Foundation for Endangered Languages

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6. Letters to the Editor

From Dr Nicholas Anderson.

Dear Nicholas,

Remembering the prominence the Foundation has given in the past to the plight of the Sorbs in Germany, I wonder if you are aware of the current situation. According to the current agreement, the German Federal Government has undertaken to provide 8.2 million euros per annum for the promotion of Sorbian language and culture, while the states of Brandenburg and Saxony have agreed to provide an equal amount shared between them, making a total of 16.4 million euros. Brandenburg and Saxony have agreed to maintain their level of sup-port, but, according to media and other reports, the Federal Govern-ment is proposing "drastic" cuts in funding in that, instead of provid-ing the agreed funding of 8.2 million euros, the Federal Government will now only fund specific projects. Such a policy seems to conflict with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (rati-fied by Germany on 16 September 1998).

Would it be possible for the FEL to make representations to the Ger-man Federal Government on this matter.

Yours sincerely,


From Dafydd Gibbon 6 July 2007

Dafydd Gibbon wrote:

Dear Nick,

I am pleased to pass on the following information from my colleague Prof. Firmin Ahoua at the Université de Cocody, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, about the Ega language, on which he, Bruce Connell and I have been working for many years: "Good news: The Ivorian government has developed a new interest in the Ega tribe and the language. indeed President Gbagbo (whose wife is a linguist) has signed an official decree for the creation of a prefecture (district) exclusively composed of Ega to encourage the survival of the culture and the language. So the language is definitely saved! The new district is allowed to bear an EGA name: Dairo-Didizo and is located in the Southern Dies region. The names are those of the locations of Egas." We sincerely congratulate the Ega people on their remarkable politi-cal success.We also hope and believe that the fact that we have pub-lished extensively on Ega in journals (e.g. the Journal of the Interna-tional Phonetic Association), at international conferences, and on the internet, may have provided positive publicity from the scientific side in support of this development. Perhaps this will encourage others to persevere in the same direction! With all good wishes,


From Menan du Plessis

Dear Nicholas (if you don’t mind the informality) - Raj Mesthrie (University of Cape Town) has just sent me your call for papers for the conference that SOAS will be hosting in December. Although it looks as though I will probably not be attending, I just wanted to let you know that there is by no means a lack of interest here. Indeed, the whole subject is something about which I myself feel intensely passionate.

My field is the area of Khoisan languages, in which I have largely a theoretical and comparative interest, grounded in Linguistics. (This is coupled, however, with an interest in the associated narratives and poetry.) Although my studies have been essentially library-based, I> have also inevitably become acutely aware of the broader range of pressing research needs, not only in South Africa but across the re-gion as a whole. These needs cover the spectrum from support for community-led activism in precisely the area of language conserva-tion, to theoretical work on such aspects as the morphology and syn-tax ofthese languages (still almost astonishingly understudied and underdocumented). There are two groups of South African languages on the brink of extinction: these are the N/uu dialects (belonging to the !Ui group and related to the /Xam language famously documented by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd); and a range of Khoekhoe dialects variously identified as Richtersveld Nama, !Ora (the language of the ‘Koranna’) or !Xiri (the language of the Griqua). Both languages are now only imperfectly spoken> by perhaps just two dozen speakers in each case. The urgent documentation of !Ora ~ !Xiri is being under-taken by a team of field-workers under the leadership of Mike Be-sten, who is an historian based at the University of the Free State. For the rest, we South Africans are doing nothing! (Fortunately for us, the last surviving speakers of N/uu are currently being recorded by American researchers, including Bonny Sands and Amanda Miller-Ockhuizen, who are working flat-out to document as much possible.)

The other Khoisan languages have a varying degree of vitality. Khoekhoegowab has perhaps the best position, enjoying official status in Namibia. Some of the other Khoe languages mainly spo-ken in Botswana fare rather less well – as do the so-called ‘non-Khoe’ languages of the Ju group (spoken mainly in Angola, Na-mibia and Botswana), eastern #Hoan (Botswana), and Taa (Botswana). While the Ju languages are perhaps currently the most viable of the non-Khoe languages - with the communities who speak them having taken an active role in trying to secure them - there is still undoubtedly a need for academics to continue supporting these efforts. On the purely theoretical side, what is more, there are still many aspects of the syntax and morphology that need further investi-gation. It is quite surprisingly difficult even to obtain ‘texts’ (i.e. representative samples of extended discourse) for these languages.

In between these two groups of the highly imperilled and the perhaps just viable languages, there is another group consisting of various languages spoken by rather small communities, and only poorly documented. The small set of dialects making up the Eastern #Hoan cluster, and the !Xoon dialects (famously studied by the late Tony Traill) seem to fall into this category. Right now it is impossible to obtain any texts for these languages (although I believe that a set for !Xoo is currently in preparation by Tom Gueldemann, who was working on this project with Tony Traill). It seems to me that one of the things we ought to be doing here (I mean, apart from generally re-skilling ourselves and getting down to some seriously hard research) is to start building up as a matter of urgency a representative corpus of some kind, with texts (transcripts, audio records … and so forth), preferably in the form of an electronic database that could be accessible to everyone. I’m thinking that, since we have been so idle and tardy in getting something like this off the> ground, the best thing we can do now is to try and ensure – at the very least – that whatever we do finally put together is the best that it can possibly be. This is where I think we could benefit enor-mously from the kind of expertise you have already built up at SOAS.

I am also pretty interested to find out more about new techniques of documentation. I’m curious to know whether there are ways of inter-facing programmes designed primarily to assist on the phonetic side of transcription – with programmes that are meant to help more with the morphological analysis. (I have played around a little with the self-tutorials for Toolbox – but have not yet applied the system in practice.) Some of the material that we have here for the ‘archive languages’ exists only in the form of audio recordings, and often this is not accompanied by any translations (I mean even of a relatively free kind, such as might have been obtained at the time from consult-ants).

At the moment I have so little confidence in my own ability that I’m nervous even to go and listen to these recordings! (The librarians are> not keen to release copies, in the amiable but firmly bulldog-like custodial way of librarians everywhere, I suppose.) This letter must have seemed rather rambling – for which I apologize - but perhaps you can see why I didn’t just want to let things go without at least some communication. (Also, to be honest, apart from Mike Besten and his team at UOFS, with whom I correspond regu-larly and avidly, there are very few people here who share my pas-sion.)

Thank you - very much indeed – not only for listening, but for every-thing that you and your colleagues are doing in the area of language conservation – something that surely matters profoundly, for all of us.

Very best wishes

Menan du Plessis