Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Tongues Ancient and Postmodern

UK journalism has a “silly season” round about the month of August, when supposedly serious (i.e. party political) news dries up, and the media cast around for anything to fill up their space. One of its beneficiaries this year has been has been the cause of Endangered Languages. On 29 July the Radio 4 series In Other Words devoted 30 minutes to the topic under the title “Live Or Let Die”, and on 17 August the follow-up to the morning’s agenda-setting Today programme was on an hour’s discussion on “The Celtic Tongues: do they still have life and relevance?” Meanwhile the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme on 15 August considered the march of English into the wider world, but enlisted your editor to give some balance to the discussion from the viewpoint of languages facing a less triumphal future. There is some hope that the BBC will continue with the theme in the coming months: look out for a Radio 3 series taking up five different endangered languages and the social issues that they raise.

In these introductions of our cause to a wider public, one question is always present: is there any serious point in deploring the loss of languages, when those who really know them, and what it is like to live with them, are voting with their tongues to abandon them, and new speakers, if any, are all middle-class sentimentalists? Like theoretical linguists, who need to have a stock answer ready, when asked “How Many Languages do you Speak, then?” , those of us interested in the plight of endangered languages need to know how to answer this one, especially if we cannot deny that we ourselves are middle-class.

One way to answer is to try to subvert the premiss: languages are many, and not all those that are endangered fit into this pattern. Some languages (one thinks especially of those in California and Tasmania in the last century, Brasil and East Timor in this) have been actively stamped out with their last speakers; in other countries (Colombia might be an example, or the South West of the USA) the traditional minority populations often cling on fiercely to their languages and communities, while well-meaning members of the middle classes have attempted to educate them out of their old ways. In other countries again (Latvia in the 1940s and 1950s, Ethiopia in 1970s and 1980s) languages and traditional communities have suffered when large scale movements of population have been enforced.

But in many modern endangered language situations, this premiss does have a core of truth. In Ireland, the rural Gaeltacht continues to diminish, while the new growth in Gaelic comes in the cities, through consciously created communites like the Shaw Road Junior School in Belfast. Peter Ladefoged, a phonetician with a good record in recording endangered languages, famously remarked that he was not entitled to query the judgement of speakers of Dahalo, a rapidly dying Cushitic language, in choosing not to pass their language on to the next generation. Is it indeed presumptuous of comfortable professionals who are not native speakers of endangered languages to try to intervene in their extinction?

My own answer is that view of the world which makes this gross analysis is itself too static, and in many cases, too complacent. Not only languages, but people are very various, and their aims and aspirations are various too. At some points in their history, members of a community may opt to give up their language, and try to move closer to other communities by adopting a common lingua franca. Often, they are pursuing a perceived, reasonable, economic goal. The problem comes when that goal changes, or perhaps when the goal is achieved, and so no longer important. There is no path back; an option or an identity which was given by the old language is no longer there.



There are interesting theoretical ways of characterizing this situation. Ralf Dahrendorf , in his book Life Chances contrasted the value of such new opportunities with that of established bonds or “ligatures”: ultimately we need both, but we may not perceive this when we are constrained by an unwelcome ligature (a stifling traditional culture, grinding poverty), or cowed by the dangers of an open world (unregulated free markets, violent and irresponsible neighbours). Ronald Walker suggests that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of of needs (Physiological > Safety > Belonging >Esteem > Self-Actualization) may explain why communities, like individuals, postpone certain desires until others are satisfied: in effect, communities who lose their language feel so threatened that they prefer to sacrifice their language, with its particular contributions to the satisfaction of belonging, esteem and self-actualization, in order to guarantee their safety. They cannot see the value of what they are giving up: but alas, they will ultimately find that the loss is irreversible.

In this perspective, the middle classes play a useful role. Ex hypothesi, their physiological and safety needs are met, and they have the leisure, or at least the disposition, to explore the values which come from the next levels in the hierarchy. Their relationship with the language will not be the same, or even a direct descendant of, that of the community which seems to be giving it up; paradoxically, it is likely be much harder for them to achieve familiarity with the language. But in previous ages, before the community became linguistically stressed (or distressed), the language had been able to serve those higher needs on the hierarchy. So the middle-class amateurs are fulfilling the language in a way that its native speakers are no longer able to do. To the extent that they succeed in this, the language is preserved and even enriched for those who were minded to abandon it: their choice, in dropping their language, becomes reversible -- so in effect there life-chances, their options and those of their children, are increased.

On this view, the values of traditional communities are only part of the motivation for trying to protect and revive endangered languages; we are actually engaged in a more self-conscious (hence “post-modern”) quest, to reconstruct the use of the languages so as to combine the identity that they convey with a life which goes beyond those traditional communities. Not an easy quest, but one that looks much more interesting and challenging than trying to merge into a homogeneous “spirit of the age”, with a convenient “language of communication”, but nothing else.

Just as one knows that a musical tradition is alive because it goes on creating new works which extend its range, and often clash with the older works, so we can tell that a language is alive, as part of the world community, because it is made to do things that it has never done before. Interestingly, by this criterion (both musical and linguistic) Irish is alive and kicking in the pubs and clubs of Galway, where the middle class has moved in on the Gaeltacht with a vengeance.