Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Living On - a New Venture for David Crystal

In late February this year I received an amazing package from David Crystal.

He is probably the most widely known British linguist at the moment, having followed up a successful academic career (holding the chair of linguistics at Reading University) with a series of impeccable, but highly engaging and readable books for the general public on aspects of language and linguistics -- most notably, perhaps, a one-volume encyclopaedia of language (Cambridge UP, 1987), which I should guess is most linguists’ first reference when they need to con an unfamiliar aspect of the field.

The package contained the manuscript of a new play, entitled Living On. The play turns on the situation of a language on the point of extinction: who cares about such things, and what sacrifices are worth making on its behalf? Intellectual commitment, sympathy and sheer love all come into it, and it will move hearts as well as indignation. But since this a play -- and the subject is a language -- there is little of the expected in how it all turns out.

I had known that David had been developing an idea on these lines with a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I had been looking forward to the outcome: indeed I almost included it in a by-line of the last Ogmios. But as David had pointed out to me, getting plays staged is a very hit-or-miss business, and it is still not clear how and when the curtain will rise on Living On -- though it should be at the RSC.

What really amazed me, however, was the promise that came with the play. All the royalties from UK production are to come to the Foundation. (And David has promised the Endangered Language Fund a similar deal on any US production.) This is without a doubt the handsomest offer that we have ever received -- inspiring and humbling at the same time, and will spur us all, but especially me, on to new efforts. It is a stirring thing when a small group that one has founded receives such generous support from such a source: we can’t stop now!



I knew that David had faith in our work (and indeed our Foundation) since he had rounded off a lecture to our local Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (on a local hero, Sir Isaac Pitman, of shorthand and spelling reform fame) with the speculation that if Pitman had been alive today he would have attended to the linguistic business of our generation, namely the fate of endangered languages: how appropriate that an enterprise in this cause should have been set up in Pitman’s home town of Bath!

Well, I don’t know about Pitman, or the linguistic proclivities of Bath. But I do note that there is now a growing awareness worldwide of the importance of linguistic human rights and the value of languages. The theme is being taken up in the high-level mass media, last year with a cover story of Time Magazine, this week with an article in The Economist. New groups are springing up: we are happy to welcome the official foundation this year of our German sister, die Gesellschaft für bedrohte Sprachen, eV. As David says, “the sooner awareness grows among the general public the better. And awareness will bring funds.”

But there is so much work to do, for all of us. In this issue you can read an account of what was achieved by our first grant (to Valentin Vydrine, of the University of St. Petersburg) - an inspiring and exciting first venture, almost unbelievable really, when you consider how little money we have to work with. And in September of this year, we hope to see as many as possible at our second conference, which will take place on 25-27 September in Edinburgh: the programme can be found in this same issue, section 6. Application forms are being sent out to members with this issue: if you haven’t got one, please lose no time in contacting our Treasurer, at the address on the back page.