Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


1. “Ogmios” - and should FEL restrict itself to Languages Clearly in Danger?

After what I wrote in the editorial of the last Newsletter, it will come as no surprise to readers to see that we have changed our title.

Drawing on what I had learnt of the attitude to language of the Páez people of southern Colombia, I first hoped to make use of a characteristic saying of their language. Yuwe Peet Kup’ - “language, the gift that germinates” - since it was so close to the idea which underlies our Foundation’s logo. Words are seeds, and people bestow them on each other. But ultimately we cannot escape the fact that our newsletter is an English-language publication, and Yuwe Peet Kup’ (or perhaps more familiarly YPK) will never have resonance as an English title. It says what we want it to say; but, sadly, it is “a bit of a mouthful”, rather than a sound-bite.

While I was pondering this problem, I received a suggestion from Nancy Dorian, renowned chronicler of the Scottish Gaelic of East Sutherland. She suggested an appeal to Ogmios, the ancient Celtic god of eloquence. As she pointed out, almost all that is known of Ogmios comes from a passage of the Greek rhetorician Lucian of the 2nd century AD, where he introduces a speech by alluding to the advanced age of the Celtic Hercules, (noting that this is no bar to eloquence!):

… Ogmios, a very ancient man, attired like Hercules, drawing many men after him by slender gold & amber cords which ran from his tongue to their ears. A Celt explained that the power of words was greatest in the elderly, and that the power of words was believed by the Celts to be so great that slender cords so tied could easily draw strong men along. The passage ends: “All in all, we Celts believe that Hercules himself performed everything by the power of words, as he was a clever one, and that most of his force came from persuasion. His weapons were his words, which are sharp and well-aimed, swift to pierce the soul: after all, you Greeks too say that words have wings.”

The picture of Ogmios that Lucian was referring to has not survived, but I have found another representation, from a bas-relief in the Musée d’Aix-en-Provence (photographed by Jean Roubier, and reproduced in Larousse World Mythology, 1965.)

Besides a clear interest in language, Ogmios claims responsibility too for the ancient Ogam script, which we have used to write his name on the masthead. The Ogam is derived from Michael Everson’s Craobh Ruadh font. Above it the same name in Chris Young’s Gaelic font (uppercase). These can both be found at

The god himself does not seem to figure with precisely this name and form in later Celtic pantheons, but the god Ogma does remain in Irish myth, charged with organizing strategy for the Tuatha de Danaan in their elemental battles with the Fomorians, and also apparently conveying souls to the otherworld. All in all, a fitting mentor for the struggles of Endangered Tongues, many of them all too close to their last resting place.

* * *

On 9 October, I circulated the following to members on e-mail:

Dear Members,

On 3/10/97, Chris_Moseley(at) wrote:

A knotty case of Language Rights, but not strictly endangerment, has come up in the media, hasn't it? Students in Prishtina, Kosovo, are protesting and being attacked by Serbian police this week over their right to be taught in Albanian. The Albanian TV news, which I was able to see here at work last night, devoted almost its whole half hour to it. Serbian TV mentioned not a thing. Is this a case where I could fire off a letter, bearing in mind that Albanian is not an `endangered laguage' in the usual sense?

What does the panel think? My pen is poised! And poisoned, too, if you like!


Yes, in the case of most European languages, it will be rights rather than endangerment which are in focus. I believe there are two aspects which we need to clarify before our own course of action is clear:

1. Do our membership want us to weigh in on issues like this?
2. What would our aims be in trying to express a point of view publicly?

On the first point, my own view is that we CAN make a distinctive constribution to Language Policy debates by bringing in the arguments derived from thinking about language endangerment - e,g. stressing potential loss to us all when some cultures (signalled by propagation of certain languages) are deliberately disadvantaged in the name of national unity. This sort of point may help to divert attention from the straight arm-wrestling of competing nationalisms, which ultimately gives no more benefit all round than the outcome of a boxing match. It is not necessary that endangered languages (and other languages menacing them) should be be only ones that can benefit from taking account of a more global view of the plight of languages facing extinction. But such points will need to be subtly made, if they are to seem pertinent.

On the second, we have to think who we should contact. Perhaps some of the protagonists in the Albabian and Serbian TV stations? Or media in other parts of the world, who are both more influential, and less biassed in the first place?

I asked people to express views on 1 and 2 separately, adding that our leader of moral suasion, Chris Moseley, will act on the general will. Here are some of the answers I received.

On Sun, 5 Oct 1997 Anthea Fallen-Bailey (Ms.), (Newsletter Editor for Terralingua: Partnerships for Linguistic and Biological Diversity), sent the following:

Thank-you for sending out the message below; I am glad to see that the question of language human rights for non-endangered languages is not being excluded from the F.E.L......

_ (1) Does our membership want us to weigh in on issues like this?
Yes -- but with some caution. Publicly supporting speakers of a non-endangered language who are living as a "minority" within a nation-state of a different (majority) culture raises different issues of involvement, I think. To explain...... Taking steps to preserve an endangered language (which is spoken by a relatively small group of people) tends to be seen as a form of cultural respect and cultural preservation (usually after years of cultural denigration!), and is not seen as a threat to the nation-state unit within which X group lives. In contrast, taking steps to support the rights of a non-endangered cultural minority to be educated in their first/home language can be (and nowadays frequently is) seen as a direct threat to the unity of (the myth of...) X nation-state, whether it be the U.S.A., England, or the former Yugoslavia, because one of the central ideas of the "nation-state" concept is unity of language amongst the population. Additionally, if the language "homeland" of the cultural minority is a neighbouring state, then the threat is of greater significance to the ruling authorities, more especially so if the nation-state in question is territorially (and/or economically) small. In this particular case, the language "homeland" for Albanians in Prishtina, Kosovo is very close, and thus it does not surprise me that Serbian television completely ignored the event. After all, the social, political and economic upheaval of recent years is still a vivid memory for the peoples of that area, and new nation-states are very vulnerable to perceptions of non-unity within their territories.



Clearly, not every language human rights issue will be the same; we need to consider the relevant aspects of each situation as we are apprised of them. For this situation, I think we need to speak out, but we also need to be careful. We could be accused of interfering in internal affairs which do not affect us; of being hypocrites, trying to force other peoples to conform to a moral standard which "we" ourselves (in terms of our respective nation-state citizenships) have not managed to set up and maintain in our own countries; of being culturally patronising. In short, we could end up making the situation worse for the very people we are trying to support. On the other hand, saying nothing is tantamount to ignoring what is happening, and that would be a serious threat to the integrity of our general mission, both personally and of the F.E.L.

_ (2) What would our aims be in trying to express a point of view publicly?
This question is appropriately, then, the result of my comments above. Since I think we MUST speak out on this situation, I think our aims could be:

(1.a) generally raising public awareness (everywhere) of language human rights issues;

(1.b) encouraging compromise on the part of all groups involved (whether this situation or future ones), so as to reduce -- and perhaps in the future avoid -- antagonism between the groups. If we show (perhaps through the suggestions below) that we are aware of the concerns of all the parties involved, not just one side, then we may be able to set ourselves up as (relatively!) unbiased mediators for similar situations in the future (if we want that).

I think it is most definitely to the benefit of both the present and the future to help mediate/difuse conflict situations over language issues, because this kind of involvement will, either directly or indirectly, help us to more effectively support the speakers of endangered languages in their efforts to preserve their traditional languages. There is SO MUCH general ignorance on language issues that I think our major work will be, certainly for the forseeable future, public education and raising public awareness, tolerance, etc. for people who speak a different language.

We could make the following suggestions to the Serbian authorities/media/appropriate groups (I do feel qualified to suggest who to aim at first):

(2.a) we avoid the "poisoned pen" approach, much as we might all be tempted!; this would only antagonise the very people we are trying to address/convince. Instead, point out that providing education (to whatever degree) in Albanian to Albanian-speaking students in Kosovo would actually help improve relations between Serbia and Albania, for reasons I hope are obvious;

(2.b) we point out that protests over education can frequently be settled through compromise; demands of this nature are rarely absolute. (Through the research I have conducted so far, it is clear that protests over language use/instruction, etc. are primarily used as a tool, not the central focus, to bring to the surface or motivate protest over some other dissatisfaction). In (2.a) above I indicated that providing education in Albanian to students in Serbia can be a matter of degree, by which I mean that some classes could be provided in Albanian: language classes, or history, or literature, or.......; one does not have to provide a complete educational system just for Albanian. Either we, and/or the Serbian authorities, could point out (as I am sure the Serbians will), that providing bi-lingual or separate Albanian teaching materials is an added expense that the new Serbian authorities cannot afford. This could be used as an avenue to open/improve cultural and political relations between Serbia and Albania, by asking Albania to donate, or subsidise, teaching materials in Albanian. If there is a similar situation in Albania with Serbian students, then there could be an equal exchange of texts, etc. between the two countries. (I am not up to date on current Serbian-Albanian relations). Of course, these suggestions will be useful only IF, and I stress IF, the Serbian authorities are even interested in keeping the peace with Albanians living in Serbia. If they want to "encourage" Albanians to return to Albania, then no amount of intervention or mediation on our part will make the slightest difference.

Ken Hale was brief and to the point:
On Albanian language rights in Kosovo:
1. Language rights are often inextricably bound to endangerment, in the sense that issues about an endangered language very often involve lg rights. So in principle I think we should "weighing in" with a letter in cases like this -- not with money but with a letter of support.
2. Our aim would be the basic principle of standing for language rights.

On 6 Oct 1997, Meurig Williams opined:

I think the FEL is a voice for linguistic diversity and all its benefits, just as you said, and therefore I fully agree that its view should be expressed on any issue of language endangerment or repression.

In terms of the aim of the Foundation in speaking out, I believe it must be to inform and warn of the dangers to the world as a whole of language suppression from the standpoint of an informed and responsible body, and to express its views in the appropriate places: a. to the parties actively involved - suppressors and suppressed, so that they are both aware that someone in the world outside that country and culture cares about what is happening;
b. to information industries in this country and others - Chris has a good start in the BBC where he can obtain an address for sending a bulletin to news editors carrying the FEL's comment as that of a learned and restrained body. That bulletin could also be e-mailed as a press release to the media in general, through a direct mailing list in the UK and through members forwarding the bulletin in their own countries.

On the first point, I thing you've put it well. Primarily it's about rights, but that links to our main concern.

On the second point, both lines are worth following. Letters to Serbia are unlikely to do much good in the short term, but maybe longer term. And getting an airing for the problem in the wider world is worthwhile.

For the Serbs, the problem is dire, in that their cultural heartland, Kosovo, is largely populated by non-Serbs. So it's specially sensitive. But something along the lines that 'language diversity is something of value' might have a minutely positive effect.

All in all, the answers then seem to have expressed a consensus, namely that you DO want us to go beyond the simple remit of Endangered Languages, and take in such concerns as that over Albanian in Kossovo.

Something else for the Committee to discuss on 3 November, I expect. But please feel free to suggest further lines of approach.