Foundation for Endangered Languages

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2. Development of the Foundation

First Workshop, Univ of York, 26-27 July 1997: Brief Report by Nicholas Ostler

The Foundation for Endangered Languages held its first workshop in York, England, on 26 and 27 July this year. The advertised title was First Steps in Language Rescue, and the intended focus was the lessons which had been learnt in trying to take action on behalf of endangered languages, in any of a variety of language situations around the world.

In the event, we certainly achieved our aims in variety: every continent was represented in the ten talks given. The interpretation of “first steps”, however, was a little unexpected, since six of the talks were case studies of the situation on the ground of particular languages (Berber in North Africa, Izhorian in Karelia, Anambé and Makurap in Brazil, Gaelic in Scotland), or of areas with a number of endangered tongues (Brunei Darussalam and India), and one was a comparison of the effects of oil exploration on a number of American language communities in Colombia and Ecuador. More directed towards practical policy choices were a consideration of the rôle of electronic coding standards in preserving languages, an account of developing materials on Kurdish, and an analysis of issues that arose in compiling a dictionary for the Tsimshian language of the American North-West.

On further thought, though, all the talks were on target, because THE first step in language rescue must be an informative assessment of a language’s current situation. When that is clear, it becomes possible to adopt the other measures that may make a difference: to educate public opinion more widely, to agitate effectively with political power, and to see what relevance there may be for cross-fertilization with methods and insights from other situations and other responses to them.

When this assessment is made, the fascination in this field of study becomes overpowering, from one point of view even paralysing. The fascination stems from the complex interplay among common features of language situations and the diversity of conditions besetting actual language communities. It belies any belief in simple technical fixes for the problems caused by contact of languages, and the threat the contact often poses to smaller language communites.

One theme that emerged in many of the talks was the rôle of literacy: at a basic level, it is evident that all languages could be written down, and hence might be expected to benefit from setting up spelling standards, and writing dictionaries. For moribund languages, such as Izhorian, this may be all the hope there is for long-term preservation. Yet the rôle of literacy, once imparted, is modulated crucially by the background society into which it comes.

This is immediately highlighted in languages of the Islamic area, such as Berber and Kurdish. The choice of alphabet for literacy is heavily loaded culturally, and capable of triggering a violent response: perversely then, retaining illiteracy may aid language survival, at least where discretion is the better part of valour.

For the Waorani, a traditional hunter-gatherer community of the Ecuadoran rain forest, literacy has been offered from outside, but hitherto without reference to the Waorani’s own language, on which there are still very few published materials of any kind. The gradual acceptance of literacy has led to the setting up of schools with foreign teachers, but this has changed the regimen from nomadism to settlement, and position of children from contributing members of the family group to dependants: a further effect of this is to switch the parents’ activity away from hunting and gathering, and more towards static gardening. As yet, there is no discernible move towards literacy in the native tongue.

Contrast literacy in the Tsimshian communities. Here the community is already sedentary, and literate in Engish: but literacy plays a major part in achieving and disputing status among Tsimshian speakers. This of course means that writing a dictionary becomes at times a politically fraught task, valued by all, but perhaps only effectively feasible for an outsider, who can plead neutrality.

For Scots Gaelic speakers, as for Welsh, literacy is part of the tradition that has kept the language going over the last century, with the Bible and other religious texts to the fore. However, the two Celtic languages differ markedly on what they do with this capability. For the Gaelic speakers, it has been been a passive strength, for reading scripture rather than writing (even for personal correspondence), with the result that activities aimed at documenting the culture tend towards the audio-visual - plays, concerts, recitals, television programmes. Welsh, by contrast, is strong in the active production of literature, with bardic contests and several vigorous book publishers. Furthermore this is being carried over in the modern period into active development of coding standards to localize software in Welsh: text on the page appears to play a much greater part in Welsh culture than its does in Gaelic, despite both having a centuries-old tradition of the written word.

And such different attitudes to literacy can grow up even in a century - as was illustrated by the case of the neighbouring islanders of the Eastern Pacific: it is apparently some source of pride to the Tokelauans that they have more literature than the American Samoans.

Literacy is essentially connected to language, and perhaps it is natural that it should be diffracted through the multi-faceted prism of linguistic diversity. But a brute external force, even a recent one that has affected only the last couple of generations, may be just as inconsistent in its effects. Such a force is pressure for oil exploration and exploitation.

We heard how oil development in Brunei (since its discovery in 1929) had had the effect of concentrating the community on the coasts, changing the traditional balance between inland and coastal regions, and accelerating inter-marriage between speakers of Malay and local languages. In the Andes, on the other hand, in the 1980s and 1990s, no such effect could be observed, although the oil was likewise pumped to coastal terminals. Instead, the various incursions of foreign oil companies had thrown into relief the different positions of different traditional communities.

For the Waorani in Ecuador, it had caused the first sustained contact with Western power, and had reinforced the beginnings of a trend to settle in communities and accept schooling in Spanish; it is too early to say whether it will lead to the breakdown of language transmission, when children bilingual in Spanish and Huaorani begin to have children of their own.

For the Cofán, in scattered villages on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, the influx had in the end challenged this rather accommodating people to hold their ground, and begin to work out how to take effective control of the confrontation: literacy was actively sought, but on a bilingual model, and under explicit Cofán control.

For the U’wa, living further north on the edge of of Colombia’s eastern plains, conciliatory gestures by oil companies were rejected, and their activity was spurned outright, on religious grounds: petroleum has mythic significance, and its systematic removal is taboo. The situation is complicated by simultaneous acts of sabotage on the pipeline by politically-inspired guerrillas, but the outcome is not yet at all clear: at any rate, the solidarity - and linguistic consistency - of the U’wa themselves is not in doubt.

* * *

The final impression left by the workshop, perhaps, if there was a single one, was of perplexity: perplexity of the various language communities confronting each a different uncertain future in its own way, but perplexity also of linguists and analysts, looking for common threads, but finding rather a tattered tapestry.

But while there is life in the communities, there is hope for their survival, and indeed surprising growth. And life there most certainly is, all about us.

The papers from the workshop are being collected and edited for publication. Details will appear in Ogmios as they become available.

Minutes of the Second Annual General Meeting held at 7.30pm on Friday 26th July 1997 at Derwent College, The University of York

Present: Farid Aitsiselmi, Margaret Allen, M.J.Ball, Norman Campbell, John Clews, Siamak Rezai Durroei, Kenneth MacKinnon, Peter Martin, Christopher Moseley, Alzerinda de Oliveira Braga, Nicole Mueller, Tim Farrell, Karen Birtwhistle, Russell Norton, Nicholas Ostler, Tonya Stebbins, Andrew Woodfield, Maria Risoleta Silva Juli„o, Mahendra Verma, Jean Ure, Ilya Nikolaev, Izumi Tanaka, Nukul Saxena

Apologies: R.Robins, Bruce Connell

1. Minutes of last AGM
The Minutes of the inaugural meeting of 4th July 1996, which had been previously approved and signed on 30th September 1996, were summarised by the Secretary. At that meeting the Foundation had been formally constituted. There were no matters arising.

2. President's Annual Report
Nicholas Ostler singled out key features of FEL’s first year. These included three issues of the Newsletter, the continued increase in membership, the selection of a logo, the compiling of a questionnaire to be filled in by funding applicants. FEL had received several requests for grants to support field work, and these were being processed. NO said that the main aims for the coming year were: to raise more funds, to increase membership, to take up particular issues and campaigns and thereby publicize FEL, to award grants for constructive mini-projects, and to achieve charitable status.

3. Annual Report of Treasurer/Membership Secretary
Mahendra Verma circulated copies of a summary of accounts (attached). This showed that FEL’s current balance was £2,430.15, before the deduction of the conference costs. Expenses for the year came to £178.85, which were due to bank charges and officers’expenses. NO had not yet claimed for the costs of producing the Newsletter.

FEL’s income depended entirely upon subscription fees. It was open to FEL to apply for grants from other charitable foundations such as the Aga Khan Foundation. John Clews promised to draw up a list of likely ones.

At the time when Daniel Nettle handed over the Treasurer’s job, there were 70 members. The figure now stood at 132 members. Not all had yet renewed their membership for 1997-8.

Some concern was expressed at the fact that the Co-operative Bank had levied £16 bank charges, given that FEL is a voluntary association. With this account, charges are waived only for registered charities. It was suggested that the executive committee might look into the possibility of opening an account elsewhere on better terms.

MV reminded the meeting that he had stepped in as interim treasurer in December 1996 because it had not been possible to appoint a successor to DN, and he indicated that he expected to relinquish the post.

4. Election of Executive Committee for 1997-8
Professor MacKinnon agreed to chair this item. There being no postal nominations for new members, the meeting nominated and then voted for the re-election of the current officers: Nicholas Ostler for President, Andrew Woodfield for Secretary, Mahendra Verma for Membership Secretary, Chris Moseley for Publicity Officer. No candidates presented themselves for the post of Hon Treasurer. NO described the obstacles that had prevented the proper appointment of a replacement for DN. MV offered to carry on as Acting Treasurer until the next General Meeting, when the appointment of a new Hon Treasurer would have to be settled. This was agreed. There were no nominations for the two other vacancies on the executive committee, but John Clews indicated that he might be willing to serve after considering the matter further. The Secretary noted that the committee could co-opt more members in the future if it wished to do so.



5. Date of Next AGM
The date would be decided in light of the proposal to hold a conference in 1998. It was desirable that the AGM should coincide with this.

The meeting ended at around 8pm.

Minutes of the General Meeting held at 8pm on Friday 26th July 1997 at Derwent College, The University of York

Present: Farid Aitsiselmi, Margaret Allen, M.J.Ball, Norman Campbell, John Clews, Siamak Rezai Durroei, Kenneth MacKinnon, Peter Martin, Christopher Moseley, Alzerinda de Oliveira Braga, Nicole Mueller, Tim Farrell, Karen Birtwhistle, Russell Norton, Nicholas Ostler, Tonya Stebbins, Andrew Woodfield, Maria Risoleta Silva Juli„o, Mahendra Verma, Jean Ure, Ilya Nikolaev, Izumi Tanaka, Nukul Saxena

Apologies: R.Robins, Bruce Connell

Agenda: NO requested that items be added to the agenda: revision of subscription fees, proposal to open a credit card payment facility, ideas for fund-raising and campaigns. Agreed.

1. Minutes of General Meeting held on 6th April 1997 in Edinburgh
Copies of the Minutes had appeared in Newsletter #5, which had been been distributed to all members. These were approved. As no separate copy was at hand for signing, this formality was allowed to be postponed until the next executive committee meeting.

2. Matters Arising
(i) MV to organise workshop in York, 26-27th July. A programme had been successfully drawn up. The workshop, Steps in Language Rescue, was currently in progress and provided an excellent setting for the present meeting.
(ii) CM to contact Philological Society. His report was incorporated into item 5. (iii) Siamak Rezai’s search for a permanent home on the web for the Kurdish language site. This project was the topic of one of the workshop sessions.

3. International Conference on Language Endangerment 1998 (MV)
MV said he would be willing to organise such a conference, which could be combined with next year’s AGM. John Clews expressed his willingness to help.There was discussion about the most suitable place, date, sources of support, and invitations to distinguished speakers. Since the AGM is due in July plus or minus a month, it was felt that Easter would be too early. This ruled out holding it back-to-back with the Sociolinguistics Symposium in London on 26-28 March. Cardiff, Edinburgh and York were all suggested as easily-reached centres, but more distant venues were not ruled out. Kenneth MacKinnon said that he was currently trying to organise a Gaelic conference on Uist in July 1998 with the support of Highlands and Islands development bodies. It was agreed that MV should explore the possibility of linking the FEL conference to this. Collaboration should be sought with Terralingua in USA, the Endangered Languages Fund based at Yale, the endangered languages group in Germany, and other like-minded organisations.
MV agreed to present a progress report to the next executive committee meeting.

4. Appeals to foreign governments (CM)
CM explained his conception of FEL as having a lobbying and monitoring function in relation to governments, particularly new governments such as that of Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He read out his draft of a letter designed to be sent to heads of government, which appealed for an enlightened approach to language policy. Members’ comments on the draft focussed upon (a) the need for tact and political neutrality (b) whether or not a standard letter should be sent to all governments of multilingual countries rather than just to new governments. AW emphasised the salutary effect of FEL’s being perceived as a watchdog body, and suggested that letters might usefully take the form of tailor-made requests for information about each regime’s policy intentions. It was suggested that FEL might investigate whether other groups such as Survival and Amnesty International had ever appealed to governments in this way.
The meeting agreed that CM should send his letter initially to the Congolese government. No definite decision was taken about whether letters would be sent to any other countries.

5. Bids presented to FEL for grants (CM)
CM reported that the questionnaire had been sent to 3 applicants. 1.The original applicant on behalf of Livonian in Latvia had not replied. Instead the Livonian Cultural Association had sent a new request for money to make a film of folk dancing. CM felt that this project was not sufficiently language-oriented. 2.The applicant from St Petersburg who proposed to do fieldwork in Mali. One of the two referees had replied so far; the reference was favourable. CM had written to the Philological Society asking them to go halves on the request for $2300. The Society’s Secretary Dick Hayward promised to raise the matter at its June meeting but he has not yet informed CM of its decision. 3. The Twahka proposal from Prof. Ken Hale of MIT has been passed on to Ulster University.

NO proposed that if the Philological Society agreed to support the Russian applicant, FEL should give him $500 forthwith. AW urged that the procedure for making awards needed to be made precise and to be uniformly applied. He proposed that application 2 should be dealt with by the executive committee when all members had had a chance to peruse the application and supporting documents. Agreed.

CM reported the receipt of two other applications, one for work in Irian Jaya, the other for a project in Thailand. It was agreed that all applicants should be asked to fill out the standard questionnaire and that all relevant paperwork should be sent to members of the executive committee. (Action CM).

6. Proposal to revise subscription fees (NO)
Although a renewal notice had been circulated recently at the old rates, NO argued that the recent rise in the value of the pound made it desirable to adjust the level of subscriptions paid in dollars. He also proposed changes in the sterling fees. The new rates, to take effect from 1st August, would be as follows:
Individual Member - 20 pounds sterling or 35 USD - Regular
Individual Member- 10 pounds or 17 USD - Concessionary (unwaged)
Corporate member - 65 pounds or 110 USD - voluntary bodies
Corporate member - 110 pounds or 185 USD - official bodies
Corporate member - 220 pounds or 350 USD - commercial companies.
Before a vote was taken on this proposal, MV suggested that it would be unnecessary to fix dollar rates for cheque payments if FEL were to open a facility for payment of subscriptions by credit card. Item 6 was accordingly joined with item 7.

7. Proposal to open a credit card payment facility (NO)
The advantages were plain, but there was a cost believed to be around £100. The meeting considered that the administration of subscriptions now warranted this investment given FEL’s current size. Members voted (a) to open a credit card facility (8 votes in favour, nem. con), (b) to require that all subscriptions be paid in sterling at the new rates proposed in item 6 (8 votes in favour, nem. con).
MV pointed out that the concessionary rate had not been explicitly said to apply to applicants from developing countries, though this was the rate they ought to be charged. It was agreed that a clause to this effect be added to the new schedule of fees. Also it was noted that any applicant in financial hardship or from a country with non-convertible currencies could write personally to the President requesting him to lower or waive the subscription fee in their case.

8. Ideas for Fund-raising and Campaigns
The meeting was invited to raise ideas. Jean Ure reported that she had approached the curator of the People’s Story Museum in Edinburgh about the possibility of a Millenium exhibition on endangered languages. The City Arts Centre was a suitable venue and its staff would provide technical assistance. She and CM agreed to follow this up.
Other ideas:
1. To investigate the Scottish Office initiative to strengthen Gaelic links between Scotland and Ireland (Norman Campbell).
2. To solicit donations from wealthy individuals, e.g. from the entertainment world (AW). Karen Birtwhistle noted that the Welsh Language Board helps to publicise its activities through Welsh popular music stars.
3. Publications. Calendars in different languages. Tonya Stebbins noted that an Australian publisher had published a volume of aboriginal short stories with the original language and the English translation printed side by side.
3. Raffles, car-boot sales etc.
4. European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. Contact Allan Wynne Jones, requesting funds for FEL and support for next year’s conference (John Clews).
5. UNESCO has a funding scheme for endangered languages fieldwork.
6. Contact local UN Associations, Women’s Institutes, political parties. Branches are often in need of speakers to invite.

The meeting ended at around 10pm.

Endangered Language Interest Group for Members of the Linguistic Association of Great Britain

Date: Mon, 08 Sep 1997 16:30:31 +0100
To: lagb(at)
From: Dick Hudson dick(at)
Subject: LAGB: interest groups

The business meeting of the LAGB in the first week of September 1997 approved the suggestion (from the committee) that it should set up two `interest groups' for LAGB members, which (at least at first) would exist simply as email lists with a coordinator. Endangered Languages was one of these groups, the other being Linguistics in Education.

In each case there is already an official society or committee outside the LAGB, the Foundation for Endangered Languages (in our case) and the Committee for Linguistics in Education (sponsored jointly by LAGB and BAAL) for the other.

The LAGB interest groups will provide a channel of communication between these bodies and the LAGB for circulating information about their meetings, for email discussion of specifically linguistic issues and maybe from time to time for arranging special activities at LAGB meetings.

If you would like to join one of these interest groups, please send a message to one of the following:

Endangered languages: Nick Ostler (nostler(at)
Linguistics in education: Dick Hudson (dick(at)

Correction to the Report on Kurdish, from the 6 April 1997 General Meeting (Edinburgh), in Newsletter #5.

Siamak Rezaei Durroei, whose remarks were summarized, responds:

There are 2 major mistakes in the news about my talk:

- The Syrian Kurds haven't been mentioned in the [estimated] size of Kurdish and they are by mistake grouped as Zaza speakers. I have no information about Zaza being spoken in Syria (but there are some Kurds who speak yet another dialect grouped with Zaza in Iran). You may correct it by changing "the Zaza dialect in Turkey/Syria" to "the Zaza dialect GROUP in Turkey/IRAN" and mention Syrian Kurds in the first sentence.

- There is a mistake where it says "Little Kurdish is taught in Turkey or Iran .. " It should be "NO Kurdish is taught in Turkey, Iran OR SYRIA ... ". For teaching Kurdish, people have ended up in jail.

The editor apologizes for these errors in his report. Although it would be desirable to check such 3rd-party reporting with the subject, in practice the urgency of deadlines seldom allow this. Where mistakes do occur, he is very happy to publish corrections as soon as they are pointed out.