now being hired as interpreters, teachers and public health aides.
In its colonial heyday, língua geral was spoken not just throughout the Amazon but as far south as the Paraná River basin, more than 2,000 miles from here. Tupinambá is a close relative of the Guaraní language, which still enjoys official status in Paraguay in the far south.
It lingered in the Amazon after Brazil achieved independence in 1822, but was weakened by decades of migration of peasants from north-east Brazil to work on rubber and jute plantations and other commercial enterprises.
The survival of Nheengatú has been aided by the profusion of tongues in the Upper Rio Negro, which complicates communication among tribes; it is a long-held custom of some tribes to require members to marry outside their own language group. By the count of linguists, 23 languages, belonging to six families, are spoken in this region.
"This is the most plurilingual region in all of the Americas," said Gilvan Muller de Oliveira, director of the Institute for the Investigation and Development of Linguistic Policy, a private, nonprofit group that has an office here. "Not even Oaxaca in Mexico can offer such diversity."
But the persistence and evolution of Nheengatú is marked by contradictions. For one thing, none of the indigenous groups that account for more than 90% of the local population belong to the Tupí group that supplied língua geral with most of its original vocabulary and grammar.
"Nheengatú came to us as the language of the conqueror," explained Renato da Silva Matos, a leader of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro. "It made the original languages die out." But in modern times, the language acquired a very different significance. As the dominion of Portuguese advanced and those who originally brought the language instead sought its extinction, Nheengatú became "a mechanism of ethnic, cultural and linguistic resistance," said Persida Miki, a professor of education at the Federal University of Amazonas.
Even young speakers of língua geral can recall efforts in their childhood to discourage the language. Until the late 1980's, Indian parents who wanted an education for their children often sent them away to boarding schools run by the Salesian order of priests and nuns, who were particularly harsh with pupils who showed signs of clinging to their native tongue.
"Our parents were allowed to visit us once a month, and if we didn't speak to them in Portuguese, we'd be punished by being denied lunch or sent to sit in a corner," said Edilson Kadawawari Martins, 36, a Baniwa Indian leader who spent eight years as a boarder. "In the classroom it was the same thing: if you spoke Nheengatú, they would hit your palms with a brazilwood paddle or order you to get on your knees and face the class for 15 minutes."
Celina Menezes da Cruz, a 48-year-old Baré Indian, has similar memories. But for the past two years, she has been teaching Nheengatú to pupils from half a dozen tribes at the Dom Miguel Alagna elementary school here.
"I feel good doing this, especially when I think of what I had to go through when I was the age of my students," she said. "It is important not to let the language of our fathers die."
To help relieve a shortage of qualified língua geral teachers, a training course for 54 instructors began last month. Unicef is providing money to discuss other ways to carry out the law making the language official, and advocates hope to open an Indigenous University here soon, with courses in Nheengatú.
And though língua geral was given its currency by Roman Catholic priests, modern evangelical Protestant denominations have been quick to embrace it as a means to propagate their faith. At a service at an Assembly of God church here on a steamy Sunday night this month, indigenous people from half a dozen tribes sang and prayed and preached in língua geral as their pastor, who spoke only Portuguese, looked on approvingly and called out "Hallelujah!"
But a few here have not been pleased to see the resurgence of língua geral. After a local radio station began broadcasting programs in the language, some officers in the local military garrison, responsible for policing hundreds of miles of permeable frontier, objected on the ground that Brazilian law forbade transmissions in "foreign" languages.
"The military, with their outdated notion of national security, have tended to see língua geral as a threat to national security," Mr. Muller de Oliveira said. "Língua geral may be a language in retreat, but the idea that it somehow menaces the dominance of Portuguese and thus the unity of the nation still persists and has respectability among some segments of the armed forces."
milaythina nika milaythina-mana - Rebirth of Tasmanian language
NEW life has been breathed into the Tasmanian Aboriginal language. After more than five years' research and analysis, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has given the Tasmanian community a glimpse of its language, known as palawa kani.
The language has been used on interpretation boards on the summit of Mt Wellington, or kunanyi as the mountain is known to Aborigines. One panel states, milaythina nika milaythina-mana: "This land is our country".
In the late 1990s, the TAC embarked on a bold attempt to rejuvenate an Aboriginal language. Researchers scanned historical references, including journals of the d'Entrecasteaux expedition. There were thought to be a dozen or more Aboriginal languages in Tasmania and even more dialects. The language program has produced an amalgam of the languages.
TAC spokeswoman Trudy Maluga said the Aboriginal community decided to release parts of the new language only when it benefited the Aboriginal community.
"We have taken ownership of our language," Ms Maluga said. "This is a way of beating assimilation." Ms Maluga said many within the Aboriginal community could speak palawa kani fluently.
Many Tasmanian towns feature Aboriginal names including Murdunna, Taroona, Teepookana and Nubeena.
Breakthrough in EU status for ‘official’ lesser-used languages
Brussels 14 June 2005: Davyth Hicks
Following the Spanish proposal of December 2004, the European Council of Foreign Ministers decided yesterday in Luxembourg to allow the usage of all official lesser-used languages in European institutions. The decision stands as a Council ‘conclusion’ and marks a breakthrough in status for many of Europe’s lesser-used languages. It means that they can be used at Council meetings, by the Commission, that legislation will be translated into the lesser-used language, and that speakers can write using their own language to EU institutions.
The decision also paves the way for the languages to be used in the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions. For languages such as Catalan this will be quite straightforward as many of the Spanish state interpreters speak Catalan as well.
The move stops short of giving these languages Treaty status, previously accorded to Irish, as campaigned for by the Catalans and Basques. While EU legislation will be translated into these languages, in contrast to Treaty status, it will not have legal value. Under the agreement, citizens writing to the EU institutions will receive a reply in their own language as well as in the official state language. Costs will be met by the member state concerned.
Two further shortfalls are that only languages that have some official status in their member state can have this provision. The Council conclusions state that it is those "whose status is recognized by the Constitution of a Member State on whole or part of its territory or whose use as a national language is authorized by the law."
In addition, it is entirely up to the member state to decide whether or not to implement the new provisions. Therefore, languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Welsh having official status in part of the UK should benefit, while Breton, Occitan and Corsican, unless France changes its current policy, will be completely left out.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos called the decision "an important step in the acknowledgement of the multiculturalism and linguistic diversity".
In contrast Catalan MEP Bernat Joan (EFA) described the move as "a very small step – but not enough".
The Council conclusions continue that, "within the framework of the efforts made to bring the Union closer to all of its citizens, the richness of its linguistic diversity must be taken into account more. The Council estimates that the possibility for citizens to use additional languages in their relationships to the institutions is a significant factor to reinforce their identification with the political project of the European Union." A timely comment considering the recent ‘No’ votes against the constitution.
The new linguistic landscape following the Council decision throws up some interesting possibilities. For example, when the new provisions are implemented in the European Parliament a Basque or Catalan-speaking French MEP will be able to avail themselves of the new translating facilities even though their member state, France, has given no formal agreement.
In France’s case greater pressure now arises for this state to recognise all of its ‘regional’ languages considering that some of them, Catalan and Basque, are co-official in Spain and can now be used in the EU institutions. It will appear highly discriminatory to say the least not to afford access to the new linguistic rules for France’s other ‘regional’ languages such as Occitan, Corsican and Breton.
Significantly the Luxembourg text makes no mention of the Lingua programme being accessible to Catalan, Basque and Galician (or any other languages), which was originally specified in the Spanish text. On this point Catalan academic Miquel Strubell told Eurolang that : "There are still hopes in Catalonia that the agreement signed between Andorra and the European Commission in the autumn of 2004 will provide the way forward for Catalan in the context of Lingua. Basque and Galician, though, can hardly benefit from Andorra's position, of course." (Eurolang © 2005) ,
Now you're talking . . . Nyungar and Pitjantjatjara
Victoria Laurie, The Australian 12 Sep 2005
A city audience is invited to learn a Central Australian language in order to fully appreciate a theatrical production. The staff of a leading arts festival sign up for lessons in a southwest Aboriginal language. An Aboriginal linguist is asked to turn actors' lines into an indigenous language from regional Victoria. Is "language" gaining favour in Australia's cultural circles? And does it move beyond token interest into a real conversation between black and white Australia? Lindy Hume, artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival, thinks it can. For several months, she and her staff have taken lessons in the southwest Aboriginal language of Nyungar. During last week's launch of indigenous highlights of her 2006 festival, she put a few words of her newly acquired vocabulary to use.
When Perth's festival begins next February, its centrepiece will be Ngallak Koort Boodja, a large canvas painted by six artists who are among 90 Nyungar elders consulted by the festival. Hume mocks her own tongue-tied attempts at speaking Nyungar, but believes that even a tiny smattering is a proper basis for dialogue with Western Australia's southwest indigenous culture. "For one thing, it's incredibly long overdue," says Hume. "This festival has been sitting on Nyungar land for over 50 years and we haven't ever done something like this. So it's something that needed to happen. Who are these people around us now and how do they perceive their relationship to country?"
Speaking "language" is being embraced in the arts, and no longer in purely symbolic ways. Welcome-to-country ceremonies are now an accepted gesture at many cultural and government events. And indigenous language has long featured in music and visual arts in song lyrics, on canvas and in bilingual catalogues. But even the 20 most robust indigenous languages - out of an original 250 - have made little mark on Australia's cultural scene, perhaps unsurprising in a country that spends eight times more on educating children to speak Indonesian than Aboriginal languages in schools.
Now decades of indifference may be ending. Rolf de Heer's forthcoming Ten Canoes is the first Australian film to be made entirely in an Aboriginal language. And in Walkabout, a recent stage version of the famous 1971 film, director Richard Frankland sought out linguists to translate an actor's lines into the Gunditjmara language of southwestern Victoria. But a far more ambitious idea is to co-opt an entire theatre audience into taking a short course in Pitjantjatjara language. This is the aim of Ngapartji Ngapartji, an emerging work that will be staged in pilot form at the Melbourne Festival in October. Created by indigenous West Australian performer Trevor Jamieson and director Scott Rankin, the show is billed as an attempt "to help protect, preserve and share an endangered indigenous language".
"There is no national indigenous language policy and that is a kind of cultural genocide," says Rankin, adding that Australia is home to "the most fragile" languages in the world. "We should be aghast at the way we're letting languages go." Ngapartji Ngapartji's audience members will be invited to take a series of language lessons via the web, or in person through a language kiosk set up at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Over five nights of a trial season, they will attend a short performance by Pitjantjatjara young people and elders; next year, the performances will be extended to a two-hour show, by which time Rankin hopes the audience will have opted to participate in a longer online language course. He is thrilled that this October's festival shows have already sold out: "It shows there's a definite interest out there."
Cynics might query the point of middle-class white Australians tackling a desert language. "It's a desire to add to one's own life experience; one could say it's selfish, but I think it's healthy," Rankin says. The Perth festival's close partnership with Nyungar elders has been a life-changing experience for general manager Wendy Wise. "I grew up in Nyungar country on a farm, and during those years I had absolutely no knowledge of the culture. Aboriginal people - I didn't even know the word Nyungar - lived out of town on a reserve, but I didn't know why.
"This project has made me look at the whole community in a completely different way. It's more unified than people give them credit for, and the fact that we're trying to learn Nyungar is a really important thing." Almost any well-meaning use of language seems acceptable to indigenous speakers. Events manager Sarah Bond was contacted early this year by Melbourne's Moomba Waterfest to provide original music in an indigenous language to accompany a gymnastics float. She happily obliged, ushering Walkabout director-songwriter Frankland and indigenous speaker Joy Murphy into a studio to record a song in Murphy's Woiwurrung language. Bond says her only non-negotiable rule was that a key participant in any project comes from the language group concerned.
Her next aim is to invite indigenous artists from across the nation to translate into their own languages a single English verse from popular songs such as We Have Survived by No Fixed Address and Shane Howard's Solid Rock. Linguistic expertise is increasingly being sought by arts agencies. In Victoria, they knock on the door of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, set up in 1984 to maintain and promote Aboriginal language. "Quite often we are asked to give an indigenous name to a project," says manager Paul Paton. He says Arts Victoria, Ausdance and the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Assocation recently asked for help in naming a new training program for indigenous dancers.
"We'll come up with [several language] options and refer them to the particular communities to endorse the use of their language," says Paton. "Sometimes it doesn't get the go-ahead." Paton strongly rejects the notion that merely naming something is a trivial use of Aboriginal words. "It stimulates the use of language every time anyone talks about the project. It becomes more everyday in its use." Vicki Couzens is a VACL board member, artist and community language worker from the Western District of Victoria. Her native language, Keerray Wurrong, was nearly silenced forever until last-minute efforts revived it. "We had no living speakers, only a tape in Canberra," she recalls of the language's lowest moment. "We referred to it as a 'sleeping' language, not a dead one. Dad researched and retrieved it and had it published into a dictionary."
These days Couzens titles all her paintings in Keerray Wurrong; she swaps phone calls and email messages in the language with a linguist cousin. "If I learn a new word, I think, 'This'll challenge him'," she says gleefully. "His son is four and is being raised bilingual, so I've got to get my grandkids bilingual." Couzens found language sharing linked up indigenous, migrant and refugee women in a weaving project she and another artist ran in the southwest Victorian town of Warrnambool. "I'd say, 'What's your word for basket?' and we'd weave the words with the fibres into the baskets." The result, an exhibition called Woven Land, was so striking that Craft Victoria transferred the regional exhibition to Melbourne in May.
Couzens is now involved in a project for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. "It will acknowledge the 36 languages remaining in Victoria and give them some involvement," she says. "Aboriginal people are taking back control of their language. Language is central to identity and culture and relationship. It's about strengthening the people."