Foundation for Endangered Languages

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6. Overheard on the Web

Australian Program offers chance to save endangered languages

David Nash of Canberra wrote:
All I know of this curious item is when I read it … in the paper version of [Canberra’s] ANU Reporter. (Will it start a bidding war with other teams of trained linguists?!)

Subject: ANU Reporter 28.8(20 August 1997), p.6:
By Melanie La Vache

Like to speak Irantxe, Marringarr or Taulil? Ever heard anyone talking in Nganasan? They are some of the languages in danger of joining the 30 around the world that become extinct every year.

However, an ANU professor is offering the chance to help "save" a language from extinction.

“Language is the most precious human resource, a window on the culture of people - not simply a means of communicating”, said Linguistics Professor Bob Dixon. He estimated that documenting one language could be accomplished in three years, allowing time to "train the natives as linguists in order to perpetuate their language".

For $US200,000, a team of trained linguists will research a selected language by travelling to the country of origin to interview the remaining speakers. They will document words, sentence structure, syntax, grammar and inflection, finally creating a dictionary and other volumes of text describing the language.

As speakers of obscure languages assimilate into the mainstream of civilisation, they naturally switch to the major language, and as these speakers die, their native language dies with them. It is estimated that of the 5,000 languages spoken in the world today, at least three-quarters will have ceased to be spoken by 2100. Prof Dixon insists "it is an urgent task to document these languages before they disappear" but no sponsors have been found yet.

Since it is logistically impossible to document all endangered languages, a set of priorities has been established. The Research Centre for Linguistic Typology has assessed which endangered languages should receive the highest priority for documentation and will offer them to interested sponsors. Prof Dixon says that undertaking two or three language documentations initially would be ideal for his centre and staff.

The centre is also organising international workshops on topics in typological theory. The first, this week (August 18-23), is on "Valency-changing derivations" - looking at passives, antipassives, causatives and applicatives in cross-linguistic perspective.

"By examining little-known languages, we may evolve some new mode of thinking that could help to deal with problems in the modern world," says Prof Dixon. "Some of the people who live in the most primitive material ways often have the most complex language structures."

Unreasonable Success of Religious Fund-Raising?

Date: Tue, 25 Nov 1997 09:19:55 +0000
From: Matthew McDaniel akha(at)
Organization: The Akha Heritage Foundation
To: Linguist list
Subject: ELL: Re: Marion Gunn

I think that Marion Gunn brings up a good point. Much language study is done to further intellectual assets, eg. get a degree or something.

Also since I have discussed the down side of missionary work to some degree in the past, let me add, in the name of fair play, the other side of the coin.

To which I should say this by way of example, last month a cultural preservationist who is an Akha native had lost a sponsor of many years and commented to me that he didn't understand it, while he had little money for such activities, the religious-based organizations, missionaries and such, had money to burn. To which I would add that I have had many people interested in the work I do on Akha language, and many wealthy people as well, but very little financial help. However, the religious people, some supportive of traditional missionary methodology and some not, could see the good in the work, apart from it not being a missionary activity, yet still have given money, no strings attatched and many times on the part of people whom I knew could not afford to be doing so, not wealthy and enough of their own problems.

So I don't know how to explain it except to agree with Marion Gunn, that what these people need is plain old help, so they can keep their babies alive so that the babies will live long enough to learn the language and this sort of thing takes an outpouring of money that gives them the opportunity to develop their own human resources in the fashion they will. I think so many in the west, while enjoying an excellent lifestyle, blatantly disregard the severe suffering that many of these people who have an endangered language go through, while finding them interesting to study, albeit near extinction as well. I know of many who have built careers on studying one minority or another but there seems no connection to the reality these people live under. Certainly the case with the Akha.

Meanwhile one struggles to find out why the infants die so fast, before you could get back with medicine, there is no one to do autopsies to find out the actual cause of the death, so one is still in the dark and it happens like clockwork and you wonder whether it matters at all if you get the language written into a dictionary when you have to look at that baby girl of three months dead on the floor of the hut and feel so damn helpless over and over again.

Unless the people in the west open up their wallets and time to give these people real help, as long as the western economic model rolls on consuming everything in sight broken down into consumption units, I think there is no hope at all and all of this work becomes foolishness. A tourist road pushed into a village bringing lots of vans to the "Akha Monkey Show" is enough to set one's soul back a few years in this work.

Matthew McDaniel
The Akha Heritage Foundation

Legal Anomalies in France

In response to this question of Russell Norton’s on the Endangered_Languages_List, Luistxo Fernandez / Marije Manterola came up with some interesting claims about the legal situation in France:

How many of the world's languages are currently illegal? References to surveys (if there are any) and guesstimates both welcome. Of course, a language's "illegality" might take a variety of forms - I leave that up for discussion.
Russell Norton



Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 16:45:10 +0800
From: txoko(at) (Luistxo ta Marije)

In France, allegedly the cradle of liberties and democracy, all native languages other than French are more or less outlawed, without the slightest official recognition.

For instance, a Basque French citizen cannot use Basque in a French court. S/he can, if s/he wishes, but no translator is provided. Curiously, a person like Mr Norton can use English in a French court, and he will be provided with a translator.

It is a paradox, but I would also be provided a translator should I decide to testify in Basque, as I am supposed to be a Spanish national and my mother tongue --Basque-- has recognised theoretical official status at least in part of the Basque Country that falls south of the French-Spanish border.

I don’t know if we may talk about language illegality in that case, I leave it to your judgement...

About worldwide estimates, most languages spoken on the world have no legal status at all, are not official in any way. How many languages may be with some kind of recognition here or there? 200 perhaps? --Then, you can count the rest: some 5.000--

* Luistxo Fernandez * Marije Manterola
txoko(at) * geonative(at)
* GeoNative *
Hizkuntza gutxiagotuak mapetan
- Put minority languages on the map!

Guidance on Putting Together Endangered Language Exhibitions

From: peterson(at)
Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 16:06:50 +0100

My name is John Peterson and I am currently working as an assistant professor at the Department of General Linguistics here at the University of Zurich, where one of our main points of research is endangered languages, especially in South Asia. In the coming months we will be putting together an exhibition for the general public on the endangered languages of the world, with special emphasis on South Asia, especially eastern Nepal.

My question was this: Does anyone on the list have experience with this kind of work? We were planning on using maps (of course!) and as many pictures as possible, with tapes and accompanying texts for as many of the languages as possible. If anyone out there has experience with this kind of work, we'd love to here from you and maybe learn from your experiences - above all, what the 'general public' (university students and faculty, actually) most enjoyed.

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 1997 11:32:19 -0700

Just a mild suggestion to focus on the people, not the linguistics, not the technical stuff that sets the specialists' heart a-flutter. Students and non-specialists will become interested if they can see the people and their lives, such as with videos (with sound, of course). Items of material culture, possibly labelled with the terms of the languages in question, are also usually of interest. Maps, yes, charts showing language user numbers (and trends) are also useful to get your main message across, but go easy on that--it shouldn't be so prominent that that is the first thing that draws people's attention--it will also likely be the last thing. Good luck.

Dr. Clifford G. Hickey hickey(at)
Director, Canadian Circumpolar Institute
Department of Anthropology
304, Old Saint Stephen's College, 8820-112 St., Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, AB Canada T6G 2E1

From: peterson(at)
Date: Wed, 26 Nov 1997 13:39:29 +0100

Many, many thanks to all those who responded to my request for advice on the exhibit for endangered languages!

A special thanks go to those who responded to me privately - some of you were even kind enough to offer your materials as a loan for the exhibit. I will be responding to each of you individually as soon as I can.

I must admit I wasn't ready for the huge response. At first I wasn't even sure I should send out the request for ideas. Now I'm sorry I waited so long!

All the best!


Software Support for American Indian Languages

Date: Thu, 30 Oct 1997 16:54:16 +0800
From: aconcert(at) (Joe Campagna)

At 7:50 PM 10/26/97, Cathy Bodin had written:
"Can anyone answer this one? Are there any Native Northamerican languages that are growing in number of speakers? Conversely, are many/most endangered?"

Most are endangered. Programs cannot rebuild as fast as the decline in the present state of economy. Much has to do with American English being the language of fluency of educators and the only/main media language in all forms of current electronic information, ie. tv/radio.

There are many programs by many nations in North America; yet the cognitive approach is slow to develop for economical reasons.

United Native American Television"tm" - UNATBC -[Filed name; United Native Language & Culture Exchange], was created in 1993 to aid in developing multimedia resources for such things as cartoons, children’s books, computer games, and a multi-track language software program that is under organization for a freeware development site that uses libraries programmed by volunteer linguists, and will be able (when done) to accommodate translations from any world language to any world language. Also using text-to-sound translators as well as translate sound to text.

They have started with an html database and are now organizing software developers and linguists to develope the entire site on the web. Their website is currently under reconstruction and will contain a log-on development site where all are welcome.

If anyone is interested they may contact T-SOFT-L(at)UNAT.ORG, and they will be added to a database of two classes of volunteers, Software Developers and Linguists.

The program is to be freeware.