Foundation for Endangered Languages
3. Endangered Languages in the News
Finnic languages being oppressed in Russia
From Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki, Finland 26 July 2007
Support for the Finnic peoples of Russia ought to be an essential part of Finland’s policy toward Russia, writes Janne Saarikivi in the first item of our ‘Guest Pen’ series
Finnish identity is built on the tension between European and Finno-Ugrian qualities. We like to emphasise our eligibility for the salons of Europe. On the other hand we have to justify our poor head for booze or our lack of small talk by saying that we are “Ugrians” from the forests.
There are three Finno-Ugrian states in Europe: Finland, Hungary and Estonia. In outward appearance their cultures are Western, but in language, folk poetry, folk music and mythology they are connected more to Eurasia than to Europe.
The Finno-Ugrian link with Russia extends Finnish identity. It makes us more than mere Europeans and gives stimuli to Finnish culture. So it is natural that in Finland there is interest in the Finno-Ugrians of Russia.
There are more than two and a half million Finno-Ugrians in Russia. At least four of its peoples – the Mordvin, the Mari, the Udmurt and the Komi – are so large that in principle their languages possess the preconditions for becoming real languages of culture. In the early twentieth century, orthographies were created for the Finno-Ugrian languages of Russia. However, Stalin’s purges de-stroyed the intelligentsia that used them. During the Thaw of the Khrushchev period, education in the minority languages began, in all secrecy, its downward spiral.
For a brief while perestroika and Yeltsin’s Russia protected the mi-nority nations, but in Putin’s Russia the extension of linguistic and cultural autonomy does not seem possible.
The situation is well illustrated by the numerical decline of the mi-nority nationalities. For example, according to the 1989 census, 1.15 million people declared themselves as Mordvin, but in the 2002 cen-sus, only 840,000.
Use of minority languages in writing has also declined in Russia. In the nineteen-thirties, 200 books a year appeared in Komi, including some translations from world literature. In the past few years only a score or so have appeared, and even those mostly with subsidies from abroad.
Present-day Russia is to a large extent a Slav nation-state. Minority languages in administration, education and the media are often not available even where Russian law stipulates them.
The decay of agricultural structures, alcoholism and unemployment affect national minorities painfully. The decline of living conditions in the countryside means the Russification of the Finno-Ugrian mi-norities, because minority languages do not survive in towns.
One fifth of Russia’s population, or 30 millions of people, belong to national minorities. The Russia of the future will also be multina-tional. Many minorities are not merging with the majority, but rather are becoming stronger, especially in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, the future looks bleak for the Finno-Ugrians.
Many European minority languages, such as Northern Saami, Welsh and Basque, have developed into the vehicles for a modern culture. This has been possible because of an investment in minority-language education and media.
The Finno-Ugrian peoples of Russia need both money and cultural exchange in order to be preserved in their present form. In the spheres of research and education the EU and Russia ought to try to create technologies together whereby minority-language education and media can be extended and the cultures modernised.
What is at least as important is that attitudes to the cultural heritage of minorities must change. In Finland, for example, the majority population’s interest is one of the most important factors in support-ing Saami culture.
For the intelligentsia of Russia’s Finno-Ugrian nations Finland is an example of a modern Finno-Ugrian nation which has handled its minorities policy well. Therefore it is important that our decision-makers realise their responsibility in preserving the world’s Finno-Ugrian cultural heritage. Support for Russia’s Finno-Ugrians ought to be a fundamental part of Finland’s policy toward Russia.
The writer is a researcher in the Department of Finno-Ugrian Stud-ies at the University of Helsinki. Translated by Chris Moseley
Finnish national epic into Aunus Karelian
By Topi Nykänen, Turun Sanomat, Turku, Finland (26 July 2007)
When Zinaida Dubinina, from Aunus in Karelia, visited Finland for the first time in 1991 with a choir of schoolteachers, her hosts in Mikkeli [eastern Finland] decided to show their welcome by demon-strating how well they made karjalanpiirakat (Karelian pirogue pas-tries).
“They baked closed pastries, and I was – well, that’s not the way to make them. Nor is a rice pastry even a Karelian pastry. For me that’s a Finnish pastry,” laughs Dubinina. Born at Kotkatjärvi in Aunus district in 1934, Dubinina learned as a child that the filling for Karelian pastries is millet, potato or barley. And the whole beauty is finished off by baking it golden-brown in the oven with a mixture of egg, butter and cream.
Although Dubinina’s pirogues taste at least as good as they look, her greatest gift to Karelian culture was not made in the kitchen.
Over the past twelve years Zinaida’s translations from Finnish into Aunus Karelian, or Livvi, of the New Testament, the ‘Children’s Bible and the Psalms have been published. The most ambitious work, the Livvi version of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, is currently being edited by Jelena Bogdanova, lecturer in Karelian at the Pedagogical University in Petrozavodsk.
Dubinina doesn’t dare guess when it will appear, because Bogdanova is also busily engaged in the government of the Republic of Karelia.
But if the translation work lasted over fifteen years in all, she can afford to wait a bit for the published result.
When Zinaida Dubinina graduated in 1954 as a teacher, the language of instruction in Karelian schools was changed abruptly from Finnish to Russian. Since Karelian was not a written language, it was never taught in schools.
“In many places children didn’t want to go to school any more. The boys would rather go to work in the forests and the girls would look after children.”
The position for minority languages began to slowly improve at the end of the nineteen-eighties in the Soviet Union. Dubinina recalls how even at Kotkatjärvi they had to start teaching Karelian from scratch.
“The Russian head teacher wondered what we were going to do without any teaching material. I replied that we have it in our heads!”
Inspired with a new enthusiasm for the language, Dubinina began looking for suitable teaching materials. The Kalevala seemed closely related. Sung repetitions of those same poems had been preserved in her own home village.
In passing she mentions that her favourite parts of the Kalevala are the stories of those famous women, Lemminkäinen’s mother and Aino.
“That Kalevala metre – I tend to think in the same way. But the Fin-nish version of the Kalevala was far too difficult for the children, so I translated those poems into my own language. Every evening after work I’d sit for ages in my study, writing,” says Dubinina. Although the appearance of the Kalevala in the Livvi language is of great symbolic value, the Karelian literary language is still in a con-fused state. Actually it doesn’t exist; rather, writers and translators publish works in their own dialects, of which the main ones are “Ka-relian proper” [or Viena] and Aunus Karelian, or Livvi.
Zinaida Dubinina is not worried about the situation. She knows from experience that a lasting language policy is not created by force.
“People speak Karelian, regardless of dialect differences, and they feel they belong to the Karelian nation. You don’t need an artificial language for that.”
Dubinina believes that a literary language will develop if it is allowed to. New indigenous and translated literature is being published in Karelian all the time. Both Aunus and Viena Karelians publish news-papers in their own dialects and Dubinina believe the dialogue be-tween the dialects is fruitful.
She believes that the exchange will eventually lead to a common literary language. The biggest obstacles to the development of the language are hidden in the school system. After the initial enthusiasm of less than twenty years ago, many people are tired for fighting against bureaucracy.
“At the moment Karelian is being taught, but very little. The teaching programme for schools comes straight from Moscow, and there is no room for the language. It’s frustrating, because we have nothing against Russian. A child can be brought up bilingually,” says Dubin-ina.
So the future is still uncertain, but as a gesture of conciliation the translator quotes a Russian proverb: “Hope is the last to die.”
Some facts about Karelian
The Karelian language, spoken in the Karelian Republic of Russia, or Eastern Karelia to Finns, as well as in the Tver Karelian region, is the closest relative to Finnish. It is the third most widely spoken Baltic Finnic language after Fin-nish and Estonian. About 100,000 people speak Karelian.
It is divided into several dialects, the main ones being Karelian Proper and Aunus Karelian (Livvi), as well as Lude (Finn. Lyydi), which is considerably smaller. It should not be confused with the Karelian dialects of Finnish, which were spoken in Finnish Karelia before the war and are still spoken in the Finnish province of Southern Karelia.
By Scott Spires, from Languages Policy list, 1 August 2007
It is an interesting paradox: as the earth's population expands, the number of languages decreases. The language you are reading in now is one of the causes of this situation. English rolls over other, weaker languages like a tidal wave, obliterating the smallest ones and leaving even some of the larger tongues gasping for breath. But it is not the only such killer languages-Spanish, French, Chinese, and Portuguese have been doing deadly work as well, and Russian definitely belongs in this formidable company.
Languages die for any number of reasons. They die because a few languages, led by English, dominate the Internet, science and busi-ness. They die because you can't take a test, get a driver's license, book a hotel room, or watch a movie in Ladakhi, or Huron or Ainu. They die because the Beatles sang in English (not Cornish or Manx), and because Alexander Pushkin wrote in Russian (not Vepsian or Karakalpak). They die because their speakers see no use for them, or are ashamed of them. They die because their speakers do.
In spite of factors like these, the Russian Federation has remained one of the world's greatest preserves of linguistic diversity. Here you will find specimens of Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Caucasian and many other families in their natural habitat. There are oddities to amuse you: The Caucasian language Ubykh, recently extinct, con-tained a jaw-breaking 81 consonants and only three vowels; the Chukchi language maintains different sound systems depending on whether a man or a woman is doing the talking; Izhor, with fewer than 500 speakers, is nonetheless divided into three separate dia-lects. Surveys indicate that over 100 languages have indigenous speech communities within Russia.
Yet this "nature preserve" is under severe threat of turning effectively monoglot within a few decades. Many of these languages are, like Ubykh, already extinct; others are in the process of extinction or are barely holding on. The process of extinction has, in fact, been going on for centuries; place names attest to this. Northern Russia, for instance, is studded with toponyms from Finno-Ugric dialects that died out long ago--the most famous example being Moskva, which probably means something like "dark water." Siberia's Loss
Siberia, in particular, can be seen as the ground zero of these trends in Russia. Many of the phenomena that lead to the demise of minor-ity languages are especially apparent there. Geography, politics, and culture all interact to create a space in which it is difficult for such languages to thrive.
The lack of linguistic compactness, for example, is a problem that especially affects Siberia. "Many of the peoples of the North are non-compact peoples," says Vida Mikhalchenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Linguistics. They live sparsely scattered across a vast territory, which makes communication as sizable com-munities difficult. This contrasts with, for example, the situation in the Northern Caucasus. It remains, in an expression that goes back to Roman times, "the mountain of languages," a region of densely packed and clearly demarcated tongues. Linguist Irina Samarina points to Archi, a language in Dagestan, as an extreme example of compactness: It is spoken in a single village of 1,200 people, but everyone in the village speaks it. As long as this situation persists, it is likely to survive.
Policy choices have contributed to the situation. The family is one of the most important forces in ensuring the survival of a language--if parents are able to hand it down to their children, it will continue for at least another generation. In the last century, however, it was com-mon for children of minority-language speakers to be taken away from their parents and raised in boarding schools together with chil-dren of other small nationalities. The inevitable result of this situation was that everyone grew up fluent only in Russian. In many cases, only people born before approximately 1940 have preserved knowl-edge of a language. Once that happens, language death becomes al-most inevitable--when the younger generation drops the baton, the race is over.
Standardization can also present a problem. If a language has never been equipped for use in any official sphere, deciding where the standard ends and dialects begin can be problematic. The Nenets language, for example, comes in two distinct varieties--Forest and Tundra. Should one of these be chosen as the basis for the standard; should a hybrid language be created; or should each be recognized as a separate language and treated accordingly?
These are the sort of questions that can keep a language out of class-rooms, radio stations, and newspapers, and promote its eventual ex-tinction. Even standardization does not guarantee a continued use, since elderly or longtime speakers rebel against using the new stan-dard.
The Stigmatizing Effect
And there is the important issue of will. Much depends simply on the desire of speakers to maintain their language, a factor that is typically independent of both official support and official suppression. If the will to speak a language exists, it can survive neglect and repression; conversely, if the will isn't there, no amount of support will save it. While outsiders may perceive small languages as something roman-tic or exotic, speakers of small languages often view their native tongues from a very different perspective. Frequently, they associate such languages with poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. Sheer utility is a powerful argument in favor of switching to a few mega-languages, and many people who might speak indigenous languages follow that pragmatic argument to its logical end in their own lives.
Linguists know that the effectiveness of outside forces is limited. "We can't stop the process of disappearance," Mikhalchenko says. "And it's not good to try to decide things from above." The important thing is to gather data, create detailed descriptions of those languages threatened with extinction, make information widely available, and support those initiatives that promise success.
Laws can also play a role. According to Mikhalchenko, Russia may soon ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Lan-guages. The charter sets out a series of measures to promote the use of minority languages in education, the media and other spheres. At this point a skeptic might ask if there is any point in trying to pre-serve these languages at all. Language death is a normal phenomenon of history. Linguist Andrew Dalby estimates that a language dies every two weeks. Why put so much effort into recording, teaching and preserving dialects that might be limited to a handful of villages? A novel line of reasoning, laid out in Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Ro-maine's 2000 book Vanishing Voices, treats linguistic diversity as analogous to biodiversity. Languages, the argument goes, are like species in an ecosystem. Just as the extinction of species leads to the degradation of the natural environment, so the extinction of lan-guages degrades the human environment. Thus, systems of local knowledge are somehow dependent on the languages in which they were originally developed.
One can find echoes of this in Russia. Some languages have highly developed vocabularies for locally specific activities, such as rein-deer-herding. People who usually speak Russian in their everyday lives will switch to the local language whenever they pursue local practices. The problem with this view is that every language is capa-ble of expanding and changing to meet new challenges. There are no recorded instances of a language dying out because it confronted a world it couldn't describe. If it is necessary to invent reindeer-herding terminology for Russian, that will be done.
A Cultural Preserve
In fact there are good reasons to preserve minority languages, al-though those reasons are rather prosaic and may not appeal to people who perceive endangered tongues as something exotic and magical. Culture is really the key factor. Mark Abley, in his book Spoken Here, quotes an activist for the Celtic Manx language as saying: "the language is almost like a peg to hang the culture on. The music, the Gaelic way of storytelling, the folklore--all these things come out of the Manx language."
Cultures can survive the translation to a new language, but in the process they lose something unique and essential. Poetry, folklore, songs and customs have a unique sound and shape, and possibly a unique meaning, in one language that they don't have in another. Abley also quotes the graphic words of MIT linguist Ken Hale, who says that losing a language is like "dropping a bomb on the Louvre."
The outside world tends to take little notice of the small peoples of Siberia. Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's Siberian epic Dersu Uzala featured a Goldi hunter who befriends a Russian explorer; the Tuvan throat-singing group Huun-Huur-Tu has enjoyed success around the globe, singing songs in their native language that simply couldn't produce the same effect in Russian--or any other language. But it is hard to think of much beyond these admittedly esoteric ex-amples that have made it into the wider world. Linguistic homogeni-zation is one of the factors that could blur the peoples' distinctive cultural profile. While language death, as Mikhalchenko notes, is something that is largely beyond prevention by outside forces, the disappearance of even the smallest dialect represents a loss of a cul-tural treasure-house.
UN preserves hybrid language of the Bounty mutineers
By Nick Squires in Sydney for the Daily Telegraph, London 22 Au-gust 2007-08-26
A campaign to preserve a unique hybrid language spoken by the de-scendants of the Bounty mutineers on an isolated South Pacific island has been given a boost by the United Nations. Norfolk Island’s blend of 18th century English and Tahitian, known as Norf’k or Norfuk, will be featured by UNESCO in the next edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing.
The language, one of the world’s rarest, is under threat because Nor-folk Islanders are increasingly marrying outsiders and because of the influence of television and radio from neighbouring Australia and New Zealand.
The tiny subtropical island, which is part of Australia but maintains a fiercely separate identity, including a different flag and national an-them, is determined that the language should not become extinct.
A Norfolk government spokesman, Peter Maywald, said the UNESCO listing would enable the island to apply for funds to en-courage the teaching of Norfolk. “It gives us more clout in terms of protecting the language,” he said yesterday.
Nursery rhymes and word games are used to teach the 310 children in Norfolk’s only school. In the past children were punished for speak-ing Norfuk, which was regarded as an embarrassingly backward pat-ois.
“It’s now undergoing a renaissance. People are more interested in their culture and historical roots than they were before,” Mr.Maywald said. A few pages from the island’s newspaper are translated from English into Norfuk and there a plans to build a cultural centre which will showcase the language.
“The advice from UNESCO is a significant step in building recogni-tion of the unique language and culture of Norfolk Island,” said the chief minister, Andre Nobbs. “It is one of the rarest languages in the world.”
The creole evolved between the Bounty mutineers and the Tahitians. After rebelling against Capt. William Bligh, the mutineers settled in 1790 on Pitcairn Island. But by 1856 the island was overcrowded and population was relocated to Norfolk. Today around half of Norfolk Island’s 2,000 inhabitants are descended from the Pitcairners and speak Norfuk. Its broad burr evokes West Country English, but it is peppered with Tahitian and other Polynesian words incomprehensible to English speakers.
Norfolk Island was uninhabited when it was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1774, although it had previously been settled. Until 1855 it was used by the British as a South Seas Gulag for the most recalci-trant convicts, notorious for its cruelty.
Let’s speak Norfuk
Some words and phrases
All yorlye gwen? How are you all?
Kushu I’m fine
I car foot I don’t know
I gut ar hillie I’m in a lazy mood
Hui-hui Appallingly dirty and smelly
Fut you ally comey diffy and do daffy? Why are you behaving that way?
Yu bin pat aut wan piis a’ kiek f’Berel? Did you put out a piece of cake for Beryl?
Car do far dorg et Not good enough even for a dog’s meal
I gwen out yena f’porpieh I’m going out yonder to get some guavas
Da nufka se two in em moo’oo That kingfisher has settled in the flax
Sup musa dan The soup’s nearly cooked
Wan kau f’mais bradhas s’orf aut My brother’s cow has escaped
Hi es kain a’ huihuiwan He’s somewhat dirty
Dem hihi andasaid em stoen The periwinkles are under the rocks
Kat krors aa paedak aafta tii en wi gu sing Cut across the paddock after tea and come for a singsong
Ori em allan haendikraaft iin a’ shoe hau god des iya! How good the island handicrafts are in this year’s show!
Source: Speak Norfolk Today by Alice Buffett 1999
Lost language of Pitmatic gets its lexicon
Martin Wainwright, The Guardian (London) 30 July 2007
A dialect so dense that it held up social reforms has been rescued from obscurity be the publication of its first dictionary. Thousands of terms used in Pitmatic, the oddly-named argot of north-east [English] miners for more than 150 years, have been compiled through detailed research in archives and interviews with the last generation to talk of kips, corf-batters and arse-loops. First recorded in Victorian newspapers, the language was part of the intense camaraderie of underground working which excluded even friendly outsiders such as the parliamentary commissioners pressing for better conditions in the pits in 1842. “The barriers to our inter-course were formidable,” they wrote in their report on encountering the Pitmatic dialect. “Numerous mining technicalities, northern pro-vincialisms, peculiar intonation and accents and rapid and indistinct utterance rendered it essential for us to devote time to the study of these peculiarities ere we could translate and write the evidence.”
The first Pitmatic dictionary, including pit recollections and analysis of the origins of the dialect’s words, has been compiled by Bill Grif-fiths, the country’s foremost Geordie scholar, whose previous work includes the standard Dictionary of North East Dialect. His new book reveals an exceptionally rich combination of borrowings from Old Norse, Dutch and a score of other languages, with inventive usages dreamed up by the miners themselves. “There’s been an urgency to the project, copying the handwritten diaries and songs stored way in family homes,” said Mr.Griffiths, who also collected booklets, pit newspapers and magazines and spent hours interviewing ex-miners.
Although the north-east was once the world capital of mining – hence the phrase carrying coals to Newcastle – the last major pit closed in 2005 and the industry’s traces are vanishing.
“The golden age of writing about the pits by working pitmen for working pitmen and their families is over,” said Mr.Griffiths. “It is time to save and share what we can.” Part financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, in a three-stage dialect study of the north-east called Wor Language, the dictionary reveals the deeply practical nature of Pitmatic. The dialect was original called Pitmatical, and its curious name was a parallel to mathematics, intended to stress the skill, precision and craft of the colliers’ work. Term after term is related to mining practices, such as stappil, a shaft with steps beside the coal seam, or corf-batters, boys who scraped out filthy baskets used for hauling coal to the pithead.
Other words are more earthy: arse-loop is a rope chair used when repairing shafts and a candyman or bum-bailiff is a despised official who evicts strikers from company-owned homes. Pitmatic: The Talk of the North-East Coalfield is published by Northumbria University Press, £9.99
Cymru: Welsh media developments
The Welsh language scene has lately been a hive of dynamism and should be held up as an example to the other Celtic language move-ments as providing possible future pathways of development for the other languages.
Many of these developments have taken place within the field of media and technology and have been an inspiration to see. The ad-vances signal a renewed spurt of confidence among the Welsh people and the use of their native language, even among non Welsh speak-ers. Gains are being made despite some major obstacles and inade-quate resources when compared to the seemingly privileged situation of other lesser used languages of Europe, such as Euskera (in the Spanish state) and Friesian.
Some of the developments that have taken place and are planned for the near future in Wales have been:
In April an internet television channel was launched called Siaradog. It is broadcast once a week and shows interviews and music and is hosted by Welsh rapper Aneirin Karadog. The show is16 minute long, but looks likely to herald a new wave of similar programmes in the future.
Welsh Language Daily Newspaper
An official launch date of 3 March 2008 has now been set for the first daily newspaper in Welsh to be issued. After some public grant fund-ing difficulties the Y Byd (The World) newspaper has succeeded in raising 445 000 Euros worth of public shares. Currently only Eire has its own daily newspaper (Lá Nua) among the six Celtic countries and the Celtic languages are among the few lan-guages in the EU without their own daily. (The launch of a daily newspaper in the Breton language failed some years ago). In Wales the reason for this, according to the Chairman of Y Byd publishers, is a lack of investment and confidence.
Y Byd will be available in printed format and also online.
Language Control Centre
June saw the launch of a new computer application that will allow users to chooser either Welsh or English as an interface language for Windows XP and Office 2003 at home or in the workplace.
Bwrdd Yr Iaith Gymraeg is asking for users to provide feedback by writing to post@... Dime Goch
A new and novel internet idea that encourages both Welsh and non-Welsh speakers who want to encourage companies to offer their ser-vices in the Welsh language, has been launched called Dime Goch.
The website asks supporters to subscribe from one pound a month to an email list of people who are willing to apply pressure on giant companies by stating they will definitely switch suppliers if services are provided in Welsh.
The Welsh language internet community consumer revolution has begun! See [Voir le site] for further details.
Predictive texting in Welsh
This is a free downloadable programme to allow Welsh speakers to use 'predictive texting' in Welsh on their mobile phones. The com-pany called 'Tecstico' was a design idea thought up by a Welsh uni-versity student and initially launched at the Welsh National Eistedd-fod in 2006.
Internet Chat rooms, Forums and Young people
The Internet was claimed last week, by one of the worlds leading linguists to be a saviour of the Welsh language. Professor David Crystal of Bangor University said that the Welsh language (along with Breton) is now considered to be 'cool' to use by young people, because of its presence on the internet.
Professor Crystal said:
« It doesn't matter how much activism you engage in on behalf of a language if you don't attract the teenagers, the parents of the next generation of children. »And what turns teenagers on more than the internet these days? If you can get a language out there, the youngsters are much more likely to think it's cool."
Professor Crystal's comments follow in the wake of the Bwrdd Yr Iaith Gymraeg/Welsh Language Board strategy document for IT and the Welsh language. The Strategy aims to provide a framework for Welsh language Information Technology (IT) work in the future and hopes to lead the way in innovative IT development.
Of course not one of the language situations in the Celtic countries is the same and comparisons are indeed not always useful or helpful. In addition, the Welsh language is probably the most strongly supported of all the Celtic languages. It is nevertheless beneficial at times to make cursory glances at recent language developments in the differ-ent countries, if only to provide inspiration and share ideas for future possible action
(Report compiled for Celtic News by Celtic League Secretary Gen-eral, Rhisiart Tal-e-bot) J B Moffatt Director of Information Celtic League
Young Chilean keeps nearly extinct languages alive
San Francisco Chronicle. 12 August 2007
Jen Ross, Chronicle Foreign Service
Santiago, Chile: While most 16-year-old boys are busy playing video games or worrying about girls, Joubert Yanten spends most of his spare time reading dictionaries and singing tribal songs.
In the heart of Chile's bustling capital, this teen finds a place to medi-tate amid the plants on the patio of his family's modest home. He hums to himself, in the high-pitched tone of a pubescent boy. Min-utes later, his voice deepens, and he seems to enter a sort of trance. Guttural sounds escape his mouth, as he pronounces the inflections of this native tongue with obvious ease.
Yanten is speaking Selk'nam, the language of an extinct aboriginal group that lived in the Tierra del Fuego islands off southern Chile and Argentina. They were among the last native communities in South America to be settled, in the late 19th century. When the Spaniards arrived in Chile, 11 languages were in wide-spread use: Quechua, Aymara, Rapanui, Chango, Kunza, Diaguita, Mapudungun, Chono, Kawesqar, Yagan and Selk'nam. Today, only the first three remain.
Experts now consider Yanten to be the only living speaker of a lan-guage that died with the last ethnic Selk'nam in the 1970s.
His obsession began at age 8, when he wrote an elementary school project on Chile's native groups. "It frustrated me that no one really saw the magnitude of the extinction of an entire race in the south," he said. "Now you'll only find a couple of indigenous faces; it's really sad."
But learning a language when there is no one to speak it with is no small task. Yanten used dictionaries and audiocassettes of interviews and shamanic chants, recorded by Jesuit missionaries.
The teen leafs through the photocopied pages of a Selk'nam diction-ary he borrowed from the library, which includes special sections on grammar and sentence structure. He explains that Selk'nam differs from Spanish in that the object comes at the beginning of a sentence, followed by the subject and the verb.
He then pulls out a worn CD and plops it into his player. The low-pitched chant of a medicine woman fills the room, while Yanten sings along in perfect harmony. Experts say there are precedents for reviving extinct languages, and the use of songs is key to the process of learning pitch and intonation.
"Through recordings, people can understand the mechanics and grammar of a language," said Arturo Hernandez, a language profes-sor with the Catholic University of Temuco, in southern Chile. "Listeners can imitate sounds and learn to speak in a less technical way, just like someone who learns a language using a CD or DVD. ... What's surprising in this case is that this is not a professional, but a boy who began learning at the age of 8." In an age when more than half of the world's 6,000 languages are nearing extinction, Hernandez says Yanten's quest to revive Selk'nam won't be easy, but could make waves with the right media coverage.
A straight-A student, Yanten is something of a child prodigy. Be-sides Selk'nam and Spanish, he also speaks fluent Mapudungun – the language of Chile's largest indigenous group - the Mapuche. He con-siders himself only semi-versed in the native languages of Onikenk, Haush, Kawesqar, and Quechua - not to mention English.
He's also learning Yagan - a nearly extinct language from Chile's far south. He's been learning from its last living speaker, Christina Calderon, for three years, on the phone and by Internet messages. She has sent him recordings of songs and tribal stories. Yanten has also Travelled to visit her in remote Tierra del Fuego, most recently on a trip financed by a Chilean television station.
But Yanten's love affair with language doesn't end with words; he is also composing songs in Selk'nam. In an effort to popularize tradi-tional native music, he is fusing it with modern electronic beats, and working on a demo CD with friends.
"Music uses language to connect people in a communication com-munity," said Rodrigo Torres, an ethno-musicologist from the Uni-versidad de Chile. "Music has the power to penetrate where logic and reason don't, creating a type of emotional connection, which is very positive."
Yanten's mother, Ivonne Gomez, a housewife, believes there may be a mystical element to his exceptional linguistic abilities.
"I've always believed that the spirits of his ancestors are with him," he said. "He goes through many changes of voice and of mental state." Her great-grandfather was Selk'nam, something she hid from her son when h was younger. "I never wanted to say anything because when I was in school, kids used to tease me and call me 'Indian,' " she explained. "That made me sad, so I said to myself, 'Why should I tell that to my son?' "
But by the time Yanten was 12, his linguistic abilities were con-firmed by a university professor. So his mother told him about his ancestry, and started recording his singing and encouraging him to perform. He now gives performances every two or three months at universities and museums in Santiago.
Yanten has recorded two CDs of Selk'nam music, using his own sav-ings from part-time work at a grocery store. His father is an artisan, and his lower-middle-class family had to take out loans to finance his unusual passion. Yanten applied for cultural grants from the govern-ment, but was rejected because he's younger than the minimum age of 18. So Yanten has teamed up with a cultural group called Fuego Ances-tral (Ancestral Fire), which promotes the culture of Tierra del Fuego indigenes, through documentaries, musical presentations, talks, and workshops on traditional medicine. "People can identify with the spirituality of indigenous cultures, and their knowledge, culture and language are all an important part of connecting ourselves with nature and with our past," said Oscar Galleguillos, director of Fuego Ancestral. "And I don't think you have to be of native ancestry. We're all members of a tribe. There's the French tribe. the North American tribe. the Chilean."
Yet lack of financial support has frustrated Yanten and those who work to preserve Chile's indigenous heritage.
"It's unfortunate that in our country, culture gets no support," said Juan Carlos Avilez, an anthropologist from the rural town of Cura-cavi, who recently came to see Yanten perform at a Santiago mu-seum. "Not only should the state be helping this special boy, but a university should study and work with him."
Against preserving endangered languages
In his column in The Guardian (UK) on 26 September, the columnist Marcel Berlins had this to say about endangered languages:
The Living Tongues Institute and the National Geographic Institute have revealed new research showing that a language is dying every two weeks, and that 40% of the world’s 7,000 or so languages can be considered endangered. I know I should care, but I can’t. An unwrit-ten, undocumented language expires with the death of the second-last person to speak it. The last survivor may mutter it to himself, or explain it to a researcher, but it is no longer a living language. One may regret its loss because it had a vivid vocabulary or because it was the last link to a community that is no more. But does it matter? Languages decline because members of the societies that sustained them adopt other options. They move from villages to towns or cities. Having jobs obliges them to speak the language of the workplace. The children watch television, and go to schools that don’t teach their native tongue. Soon the only people who speak it are the elderly; they die off. A language cannot be separated from the society that nurtures it. When that society goes, so – inevitably and rightly – does its means of communication, and I do not see the point of trying to keep it alive artificially.
It is different, of course, where substantial written records of the lan-guage survive the demise of the community that used it, but that is rarely the case with the tongues said to be endangered. So I am not sad that we may be losing a couple of small, hardly used, languages. We will still have several thousand left.
"Brain Dead Language" - Labour Party researcher quits
Penygroes, Monday, 17 September 2007 by Huw Jones
A Labour Party researcher who made comments in a blog calling Welsh a "brain-dead language" has been forced to hand in his resig-nation.
David Collins, who was employed by Ann Jones an elected Welsh Assembly representative, said on his blog, "Personally I share the view of [the 19th Century politician] Daniel O'Connell when he said, 'I can witness without a sigh the decline of the Irish langage'", was apt for Welsh as well. In a letter to Ann Jones, Collins apologised to the Party for the embarrassment caused. "Having returned to the UK last night and for the first time properly seen the coverage in Friday and Saturday's papers, it is clear to me that it is untenable for me to remain in your employment. As you know, the comments I left were personal and in no way reflective of your opinions or the policy of Wales Labour Party. On reflection I deeply regret having written them."
The controversy has also been an embarrassment to Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) who have recently formed a coalition with Labour to govern the Welsh Assembly and are pressing for legislation that would give further rights to use the language. Other political parties were quick to respond with the Welsh Conservatives calling for "an unreserved apology to the Welsh nation" whilst Eleanor Burnham of the Liberal Democrats called the remarks "typical of the appalling attitude of many Labour activists towards the Welsh language", adding, "Many of them resent the prominent and growing role that Welsh plays in Welsh life". Labour has been the dominant political force in Wales for almost a century and is committed to promote and support the Welsh language.
However, a wide range of opinion exists within the Party's ranks, from enthusiastic supporters of Welsh to those who are steadfastly opposed.
The electoral map of Wales shows that the Party is now without a single Assembly seat in Wales' western areas where the language is strongest. (Eurolang 2007)
This dying Philippine language needs to be saved
From the (Sunday) Manila Times, 11 August 2007By Fred S. Cabuang
On July 15, 1997, then-President Fidel Ramos signed Proclamation 1041, designating August as the “Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa.” Celebrating the “Month of the National Language” should not mean the celebration of “one national language” but of “all languages of the nationals.” That way, the country will be able to help in saving the threatened and dying languages. The Philippines is a multi-ethnological nation, where about 180 languages are spoken by Filipi-nos. According to linguistic experts, about two languages die every month in the world because people are either lazy to speak their lan-guage or forced to reject their mother tongue. Many endangered lan-guages can be found here in the Philippines.
Take the case of the Butuanon language. Research shows that Butu-anon is one of the dying languages of the Philippines. As far back as the 9th century, some old Chinese documents recorded Butua¬non as the “mother tongue” or lingua franca in the Philippine archipelago specifically in the Kingdom of Butuan. The Kingdom of Butuan en-compassed much of what is now known as Region 13, or Caraga Region, of the Philippines. The Butua¬non language has defined the Butuanon people for more than a thousand years.
Dr. Joey Dacudao, president of SOLFED Foundation, Inc., and a practicing surgeon at Butuan City says, “Since the gauge of a lan-guage’s viability is its usage by the younger generation, and because probably less than 500 teenagers and children in Butuan City speak this language as first tongue, Butuanon would be regarded as a mori-bund language by international linguists. A moribund language is a language that has ceased to be the lingua franca in its traditional lin-guistic areas, usually spoken by less then 300,000 persons, and would die out without government support.”
Dr. Dacudao further says, “The non-Tagalog languages of the Philip-pines become more endangered because of the Tagalog policy of the government.”
Sometime in 2005, Save Our Languages through Federalism (SOLFED)—Butuan chapter embarked on a concrete project to try to save the Butuanon language. Two major steps of the project were undertaken.
Step 1. In June 2005, SOLFED Butuan Chapter started creating a Butuanon syllabus or grammar book, designed to be used by any classroom teacher with a working knowledge of English. Since Butu-anon did not have any existing piece of literature in 2005, SOLFED used an existing grammar book (made by the Maryknoll Institute of Language and Culture in Davao), designed to teach Cebuano Visayan, as a guide. Cebuano Visayan is a close linguistic relative of Butuanon. SOLFED-Butuan members who were native Butuanon speakers and Dr. Dacudao collaborated in making this syllabus which took three months to complete a total of 11 chapters by September 2005.
Right after the completion of the written syllabus, SOLFED recorded the whole syllabus in cassette tapes which was later copied to a com-puter hard disc, from where more copies were made. Native Butu-anon speakers from the SOLFED youth members made the re-cording, in order to ensure that the accent and phonation were cor-rectly Butuanon. The recordings could be played in classrooms.
Step 2. SOLFED Butuan chapter solicited assistance from two NGOs to fund the teaching of Butuanon in public schools. The Butuan Charities of Southern California headed by Dr. Lorenz Alaan, and the Butuan Ivory Charities headed by Dr. Rene Vargas, supported the project in conjunction with their ongoing project called “I Love Bu¬tuan,” a value oriented program for children. The two NGOs signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Caraga Department of Education to teach Butuanon Language in public schools beginning school year 2006. According to Dr. Dacudao, since the start of school year 2006, the Butuanon language has been taught to select SPED school students in Butuan Central School, using the Butuanon Syllabus.
Although there has been positive feedback from teachers and stu-dents to teach and to learn Butuanon, the project may not continue in the future due to lack of funding and support from government. Only private NGOs are exhibiting keen interest in Butuan’s native identity and culture.
If the Philippines will not help save Butuanon language, perhaps not killing it with a national policy favoring “one language” only is good enough.
(Prof. Fred S. Cabuang is the spokesman and vice-president for Con-gressional Relations of SOLFED Foundation Inc., an NGO engaged in saving all languages in the Philippines. He is also the founder of the Institute for Linguistic Minority, an NGO to save the endangered languages of Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao. For comments, please send email to linguistic¬email@example.com)