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4. Appeals, News and Views from Endangered Communities

Hurricane damage to Miskitu and Mayangna communities in Nicaragua

Dear FEL members in the UK

You will have heard about Hurricane Felix which hit Nicaragua earlier in September. This is a good cause which is not primarily linguistic, but which may touch you because it affects a community which we have been following for some years. They are the Mayangna people, whose languages (Tuahka,Paramahka, Ulwa) Elena Benedicto has been telling us about (FEL VIII, FEL X and indeed this year, at the upcoming FEL XI). Also affected are the Mayangna's neighbours the Miskitu. Jane Freeland, another FEL memberand in the UK, is also very active with the linguists in this region.

Aid is evidently being co-ordinated on the ground through URAC-CAN, Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense, the grass-roots university in Bluefields with which Elena and Jane have been working.) It will be wonderful if FEL members can make a difference in this way to help these friends of ours in Nicaragua in their hour of particular need. I encourage you to donate as I shall, through NSC. Yours ever Nicholas Ostler

Saving an Endangered Language of Southern Brazil: Laklănő

Greg Urban, Prof. of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

Nanblá Gakran, Sociologist/Linguist, Terra Indigena Laklănő Ibi-rama

January 23, 2007

This project seeks to aid the preservation of an endangered language in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. The language, to-day known as Laklănő (formerly Xokleng, Shokleng, Kaingang of Santa Catarina, or Botocudo), is spoken by no more than a few hun-dred individuals living on the Terra Indigena Laklănő Ibirama re-serve. The project involves the audio and video digitization of the speech of elder members of the community, as well as the further training of a native speaker of the language who has been producing instructional materials for use in schools, and who also seeks to as-semble a dictionary.

The Laklănő community first established peaceful contact with a Brazilian government attraction team in 1914. Professor Greg Ur-ban, a linguistic anthropologist, now at the University of Pennsyl-vania, conducted field research in the community from 1974 to 1976 and then again in 1981 and 1982. He was able to make audio re-cordings of a considerable portion of the mythology and historical narratives of the community from speakers who had grown up prior to contact with Brazilian national society. Unfortunately, all of those speakers are now dead.

During his 1981-82 research, he trained a young native research as-sistant, Nanblá Gakran, to write the language and to transcribe audio recordings. After Urban’s departure in 1982, missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics enlisted Gakran’s aid in translating the New Testament into the native language.

Subsequently, Gakran pursued his own education. Despite personal hardships, in 2005 he became the first Brazilian Indian to be awarded an M.A. degree in linguistics, having researched his own language. His thesis, entitled Aspectos morfossintáticos da língua Laklănő (Xokleng) - Ję (“Morphosyntactic Aspects of the Laklănő (Xokleng) Language — Ję [linguistic family]”), was awarded a pass with “dis-tinction.” A brief write-up on Gakran in Portuguese can be found at His accom-plishments have also been reported in major national newspapers.

When Urban began research in 1974, the Laklănő language was al-most universally spoken in the community. By 1981, there was a marked shift in the community, as families were emphasizing Portu-guese inside the household. That trend accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. A 2004 report, prepared by the Summer Institute of Linguis-tics, noted that people “over 35 usually spoke to each other in Xok-leng [Laklănő] and people under 35 usually spoke to each other in Portuguese” (Anonby and Anonby 2004:10). The report concluded that “the possibility of language maintenance among the Xokleng [Laklănő] is low.”

From 1992 on, Gakran has been involved in projects aimed at revital-izing the Laklănő language (see the brief write-up at While it may not prove possible to maintain a critical mass of fluent native speakers, if the language is to survive, Gakran is the one who has the talent and is positioned to make this happen. And if the lan-guage is on the road to extinction, then it is all the more imperative that it be adequately documented now.

The project we propose has two parts. The first is to make digital video recordings of native speakers. The recordings would be ar-chived and preserved for future generations who might be interested in learning or studying the language, but they could also be actively used in the school system in the community — where Gakran serves as teacher. This project requires funding for equipment and materials, as well as for support of the project leader (Gakran) and any community participants.

The second aspect of this project is further training of Gakran as a linguist and social researcher. To this end, he wishes to return to graduate school to complete a PhD on the Laklănő language, with the aim of producing a comprehensive dictionary, perhaps along with a set of texts. This will go a long way towards preserving the Laklănő language — creating a set of materials that would allow future gen-erations access to it.

Gakran is also endeavoring to establish a Casa de Memória or “House of Memories” for the Laklănő community — a local museum that would preserve the language and culture of the community for the future, simultaneously as it would help to valorize the language and culture in the present. Materials produced in the course of the present project would contribute to this museum.

There are presently more than 6.5 billion people on earth, and of that population the community of Laklănő speakers makes up an almost infinitesimally small fraction. However, Laklănő is a fully distinct language, one of at most 7,200 or so remaining on the planet. If it dies, a significant portion of the earth’s cultural patrimony will die with it. However, it is possible to take steps now that would prevent the latter eventuality. The projects described herein are designed to maintain and preserve this precious part of our linguistic and cultural diversity.


Anonby, Stan and Sandy Anonby 2004 A report on Xokleng language maintenance. SIL International.

Greg Urban Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology University of Pennsylvania 325 University Museum 3260 South Street Philadelphia, PA 19104

Nanblá Gakran Terra Indigena Laklănő Ibirama Aldeia Palmerinha CEP 89.145-000 José Boiteux/ SC, Brazil