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5. Field Work Reports

Language Death in Central Nigeria, by Roger Blench

A talk given at SOAS, December 5th, 1996

CISPAL, 8, Guest Road,
Cambridge, CB1 2AL
United Kingdom
Tel/Ans/Fax 00-44-1223-560687
E-mail RMB5(at)

Nigeria is linguistically the most complex country in Africa, and one of the most complex in the world. A recent book and map (Crozier and Blench 1992) has improved our knowledge of the geography of its languages but also reveals that much remains to be done. Confusion about the status and nomenclature of many languages remains rife and the inaccessibility of many minority languages is an obstacle to research.

Although Nigeria has a large and varied university infrastructure and a number of departments of linguistics, there is little tradition of field linguistics and a low value is attached to descriptive and lexicographic work. Studies of syntax from various modern theoretical perspectives are the common output of these departments.

Language death has certainly taken place in this century. Evidence from the wordlists of Gowers taken in 1907 suggests the disappearance of a number of small languages around Bauchi. Recent work by Michael Bro· on the Butu-Ningi group near Ningi town has witnessed the death of languages still spoken in the 1970s. I have personally documented the speech of some residual Bassa-speaking groups recorded by Rowlands (1962). It is also true, however, that the death of many languages is announced prematurely, before a careful investigation has taken place. Many groups mentioned in Temple (1922), for example, have proved to be still in existence as the experience of Russell Schuh (1978) shows.

It seems likely that language death has always been taking place. There is a great deal of evidence from linguistic geography that major expansions of languages have caused turmoil in the Middle Belt, and led to the disappearance of many languages through assimilation. Gur-Adamawa languages and Kainji languages are now fragmented among the surrounding Chadic languages. Hausa, Kanuri and Tiv can be cited as highly visible expansions probably of quite recent date.

The question is then; is language death accelerating in the present situation, or is it simply part of a normal process? Unfortunately, there appears to be no easy answer to this as we cannot census vanished languages. But it seems likely that the growth of the nation state and the promotion of specific languages has had a powerful impact. Against this, however, there are two arguments;

a) demographic growth has increased the likelihood of small languages surviving.
b) oppression and neglect creates a situation where language maintenance becomes a tool of resistance.

The United States and Australia are the two nation states where minority languages are disappearing at greatest speed. These countries previously had oppressive and violent policies, whereas today they are relatively beneficent. However, due to cultural assimilation, Amerindian and Aboriginal languages are disappearing faster than before.

The situation of minority languages in Central Nigeria can be briefly summarised as follows;

a) there are approximately 250 distinct languages spoken in the Middle Belt
b) of these, at least 100 have under 200 speakers
c) 95 of these remain completely undescribed
d) there is no government policy towards these languages at all
e) the remainder range between 200 and ca. one million
f) the fate of these languages depends largely on the future political history of Nigeria

The major factors tending to cause language disappearance are;

a) assimilation to larger more powerful groups nearby
b) assimilation to smaller but culturally dominant groups
c) assimilation to English
d) demographic crises caused by labour migration/urbanism

Factors responsible for language maintenance are;

a) absence of adjacent culturally dominant groups
b)endogamous marriage practices
c)maintenance of traditional religion/cultural pride
d)existence of an orthography
e)government oppression and neglect
g)access to media

Islam has had an ambivalent impact on language maintenance. In more recent times, with the expansion of Hausa, there has been a strong relationship between conversion to Islam and adoption of the Hausa language. However, earlier conversion to Islam, such as among the Songhay, Wandala, Kanembu and Afade [Kotoko] seemed to have carried less cultural baggage. These people seemed to have converted the peoples on their immediate boundaries without necessarily causing cultural assimilation. The Lopa and Laru, fishing people of Lake Kainji represent an intriguing example of this; despite their small numbers and fluency in Hausa, language maintenance is extremely good.

Many languages are likely to survive in a heavily pidginised form. Old vocabulary and more elaborate syntax are giving way to forms of languages with numerous loanwords and grammar influenced by Hausa and English. This process is not new and may be part of language evolution, as the example of Tarok shows. Despite retaining complex noun morphology, the Tarok verbal system shows extreme convergence with the nearby Angas, a Chadic language which is genetically unrelated.

The future situation of these languages is hard to second-guess, because much depends on the political evolution of Nigeria. The present evidence is that as a nation-state it is becoming increasingly unstable and that the infrastructure is breaking down in more remote areas. This, of course, has the paradoxical effect of promoting language maintenance since the impact of media, and of powerful adjacent groups such as the Hausa are lessened. At the same time, the experience of neglect has acted to strengthen many nascent community development associations.

Nonetheless, other processes are likely to go to term. A number of ethnolinguistic communities with only a small number of speakers are likely to disappear soon. Descriptive studies on these languages are unlikely to be conducted before they disappear. Urban populations are likely to form consolidated blocks and large masses of population will speak either English or the urban lingua franca.

Crozier, David and Blench, Roger M. 1992. Index of Nigerian Languages (edition 2). Dallas: SIL.
Rowlands, E.C. 1962. Notes on some class languages of Northern Nigeria. African Language Studies, III:71-83.
Schuh, Russell G. 1978. Bole-Tangale languages of the Bauchi area (Northern Nigeria). Dietrich Reimer, Berlin.
Temple, Olive 1922. Notes on the Tribes, Provinces, Emirates and States of the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. Capetown: Argus Printing and Publishing Co.

[A complete version of this paper with further examples and evidence will be presented at the Round Table on Threatened African Languages as part of the IInd World Congress of African Languages in Leipzig in 1997.]

Armenians In Austria, by Jasmine Dum-Tragut
Institut f¸r Sprachwissenschaft Graz/Austria


The history of Armenians in Austria dates back to the time of Vienna¥s liberation from the Turkish siege at the end of the 17th century, when several Armenian merchants found a new market in the Habsburg empire. In 1775 Maria Theresia gave the official permission to the Armenian-Catholic Mekhitarian-congregation to settle in the Habsburg empire, and the very active, well organized Armenians of the Osman province of Suczawa (Bukowina, today a part of the Ukraine) were annexed by the Austrian empire.

In the beginning 19th century the Austrian Armenians enjoyed officially recognized status as autonomous religious community. The Mekhitarian congregation, having come to Vienna in 1810, contributed to the spread of Armenian culture in central Europe through its printing, its library and its college for Armenian boys. The Armenian community in Vienna grew constantly, so that already in 1896 the first efforts were made to found an Armenian-Apostolic community.

Only in December 1912 did these efforts succeed in establishing a small chapel in Vienna¥s first district. The First World War and its aftermath transformed the Austrian Armenian community: the area of the Bukowina Armenians was lost during the war, but a wave of immigrants came to Austria as a result of the Armenian Genocide in 1916.

After the appointment of the first Armenian pastor in Vienna in the 1920s, the number of Armenians in Austria continued to grow, also boosted by refugees from the Iranian revolution and migrant workers from Turkey. In 1968 the Armenian-Apostolic Church of Vienna was consecrated, giving a new impetus to the ever growing Armenian community in Austria.

The approximately 2,500 Armenians living in Austria belong officially to a confessional and not to a linguistic minority (according to an official paper from December 1972) , a fact which makes them differ from other Austrian minorities such as the Slovenes, the Croats or also the Roma. About 90% of the Armenians live in Vienna, the rest in other bigger Austrian towns. Central is the Armenian-Apostolic community with its various organizations and its Saturday Armenian-School named Hovhannes Shiraz.

Besides these various contributing populations, there is nowadays a steadily increasing number of migrants from the Republic of Armenia.

Languages of Austrian Armenians

The Armenian linguistic community is rather heterogeneous.

In both general or out-group and in-group communication Armenians might be mono-, bi- or multilingual. .

The languages to consider are the following:
· The majority language Austrian German
· Minority languages a) varieties of Armenian
b) other immigrant languages (Arabic, Turkish, Persian etc.)

The linguistic situation as well as the various frequencies and domains of usage are related to generations of Austrian-Armenians, with the majority language, German, tending to be added to the immigrants' previous languages.

Immigrants have to acquire German because of the social and economic demands of their new environment, so that their "bilingualism" tends to increase over time. But being bilingual does not imply that all bilinguals have the same competence. On the contrary - differing competence in the concerned languages reflects the individual's membership of and affinity with the majority and minority communities. Loyalty to the ethnic language is in contrast to the wish to become an accepted and full member of the majority. The differences in the individual competences as well as the effects on the self-categorization of Armenians are due to strong social pressure.



Individual bilingualism of Armenians must be distinguished from group-specific ethnic bilingualism. Bilingualism is in fact one of the features of Armenian diasporan ethnicity. The country of origin determines not only the non-verbal behaviour and the society's rules but also the relative importance of Armenian language in the in-group. This attitude is brought to Austria together with the language of the country of origin and is confronted with the new majority's language German, and its social norms. In this multilingual setting the language with the lowest social value , vitality and functionality will be forgotten or lost later on.

The linguistic settings of Austrian Armenians
The linguistic settings of the immigrants' generation

Armenian Monolingualism
The proportion of monolingual speakers of Armenian is very low. (Cf Tragut 1994). This monolingualism is the initial state, when immigrants coming to Austria are only competent in Armenian and have yet to acquire any German. Armenian has all possible functions of the language first learned (or mother tongue) and is further on used as a basilectal, informal variety and in in-group communication - as long as it is not replaced by German. The other case of Armenian monolingualism should be deemed an exceptional one - if the children of immigrants are intentionally raised in Armenian. Later on they will be forced to learn the majority's language.

Monolingualism in the language of the country of origin
Those immigrants coming from a third country and speaking the (majority's) language of this country have no or very restricted Armenian knowledge. The "imported language" is not the ethnic language. This monolingualism follows the same rules as the Armenian monolingualism - it is to be considered the initial linguistic state of Austrian Armenianness.

Bilingualism Armenian/language of country of origin
This kind of bilingualism is a general characteristic of the Armenian Diaspora. The Armenians immigrating to Austria from other traditional Armenian diasporan countries are individuals having acquired their ethnic and the majority's language to a rather "real "bilingual extent, i.e. they have good competences in both languages according to domains and linguistic settings.

These Armenians use Armenian as means of in-group-communication in their Armenian linguistic community and as hearth-and-home variety, the other language might be used for basilectal functions as well as for mesolectal functions in non-Armenian and non-Austrian but country of origin-in-group settings. This kind of bilingualism is also subject to language shift after emigration - only in a few cases can this bilingualism can be maintained in the Austrian majority.

The linguistic setting of the following generations
German monolingualism
German monolingualism of Austrian Armenians is the consequence of acculturation and assimilation to the Austrian majority. It is obviously due to the duration of stay in Austria - the more generations an Armenian family has, the stronger is the German influence on all linguistic functions and situations.

German monolingualism can be found in the youngest generation. After having restricted the usage of Armenian as means of communication in family and in-group domains Armenian has lost its social and functional value. The fact of "familiar impoverishment" of the Armenian language causes a strong language shift because of the decision of one generation not to transmit the ethnic language as first language to the following generation. German-speaking Armenians are mostly descendants of

1.families, where the parents or grandparents themselves had a restricted or only passive Armenian competence and oriented their linguistic behaviour by the majority's social norms
2.mixed marriages where German is the common means of family communication.
3.families absolutely assimilated to the Austrian majority.
German monolingualism is characteristic for the individual or familiar Armenian language death - or for the language loss for those Austrian-Armenians not attaching any social importance to their ethnic language.

Bilingualism: German-Armenian
The following generations have been raised in a German-speaking majority. Armenian might have been maintained as family language, religious variety and of the language of in-group activities. German can be a family language at the same time, but it is certainly the language of the second and third socialisation. The individual bilingualism and the competences depend on the order of language acquisition, i.e. if speaking of compound (both German and Armenian are acquired at the same time) or co-ordinate (one language is acquired after having learnt the other) bilingualism. It is important to state if this bilingualism
can be described according to the competences (Hutnik 1991):
- Equilingualism (competence in both languages is the good) - Semilingualism (competence in both languages is bad)
- the ethnic language (= Armenian) is dominating (Bilingualism with ethnic language dominance)
- the majority's language is dominating (Bilingualism with majority language dominance)
All four kinds of bilingualism can be found in the Austrian Armenian linguistic community, equilingualism and dominance of majority's language are the most widespread ones..

Even if Armenian is the less functional and active language it may be the more prestigious and more emotional one.

Bilingualism: German/Language of the country of origin
In some Armenian families in Austria the younger generation is confronted with the situation where Armenian never was a really family language and was never transmitted as functional linguistic variety to the younger members of the family. The language of the country of origin has taken the basilectal function (that Armenian should have) and is mostly the more emotional language or the language first acquired. German enjoys a wide range of functions and is the prestige variety.

This is a very common linguistic situation in Austria. Above all those Armenians belonging to the Austrian-Armenian upper class and with higher educational level try to maintain their family languages. These immigrants have settled in Austria being conscious of their existing bilinguality and transmitted both languages as well as the new language - German - to their descendants in order to open the door to multiculturality and ethnic consciousness for their children.

These multilingual Armenians use their languages according to their social and emotional domains, and in all cases, one of the three languages has been acquired later than the others.

Multilingualism is also only an intermediate phase of Austrian-Armenianness - the next generation will lose on of the languages (the one without functional vitality) and German will gain in importance in all linguistic settings.

After having shortly described the possible linguistic situation of Austrian Armenians I would like to focus on the interrelation of these situations.

Monolingualism seems to be either the initial or the final state of a minority. Ethnic monolingualism might be considered the initial state of the immigrant generation when first confronted with the majority. On learning the majority's language the immigrant slowly shifts his linguistic behaviour and replaces former domains of his ethnic language by the new languages. Social requirements cause him to transmit the out-group language also to his children, so that the following generation may be regarded as bilingual. With progressive assimilation and adoption of social and linguistic behaviour of the out-group the second generation may decide to deny its ethnic origin and language and will slowly give up their ethnic variety. The third generation may be raised only in the majority's language and will represent the final state - non-ethnic monolingualism.

Hence bilingualism as well as multilingualism may be intermediate states between monolingualisms.

Immigrant generation
Following generations
Initial state
Ethnic language

Intermediate state
Ethnic + majority's lang

Final state
Majority's language
language loss/death

The theoretical shift depends on other factors as the possibilities of using the ethnic language, the existence of in-group organizations and activities and the efforts to maintain the language. Minority schools and language courses may help to counteract against a gradual language loss, but also confessional organisations and the ethnic church itself may act as strong language preservers.

The so-called bottom-to-top-death (Sasse 1990) is a very common shift among Austrian Armenians. Armenian is slowly losing its importance in basilectal and in-group-contexts. On the other hand strong efforts are made to maintain Armenian language by language courses and the Saturday school. In this fight the Armenian Church is playing a very important role.

The Armenian language is even more endangered in those situations, where Armenian is only restricted to family talk. Lacking opportunities for use, the ethnic language will lose its vitality and attractiveness for coming generations. This is a very serious problem for Armenians in Austria: but only in Vienna is the struggle against language loss being maintained, elsewhere Armenians are too isolated to maintain their language. The situation is further complicated by the differing varieties of Armenian spoken in Austria, and by differences in the in-group, so that sub-ethnic groups are formed depending on social group, educational level and not at least - competence in Armenian.

Since a large number of modern Avstriyahay (Austrian Armenians) have no active knowledge of their ethnic language, the percentage of those fighting for language maintenance and against the equilibrium final state - German monolingualism - is comparatively low.

Hutnik, Nimmi: Ethnic Minority Identity. A Social Psychological Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1991.
Sasse, Hans-Jurgen: Theory of Language Death, Language Decay and Contact-Induced Change. Kˆln: Institut fur Sprachwissenschaft 1990.
Tragut, Jasmine: Die Bedeutung der ethnischen Merkmalskomponente "Sprache" fur die armenische Ethnizit‰t in ÷sterreich. Phil. Diss. Graz: 1994.