Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Editorial Review

Kazuto Matsumura (ed.)
Studies in Endangered Languages
Tokyo: Hituzi Syobo Publishing, 1998, 254 pp.

One of the most rewarding aspects of a serious interest in the smaller language communities of the world is their inveterate diversity. In journals like Ogmios, they are brought together, because they share some fairly brute problems: diminishing numbers, little power to express and develop their traditions, possible cultural extinction. But that is where the similarities end. When it comes to describing their situations, or suggesting what they or others can do to improve matters, history and cultural background come to the fore. In some sense, then, there is no common problem, and certainly no common solution or palliation. The student listens in awe to the different tales of how things got to be as they are. And of course, he feels corresponding humility in suggesting any immediate policy that might be helpful. And there is something of the feel of eucatastrophe, the bitter-sweet quality of an unexpected happy ending , when news comes that, in some respects and for some languages, their recent history may be more hopeful.

This volume is true to its theme: it is a fascinating congeries of diverse approaches. It is the published extension of the papers contributed to the International Symposium on Endangered Languages, which inaugurated the UN-inspired International Clearing House for Endangered Languages at the University of Tokyo on 18-20 November 1995. As such it contains versions of all the papers delivered on that occasion by experts scattered across the world. And an outsider who happened by, and chanced to know the fate of those northern languages Aleut and Sámi, is included for good measure.

There are at least three types of paper in this collection.

There are qualitative overviews of the kind of endangerment to be found in different regions: Willem Adelaar on South America, E. Annamalai on India, David Bradley on China and South-East Asia, Matthias Brenzinger on Africa and Vida Mikhalchenko on Russia. Two of these contain valuable collections of statistical data in appendices: Bradley on size and location of national minorities in China whose languages are endangered (with Chinese name and self-designations), and Mikhalchenko data on the minor peoples of Russia (quoting the 1989 census but going beyond it ).

Each of these overviews finds different general points of significance.

Adelaar suggests that it is the languages of middling size in South America that have the best chance of survival: languages like Shuar (J’varo) in Ecuador, Arhuaco (Ica) in Colombia and Campa in Peru are small enough to have a distinct identity and big enough to be to some extent autonomous. Quechua and Aymara, by contrast, are falling prey to widespread migration to the cities, and may well lose their status as badges of distinct identity. (He also notes, engagingly, that the level of diversity in South America exists as a standing refutation to the archaeologists’ dating of its human settlement.)

Annamalai notes that, sometimes, languages in India disappear, but only so to speak as an accounting process, to be re-classified as “mother tongues” under major languages: this process is called “dialectalization”: this may politically benefit the old language, if it is re-classified with other small languages and so achieves critical size needed for political significance; but it may undermine it, since there will be less concern to maintain a dialect than a full language. Furthermore, he recognizes a cyclical process of language loss and maintenance: sometimes people who have not effectively acquired a language as children come back to it after marriage when they join new social networks, or when they return to their villages having found progress barred in the cities they become politically active on behalf of the old community. Bodo in Assam, and Manipuri vis-ˆ-vis Bengali are quoted as two examples of this “strategy of maximizing difference”.

Bradley bases his analysis on an extended historical analysis, which distinguishes the traditional tolerance of diversity in the cultural “Indosphere” (Malaya, Cambodia, Indonesia) from the disregard of linguistic minorities and assimilating tradition of the “Sinosphere” (Japan, Korea, Vietnam), both these traditions going back well over two thousand years and being extremely rich culturally. (Burma and Thailand moved from the Sinosphere into the Indosphere about a millennium ago, reacting against Chinese expansion.) But the account in general is more like a wide-ranging set of well-informed case studies: generalization would be difficult or impossible, were it not for the gigantic pervasiveness of Chinese-style nationalities policy, nominally supportive of minority status, but in fact with a focus on rapid integration “sometimes using rather unpleasant methods”. When it comes to policy, however, all Bradley can point out is that, for the benefits of tourist development, “viable and diverse cultures will need to be maintained” - in other words, the only chance minorities have of standing against centralized power is to build an unholy alliance with to some enlightened conception of the Gross National Product.

Brenzinger reviews different conceptions of language death in Africa, from direct suppression of its speakers, physical (in Sudan) or political (in Nigeria), through to language deprivation (where even a language such as Yoruba with 18 million speakers has been called deprived because it is dominated by English in secondary and higher education). He notes the almost ideal enlightenment of the Eritrean government, which refuses to name any language as official in its constitution. But he warns of “covert” endangerment, which is reminiscent of what Annamalai called dialectalization: a language may yield speakers to a related neighbour without anyone signalizing the process.

Mikhalchenko looking at the languages of Russia sees them as manifesting a known natural process of amalgamation of peoples, cultures and languages, reinforced by the previous government’s project of building a “Soviet super-ethnic group”. Now he sees government policy as aimed more towards preservation of minor groups with the 1991 Law on Languages of the RFSFR declaring that all languages are a national property under the protection of the State. For any success in this preservation, though, he believes it is necessary to “define those real socially actualized spheres of communication in which the respective language must be used. The next stage is purposeful organizational measures to revive or expand these functions.” Evidently Russians still see a role for a directive state, or at least a body of policy-making linguists, in the future of these minority groups. Old traditions die hard.



Besides these wide-ranging qualitative overviews, there are a few case studies of particular languages: Knut Bergsland on Aleut and Sámi at opposite extremities of the Russian land mass, Suwilai Premsrirat on So (Thavung) in Thailand, Harumi Sawai and Osami Okuda on Ainu, Japan’s own endangered language isolate.

Bergsland gives authoritative accounts of the known histories of these languages. Sámi, in its northern and southern varieties, appears to be fighting back well. In the case of Aleut, though, it is particularly chilling to read first a relatively upbeat account from 1989 of language learning among young people at school in Atka, the main village where it survives (“most students from 4th grade on were fluent speakers something they can cherish and have pride in as their cultural identity”) and then the reports only five years later: 44 speakers (down from 60 in 1990), youngest speaker in his/her 20’s. (“Most of the younger people do speak a little Aleut or understand the language more or less.") And courtesy clearly costs languages: “since the Aleut speakers are fluent in English, English has become the dominant conversational language of the village. In a small community even a few outsiders may change the linguistic situation.”

Premsrirat gives the story of one of Thailand’s 60 or so minority languages. The language So (Thavung) has only been in Thailand rather than Laos for 100 or more years, and was not at first recognized as a Vietic language: hence its similar name to its neighbour So (Katuic). There is a sociolinguistic, phonological and syntactic account of what is happening to it, and recommendations on how it can hold its own against the surrounding Lao and predominant Thai, with strong roles for linguists in devising an orthography and language-learning materials for schools.

Saiwai gives an upbeat account of prospects for the Ainu language, which is only partly offset by Okuda’s very Japanese unease, on whether the language should be revitalized only by preservation of its role in traditional ritual and narrative, or should be taught for conversational fluency. The theme of Saiwai is that Ainu had been depressed by constant reiteration that it was the obsolescent language of a “dying race” of “former aborigines”. There has apparently been a remarkable turn-around in the last decade, with widespread provision of textbooks and language classes, the latter subsidized by the Local Government of the Japan’s northern island Hokkaido. She points out, however, that these classes are still at the weekly level, and there is yet to be created “a comfortable social environment for Ainu speakers”.

In fact, the ambivalent attitude of speakers towards the revitalization of their own language looms very large in the third category of article, meditations on attitudes to language endangerment, and appropriate policy responses. Michael Krauss looks at the various responses there have been, among minority communities and linguists, to his sounding of the alarm at the impending twilight of the languages. Akira Yamamoto surveys the various expedients that have been adopted in the USA to address the concern for waning numbers of speakers, and looks at differences that emerge between the received opinions of linguists and language speakers. And Stephen Wurm leads into a survey of the methods that can be adopted in a community that wants to get its old language back.

Krauss does a bit of prehistoric reconstruction to paint a picture of how unique our prospective loss of languages must be in the history of the last ten thousand years. He notes how untypical (“well under 10%, maybe more like 1%”) are the noted fighting minority languages of Europe (e.g. Welsh, Basque, Northern Sámi), in most of the world the main preservative force being that parents “don’t know any better—yet” than to talk their old language to their children. Otherwise, when the decline of small languages is at last perceived by its speakers, the response is varied: from pride through to apathy, denial or regret. Which it is, will depend on their picture of the future that awaits them after their language has gone: and on this point, at least, the linguist outsider may credit himself with a more realistic judgement than the speakers.

Yamamoto notes that the ruling presumptions in many Amerindian language communities on what counts as learning or speaking a language may lead to disillusion when these communities really apply themselves to getting their languages back: the situation of a linguist who sincerely wants to help thus becomes a delicate one, which calls for great caution and humility if co-operation is to be achieved.

But despite all these qualms and regrets, Wurm leaves the reader with some grounds for encouragement. He boldly points out respects in which community confidence can be boosted on the way to renewed competence. Show them the utility of a minority language as a secret channel of communication. Let them in on the intellectual, social and emotional advantages of being at home in two languages and two cultures (Pity the poor white man, eh). And bring on the clowns and actors: re-enact your old culture if you know longer live it, and get everyone involved in the dramatics, with the young learning from the old, and the children amply rewarded. He follows this advice up with a heartening string of stories where the tide seems to be turning: Ainu; Australian languages such as Djabugay brought back from extinction; Maori language nests, Tahitian increasingly present in the media; Hawaiian, Mohawk and Seneca in the US, Faeroese, Greenlandic Eskimo recovering from Danish domination; Yakut, Yukagir, Evenki, Nenets, Khanty across Siberia; even Ejnu, a hybrid of Turkic Uighur structure but Persian lexicon in Chinese Xinjiang, a lasting human trace of the Silk Road. Finally he notes the expedient of Romansch Grischun, an invented common written language for the Rhaeto-Romance dialects which allowed it to be of service to adults, and hence to sustain the dialects’ survival.

There is a wealth of food for thought in this book which leads one to ponder what will be seen as progress in the twenty-first century and beyond. Small communities seem to be taking to heart Jesus’s rhetorical question (Matthew xv. 26): “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and he lose his own soul?”

And once you have lost your soul, is there any way to get it back?