Foundation for Endangered Languages

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4. Allied Societies and Activities

Creation of The Endangered Language Fund, Inc.

This is a new, non-profit U.S. corporation dedicated to:

* The scientific study of endangered languages
* Support of native community attempts to maintain an endangered language's viability
* Dissemination of the results of those efforts both to the native communities and the scholarly world

The Board of Directors consists of:

Douglas H. WHALEN (Haskins Laboratories; President)
Stephen R. ANDERSON (Yale U.)
Rebecca BENDING (Yakima/Nez Perce)
C. J. CHERRYH (author and classicist)
Melissa FAWCETT (Historian of the Mohegan Tribe)
Durbin FEELING (Tribal Linguist, Cherokee Nation)
Dennis HOLT (Southern Connecticut SU; Secretary/Treasurer)
Floyd LOUNSBURY (Yale U.)
Johanna NICHOLS (UC,Berkeley)

Languages have died off throughout history, but never have we faced the massive extinction that is threatening the world right now. As language professionals, we are faced with a stark reality: Much of what we study will not be available to future generations. The cultural heritage of many peoples is crumbling while we look on. Are we willing to shoulder the blame for having stood by a done nothing? The tide is too large to turn back completely, but the Endangered Language Fund is designed to do what we can.

The Fund will support communities that are trying to teach dying languages to a new generation. Many languages have skipped a generation, and extraordinary methods are needed for the language to have any hope. Other languages would be helped immensely by even traditional aids such as grammars and dictionaries. Modern language teaching, including interactive programs, video instruction, and practice tapes can also be of service. Even languages that cannot be revived can be recorded to the extent possible, preserving language in a way not available to previous generations. These and other projects will be supported through the awarding of grants to individuals and language communities. A detailed Request for Proposals will appear this winter. The number of awards that we can make will be directly dependent on the amount of money we raise.

There are four levels of support:

Member: $50
Supporting Member: $100
Sustaining Member: $500 and up
Friend of the Fund: Any amount

Members will receive our newsletter. Supporting members also receive a discount on one language book (we are negotiating with several publishers on this). Sustaining members will also receive a copy of the language artifact (text, video, tape, etc.) of their choice from the year's efforts.

***FOR THE FIRST YEAR ONLY, we will induct all Sustaining Members into the FOUNDERS' CLUB. Inclusion in this club will provide a permanent record of devotion to the cause of endangered languages. Members will receive a plaque acknowledging their crucial support in this effort.

The Endangered Language Fund has applied for U. S. Federal tax-exempt status. While we cannot guarantee that we will receive it, we are quite sure that we will. Any donation made before the award will be retroactively eligible for deduction from U.S. Federal income taxes once the exemption is granted. ONE THING THAT WILL HELP US RECEIVE THIS STATUS IS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE FROM THE LINGUISTICS COMMUNITY. PLEASE BE A PART OF THAT RESPONSE.


Checks, in U.S. funds, can be made out to The Endangered Language Fund. Mastercard and Visa are also accepted; include card type, card number, expiration date, and signature.
Send to:
The Endangered Language Fund
Department of Linguistics
Yale University
New Haven, CT 06520 U.S.A.
Please pass on this announcement to your colleagues who are not on the list.

"Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments". U California, Berkeley on October 25-27, 1996
Report by the organizer, Luisa Maffi (U California, Berkeley), originally written in the Anthropology Newsletter (Feb. 97 issue)

On October 25-27, 1996, an international group of scholars, professionals, and activists came together at U California, Berkeley for the working conference "Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments". This event was the first joint meeting of experts from an array of disciplines in the social, behavioral, and biological sciences ranging from linguistics to anthropology, ethnobiology, cultural geography, economics, cognitive psychology, biology, and ecology, along with natural resource conservationists, cultural advocates, and representatives of indigenous peoples. The meeting was called to explore the complex connections between cultural and biological diversity, the interrelated causes and consequences of loss of both forms of diversity, and the role of indigenous and minority languages and of traditional knowledge in biocultural diversity maintenance and the promotion of sustainable human-environment relationships. Participants also discussed plans for integrated research, training, and action in this domain.

Diversity Loss on Earth
In their respective fields, these various communities of researchers and activists have been calling attention to the dramatic effects of rapidly occurring global processes of socioeconomic and ecological change on the very objects of their concerns: human cultural and linguistic groups and their traditional knowledge; biological species; and the world's environments. An ever-growing body of literature on endangered languages, vanishing cultures, biodiversity loss, and ecosystems at risk is accumulating, attesting to the perceived gravity and urgency of such issues. Underlying these concerns is a common interest in the future of humanity and of life on earth. However, communication all across these fields of endeavor has been slow in developing. The conference was conceived to begin to fill this gap.

Links Between Biological and Cultural Diversity
Conference participants first established theoretical common ground by considering notions of biological diversity and diversification, on the one hand, and linguistic and cultural diversity and diversification, on the other, and outlining analogies and discrepancies between these different manifestations of the diversity of life. They heard reports about the comparable magnitude and pace of the current extinction crises affecting biological species and human languages, and examined evidence of remarkable overlaps between global mappings of the world's areas of biological megadiversity and areas of high linguistic diversity. The possible factors accounting for these correlations were discussed in light of issues of human-environment coevolution and in terms of various ways that have been proposed by ethnobiologists and human ecologists in which cultural diversity might enhance biodiversity or vice versa. In this perspective, the need to address the foreseeable consequences of massive disruption of such long-standing interactions was stressed, and the converse correlation between low-diversity cultural systems and low biodiversity was noted.

The notion of endemism emerged as of particular relevance in talking about both biological and linguistic diversity, from the point of view of the especially threatened status of species or languages endemic to a single region--or even worse, a single country, making them extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of national sociopolitical and economic processes. Linking the two forms of endemism, a notion of "ethnobiological endemism" was proposed, underscoring the local nature of traditional environmental knowledge and its comparable vulnerability by those same processes. Also centrally relevant to the conference's perspective was evidence concerning indigenous and local peoples' knowledge not only about natural kinds, but also about ecological relations. The need to systematically and comparatively study this ecological knowledge and how it correlates with reasoning about and action vis-a-vis the environment (as in the extraction and use of natural resources) was affirmed.

In describing the structural and functional deterioration that characterizes processes of language loss, linguists pointed to the various levels at which such processes can and do affect the maintenance of traditional environmental knowledge--from loss of biosystematic lexicon to loss of traditional stories and other forms and contexts of communication. The role of various factors of cultural change and acculturation, such as schooling and migration, were explored. Cognitive psychologists provided new evidence about processes of folkbiological knowledge devolution in societies that have moved away from direct contact with nature, although such processes were shown to be less straightforward than earlier studies had suggested.

Numerous case studies were presented on issues of language and knowledge loss and the interactions between cultural and biological diversity, spanning Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, and covering both indigenous and other local groups, such as migrants, and exemplifying a variety of linguistic stocks and of modes of subsistence, from hunting and gathering to agriculture.



Several presentations also illustrated patterns of cultural and linguistic resistence and knowledge persistence, as well as efforts to revitalize languages and cultures that had gone extinct, with a special focus on maintaining or recovering and newly applying knowledge about traditional resource management practices. Finally, a set of presentations was devoted to both grassroots and international initiatives aimed at biocultural conservation, as well as to issues of indigenous land rights and traditional resource rights, that were seen as inextricably linked to the viability of local communities and their languages and cultures. New economic models, based on a coevolutionary social and ecological framework, were proposed as the context in which humanity at the end of the millennium could strive to achieve sustainability and maintain biological and cultural diversity.

Future Directions
While participants agreed in recognizing the interconnectedness of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, a shared need was felt for better, more fine-grained ways to define and identify diversity, especially linguistic and cultural diversity. As measured in broad outline, as is traditionally done in the mapping of the languages and culture areas of the world, the two forms of diversity do not yield a good fit, although linguistic diversity is often used as a proxy for cultural diversity. Contradictory results are thus arrived at when biological diversity is cross-mapped onto one or the other. The consensus was that a much higher level of resolution, at the level of individual communities, or even subsections of communities, is required to identify cultural variation relevant to the study of biocultural diversity correlations, i.e., variation reflecting specific local adaptations; and that comparable detailed work needs to be done on linguistic variation. The crucial importance of working in close contact with other colleagues in interdisciplinary teams was stressed, as was the need for interdisciplinary teaching and training. Issues of funding for interdisciplinary research, as well as for applied work aimed at returning the results of research to local communities and at fostering grassroots biocultural conservation efforts, were also discussed. A "white paper", containing conference participants' recommendations at these various levels, is in preparation, as are one or more publications based on the conference, and an informational/educational video (in collaboration with documentary filmmaker Steve Bartz). An extensive set of background readings, prepared by the conference organizer, is also available upon request.

[The conference was organized by Luisa Maffi (Institute of Cognitive Studies, U California, Berkeley), and funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the UNESCO/WWF-I/Kew Gardens "People and Plants Initiative", and UC Berkeley's Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, Office of the Deans of Letters and Sciences, and Institute of Cognitive Studies. It was sponsored by the NGO "Terralingua: Partnerships for Linguistic and Biological Diversity", and co-sponsored and hosted by UC Berkeley's Department of Integrative Biology and University and Jepson Herbaria.

Participants were: Scott Atran, William Balee, Herman Batibo, Benjamin Blount, Stephen Brush, Ignacio Chapela, Greville Corbett, Alejandro de Avila, Margaret Florey, David Harmon, Jane Hill, Leanne Hinton, Eugene Hunn, Dominique Irvine, Willett Kempton, Manuel Lizarralde, Ian Saem Majnep, L. Frank Manriquez, Gary Martin, Douglas Medin, Katharine Milton, Brent Mishler, Felipe Molina, Denny Moore, Gary Nabhan, James Nations, Johanna Nichols, Richard Norgaard, Christine Padoch, Andrew Pawley, Mark Poffenberger, Darrell Posey, Eric Smith, D. Michael Warren, Stanford Zent. The participant's affiliations, biographical sketches, and conference abstracts, as well as other information about the conference, can be found at the following two WWW sites: Endangered_Lang_Conf/Endangered_Lang.html

For additional information, please contact Dr. Luisa Maffi, Institute of Cognitive Studies, 608 Barrows Hall, U California, Berkeley, CA 94720; phone: (510) 643-1728; fax: (510) 6435688; e-mail: maffi(at)]

Action Items from LSA Endangered Language Meeting, Chicago, 4 Jan. 97
(Summary by the Organizer, Tony Woodbury)

The following is a summary of major action items proposed or discussed at the open meeting of the Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation (CELP) held at the LSA meeting in Chicago on 01-04-97. For a fuller description of the meeting, see "Notes on the 01-04-97 Meeting of the LSA's Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation," which I am circulating concurrently with this.

Because no quorum of the actual committee was present at the LSA meeting, the items below technically are proposals to the committee.

It was the sense of the meeting that these items could and should be carried out by ad hoc task forces of one or more interested LSA members, whether or not they happen to be among the twelve people serving as appointed CELP members at this moment. Anyone interested in forming, or being involved in, a task force on any of these issues (or any other issue) should contact me (acw(at)

1. Development of a Plan for Honoring the Linguistic Contributions of Native Speakers of Endangered Languages.
The Executive Committee of the LSA has requested that the CELP propose a plan for honoring endangered language (EL) speakers who have contributed to linguistics, for example, by carrying out language preservation work in their communities, or by serving as long term consultants for documentation projects. Some specific suggestions have been given (detailed in the meeting report). A concrete written proposal must be submitted to the LSA by May for consideration by the Executive Committee.

2. Endangered Language Scholarship at the LSA Annual Meeting.
For the last three years there have been regular (and in some cases also special) sessions on EL research. It is important for LSA members to submit abstracts checking off the "Field Reports/Endangered Languages" box on the Abstract Submittal form. Those wishing to be involved further can:

* Make themselves available as FR/EL abstract referees for the Program Committee (let me know and I'll forward your name).

* Put together a colloquium or symposium for the 1998 (New York) LSA. Possible topics include:
o Language pedagogy in community settings
o Language shift/language ideology
o Field methods (Cf. Johanna Nichols' 1996 Chechen symposium)
o Showcase of newly discovered "exotic" phenomena

It should be noted that in 1998, the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas will be meeting together with the LSA. This suggests certain possibilities for collaboration. (For more on SSILA, see their web page at

3. Database on Endangered Languages.
Akira Yamamoto (akira(at) has conducted a survey of EL's, including numbers of remaining speakers and contact names of linguists. Those wishing to assist or to provide data should contact Akira.

4. The Use of Linguistic Information in Community Settings.
Bill Poser (poser(at) has suggested that information and experience be assembled on how linguistic information of various kinds could be mobilized in community language preservation efforts. This includes the development of pedagogical materials from scientific grammars, dictionaries, and text collections, as well as the effective dissemination of scientific results on such topics as multilingualism (e.g., Knowing more than one language won't stunt a child's intellectual growth). This project may take a variety of forms, e.g., a clearing house, a web page, or just the preparation of a survey of relevant research which could be published in an appropriate scholarly periodical.

5. Development of a CELP Web Page.
Needed here (at minimum) is an editor and a person with appropriate web page building skills. The page could be a part of the LSA's new web page, or linked to it. It could give information on endangerment, as well as provide names and contact info on people who could speak knowledgeably to the press.

6. Disciplinary "Agitation".
The issue is how well the discipline and its institutional practices support documentary linguistics and language preservation activities. The plan for a new "Field Reports" section in _Language_ is the latest welcome development on this front. Visibility at LSA annual meetings (item 2 above) must continue. But at the same time we need studies on such topics as:

* Field Methods teaching in linguistics departments (already raised by Paul Newman in his exemplary 1992 article, 'Fieldwork and field methods in linguistics' (California Linguistic Notes 23(2):1-8)).

* Survey career trajectories of students doing field work dissertations. What kinds of jobs both inside and outside of academic linguistics do they find? How do their prospects compare with those of students with analytic specialties (phonology, syntax, historical, socio, etc.)?

* Departmental receptivity to field work dissertations. Are grammars acceptable as dissertations? Dictionaries? Collections of texts?

Final Comment
Please regard this list as part of an ongoing effort by the CELP to gather ideas and stimulate activity. I'll be happy to disseminate responses or additions to this list.

Tony Woodbury (acw(at)
Chair, LSA Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation