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3. Endangered Languages in the News

Changes proposed to Belarusian language

By David Marples
Monday, September 11, 2006

The newspaper Belarusy i rynok recently ran a series of articles on education, devoted first to the new school year, but second to proposed changes to orthography and punctuation in the Belarusian language. These new rules are anticipated to move from draft to law in short order, with little discussion among the public or among specialists in the Belarusian language.

The new school year began with a fanfare. President Alexander Lukashenka opened Palesky University in Pinsk and announced the future Belarusian State University of Information and Electronics -- a research and education complex that he maintained would be a Belarusian version of Harvard University. Meanwhile Belarusian students received instruction in their first lesson: "I live in Belarus and I am proud of it!" A new methodological concept elaborated by the Ministry of Education focuses on important monuments of Belarusian culture such as the Belaya Vezha forest, the medieval city of Polatsk, and the palace at Nesvizh, the ancestral home of the Radziwill family.

Under this façade of progress lies a stark picture: the closure of 580 schools over the past five years at a time when the number of pupils is rising after many years of decline: 92,301 children began Grade One in 2006, compared to 90,576 last year. Official figures from the Ministry of Education reveal that only 20.5% of students receive instruction in the Belarusian language. To protest against this situation, the new Russian version of the history of Belarus for Grade 10 students was symbolically destroyed in Minsk's Yakub Kolas Square by young protesters on September 1.

The same lamentable situation is reflected in the circulation of books, magazines, and newspapers. In 1999, 63.3% of books were published in Belarusian; by 2003 the figure was 48.4%. Only 10.5% of all single-circulation newspapers appear in the native language, and, from the perspective of Belarusian speakers, the situation deteriorates each year.

Language has long been seen as a political issue by the Lukashenka regime, which now appears ready to delve into the complex area of orthography. A new edition of the Regulations on Belarusian Orthography and Punctuation is in preparation. It is supported by Alexander A. Lukashanets, director of the Yakub Kolas Institute of Linguistics, who maintains that new rules are needed to reflect changes that have occurred over the past 50 years and to bring Belarusian orthography closer to the main principles of the language. Critics are in no doubt that this is a new move introduced by the regime to curtail further the use of the native language in Belarus.

At the core of the problem is the Belaruskaya hramatyka authored by Branislau Taraskievich in the late 1920s, which sought to systematize Belarusian orthography. The Belarusian Popular Front, for example, has always adhered to the Taraskievich orthography. Lukashanets argues that it is impossible to return to it as the "living language constantly changes and develops." In 1933, the Stalin regime began its repression of Belarusian intellectuals and introduced an academic, but Sovietized, version. The new rules were systematized in 1957 and a new publication, Rules of Belarusian Orthography and Punctuation, appeared in 1959. In January 1990 Belarusian was adopted as the state language of the republic, but progress was curtailed abruptly by the Lukashenka regime, which advanced Russian to the status of second state language through a referendum of May 1995, with 83.1% support among voters.

The latest draft on orthography appears to be the priority of the Ministry of Education, which is being advised by Viktar Ivchankau. There has been no public discussion of the amended version and the new rules have never been published. The head of the Belarusian Language Society, Aleh Trusau, for example, has not seen the new draft. Linguist Zmitser Sauka commented that the decision is absolutely unique, because previous reforms did not interfere with punctuation. In his view, the changes are political and they are being rushed through. Earlier discussion among linguists, led by former director of the Kolas Institute Alexander Padluzhny, had not reached a satisfactory conclusion. Ivchankau did not participate in this discussion, yet the new draft is being presented as part of the "Padluzhny Project."

Sauka notes that the more changes are introduced to language rules, the less such rules are used by the people, and the lower the number of students who will select Belarusian for their language examinations. Much of the Belarusian population speaks the mixed language --trasyanka-- of Belarusian, Russian, and words derived from Polish and Ukrainian. Without publication of the draft version it is impossible to discern precisely the import of the proposed changes. But Lukashenka has consistently elevated the Russian language, derided those who advocate linguistic purity as encapsulated in the Taraskievich Orthography, and embraced the changes to the orthography introduced in the Soviet period.

Thus the new draft appears to be the latest stage in the regime's assault on Belarusian language and culture, an integral part of nation building for any newly independent state. It highlights the irony of one of the new textbooks issued to first-year pupils on September 1: the third edition of Belarus: Our Motherland: A Gift from the President of the Republic of Belarus. According to the text, the word "president" must always be capitalized.

(Belarusy i rynok, September 4; Narodnaya volya, September 2; Statisticheskiy ezhegodnik 2004 [Minsk, 2004], p. 215; Nationalities Papers, December 1999)

How the Irish Invented Slang: The Bunkum of Bunkum (for Dizzy Gillespie)

By Daniel Cassidy
BUNKUM, al. bunk: Empty oratory; humbug, nonsense, tall tales. (OED)
Buanchumadh, (pron. buan'cumah), perpetual invention, endless composition (of a story, poem, or song), a long made-up story, fig. a shaggy dog tale.
Buan-, prefix, long-lasting, enduring, perpetual, endless.
Cumadh (pron. cumah), Vn., (act of) contriving, composing, inventing, making-up; a made-up story.
Níl ann ach cumadh, it is just a made-up story. (Ó Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, Irish-English Dictionary, 353)
If it were a very long made-up story, one would say in Irish: níl ann ach buanchumadh, it is just a "long, endless tale." A similar Irish compound, buanchuimhneach, means "(someone) having a long memory."

The Irish and Scots-Gaelic word bunkum (buanchumadh) is derived by all Anglo-American dictionaries from a shaggy-dog tale. As the story goes, during the 16th American Congress, a long-winded congressman from Buncombe County, North Carolina, spoke endlessly on a particular bill, while other members impatiently waited to vote. From then on, as the etymological bunkum goes, to talk "bunkum" meant to speak as endlessly as that long-forgotten politician from Buncombe County. (See: Bartlett, American Dictionary.)

Ironically the old congressman from Buncombe County may have been speaking Gaelic buanchumadh (pron. buan'cumah, a long made-up story) after all. North Carolina had an historic Scots-Gaelic and Irish-speaking population up until the beginning of the 20th century. The jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie's family were African-American Gaelic speakers from North Carolina and Alabama. So Buncombe County may have been the origin of bunkum as buanchumadh, (pron. buan-cumah, "a shaggy dog tale") after all.

"Under an enormous image of (Dizzy) Gillespie beamed on to a wall at Sprague (Hall), Yale music professor Willie Ruff salutes his old friend and explains to the audience how this musical journey began. "Dizzy used to tell me tales of how the blacks near his home in Alabama and in the Carolinas had once spoken exclusively in Scots Gaelic. He spoke of his love for Scotland....." (The Scotsman newspaper, Sept. 25, 2005.

African-American Scots-Gaelic and Irish speakers were not limited to the American South. The Irish and Gaelic languages are hidden strands of both African- and Irish- American Vernacular. Ya' tuig (pron. dig, understand, comprehend)? Tuig é nó ná, (pron. dig ay no naa, understand it or not), according to both enumerations of the 1870 U.S. Federal census, 12% of the African-American community in New York City was Irish-African-American. Despite all the academic "whiteness" bunkum today, at the dawning of the Gilded Age, in just a single New York City ward, there were hundreds of Irish-African-American families crammed together in the tenements and rookeries of Laurens (W. Broadway), Thompson, Sullivan, and Spring streets, in what is the swank (somhaoineach, pron. su'wainek, wealthy) neighborhood of Soho in 2006.

In America the word bunkum has been slowly replaced by the abbreviated "bunk." But in modern Ireland, the word bunkum is still popular, as demonstrated by the headline of this recent column by the Irish journalist Jude Collins in the Daily Ireland newspaper. Enough 'one-side-is-as- bad-as-the-other' bunkum by Jude Collins

(Daily Ireland, 11/05/2006, front page.)
"Pearl (stiffly): De old Irish bunk, huh?" (O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh, 636)
"Yank: You're de bunk. Yuh ain't got no noive, get me? Yuh're yellow, dat's what." (O'Neill, The Hairy Ape, 636)
"Belle (angrily): Aw, can it! Give us a rest from that bunk!" (O'Neill, Ah Wilderness, 73)
Let's hope we can put to rest the bunk about bunkum. Though shaggy-dog tales (like academic bunkum) have more lives than a cat.

Daniel Cassidy is founder and co-director of An Léann Éireannach, the Irish Studies Program, at New College of California in San Francisco. Cassidy is an award-winning filmmaker and musician. His research on the Irish language influence on American vernacular and slang has been published in the New York Observer ("Decoding the Gangs of New York"), Ireland's Hot Press magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Lá, the Irish-language newspaper. His book, The Secret Language of the Crossroad: How the Irish Invented Slang, will be published by CounterPunch Books in Spring 2007. Cassidy was born in Brooklyn and lives with his wife Clare in San Francisco. He can be reached at

Jazz is an Irish invention

From: Jonathan Dembling (dembling at

The connection between Scottish Gaelic and African American line singing isn't as direct as the articles suggest. It was once a common practice throughout the English-speaking and Gaelic-speaking Protestant world (perhaps Welsh-speaking too?), but only survives in these marginal communities. The only area where there was a Gaelic-speaking community in the US strong enough to impact outsiders would have been in the Cape Fear Valley region of North Carolina. That's where Dizzy Gillespie's family was from - apparently some of his grandparents spoke Gaelic. Gaelic was spoken in both the black and white churches there into the 20th century (and lasted longer in the former).

Here are some relevant links to stories and audio clips:

Interview with Gaelic scholar Michael Newton, talking about the interaction between Gaels and African-Americans in North Carolina:

Commentary on Newton's research:

Juan Williams NPR piece on a gathering of line singers from the US and Scotland:

Gaelic line singing audio clips:

Pieces on Willie Ruff's research into the Gospel-Gaelic connection:

Cum fionnar, a chait
(stay cool, cats),

Australia leads in extinct languages
July 13, 2006 (This article from AAP)

Australia has more extinct languages than any other country in the world, a new report has found.

The Worldwatch Institute's latest Vital Signs publication focuses on the threat posed to the globe's languages, particularly those spoken by indigenous populations.

So far, Australia has lost 188 languages, and Worldwatch warns that within decades the demise of Aboriginal languages will rapidly escalate."It is estimated that 90 per cent of the languages spoken by Australia's Aboriginal peoples will perish within the current generation," it said.

Worldwatch, which canvasses trends in everything from oil consumption to population growth, said Australia led the world in terms of lost languages.The 188 gone from Australia compares to 70 in the United States and about 30 in Brazil.

Globally over the past 10,000 years, the number of spoken languages has shrunk from more than 12,000 to just under 7,000.

Mandarin Chinese is the world's most spoken language, with almost one billion people using it as their first language.Spanish and English are spoken as a first language by more than 300 million each, although English is by far the most common second language. Worldwatch said the number of English speakers in China is growing at around 20 million a year.

Worldwatch found the death of languages is often due to bans on religious grounds, infectious diseases, wars and cultural assimilation. In other cases, economics can drive a language out of use.

"When a community finds that its ability to survive and advance economically is improved by the use of another language, for example, people there stop using their native tongue or teaching it to their children," it found.

Carrier language class kicks off
By Chris Shepherd
13 September 2006

Using the language students of a new Carrier language program want to master, Nak’azdli elder Catherine Coldwell blessed the first day of classes.

“The prayer was to open [the students’s] minds and let the spirit into their hearts so they can learn,” explained Catherine Coldwell, who’s been informally teaching the language for years.

Coldwell is one of the key instructors in UNBC’s new three-year program to train First Nations so they in turn can teach the Carrier language and culture in the classroom.

For students and teachers alike, the new program, fulfils a long-term dream.

Francis Prince is one of the 27 students who’ll be studying in the classroom at Kwah Hall. He’s taught children before, but he drew on his skills in making drums and singing and admits he didn’t know enough to teach more than that.

He’s excited about becoming a better teacher, but also because the program will keep Carrier culture alive.

Nak’azdli Chief Leonard Thomas agrees. Thomas says the residential schools, where thousands of First Nations were sent by the federal government, damaged their culture and heritage.

“I think something like this will help pick up the pieces.”

That will happen because after three years, the students will becertified to teach Carrier culture and language in B.C. schools.

They’ll also be able to continue on and earn a full teaching degree if they want.

Learning Carrier will also connect the younger and older generations, Coldwell says.

“There’s so much we want to tell [the youth.] They can’t grasp it in English or another language.”