Foundation for Endangered Languages

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9. Book Reviewed

Chris Moseley reviews: Lenore A. Grenoble & Lindsay J. Whaley (edd.), Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response

Cambridge University Press, 1998, 361 pp.

`Endangered languages’ seems to have become a recognized term within linguistic science, and this very welcome new volume serves to reinforce its validity and place the concept in the public consciousness. The two editors, who work in the Program in Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Dartmouth College in the USA, have drawn together the work of theoretical linguists, field workers, and members of minority speech communities to examine the process of language loss, as they claim, “from sociological and economic as well as from linguistic perspectives”.

The volume might have run the risk over over-concentrating on language attrition in the North American continent to the exclusion of other language situations, but while a strong and justifiable emphasis is laid on the Americas, a narrow bias is successfully avoided.

The book is divided into four sections, each concentrating on a different aspect of language endangerment and loss. The sections are titled `General issues’, `Language-community responses’, `What is lost: Language diversity’ and `Mechanisms of language loss’. This order of presentation brings coherence and logical progression to a rather disparate set of texts.

Nancy Dorian’s paper, in the first section, argues that `Western language ideologies’ need to be taken into account in trying to understand patterns of language loss in Europe and the Americas. The chief `ideology’ that Western culture has brought, she argues, is monolingualism. She contrasts the situation in the European Union, where minority languages are actually protected in accordance with prevailing ideology, with that in most of Latin America, where even once-dominant indigenous languages (Quechua, Nahuatl) now have low social status.

The editors’ own contribution, `Toward a typology of language endangerment’, is a valuable attempt to clarify and prioritize the issues that confront the language specialist in assessing the overall viability of languages. Having identified the internal and external variables at work in an endangered language situation, they point out three overriding issues that they regard as crucial, namely economics, access and motivation. While this analysis may not break any new ground, it is important in separating issues that are otherwise apt to become confused in this relatively young branch of linguistic science.



Part II, `Language-community responses’, presents four detailed analyses of reactions by speakers of threatened languages to the attrition process, from Southeast Alaska (Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer), the Mayas of Central America (Nora C. England), Mohawks of Quebec (Kaia’titahkhe Annette Jacobs) and South America generally (Colette Grinevald). The four papers vary greatly in scope, and the concentration on the Americas may detract a little from the book’s balance of interests, but the thorough survey presented in Grinevald’s paper is absolutely excellent, a mine of information and a model of its kind.

Part III, `What is lost: language diversity’, features papers by some of the most eminent specialists in the field. Using North American examples from her own research, Marianne Mithun argues persuasively for the morphophonemic uniqueness of languages such as Central Pomo which are on the verge of disappearance; her contentions on behalf of these fascinating thought-worlds are as eloquent as Whorf’s. Ken Hale casts his net wider, drawing mainly on examples from Australia and the Americas to prove the vitality and diversity of human verbal expression. The other two papers in this section (by Christopher Jocks and Anthony Woodbury) provide close-up analyses of particular obsolescent languages of North America and the subtlety of expression of their remaining speakers – the English language is sometimes stretched to its limits in some of the complex glosses provided here!

The book concludes with a section on `Mechanisms of language loss’. Three widely divergent papers are yoked together under this heading: an analysis of language maintenance among speakers of a Swahili dialect in Shaba, Zaire (AndrŽ Kapanga); a formidably technical but wide-ranging study of `the Matrix Language turnover hypothesis (Carol Myers-Scotton); and a fascinating account of the `resurrection’ of Copper Island Aleut (Nikolai Vakhtin), proving that it is not all inevitably downhill for endangered languages.

Inevitably in a book of this nature, some papers are more digestible to the casual reader than others. Equally inevitably, perhaps the subdivision of the papers into sections was a little arbitrary. If a criticism can be levelled at it, it is that whole regions and continents are virtually ignored in the book’s coverage. But the contibutors have concentrated on areas where attrition is at its most extreme and the situation most urgent, and the editors are to be congratulated on producing a volume that is sure to advance the cause of endangered languages and place them ever more firmly on the agenda of twentieth- and twenty-first-century linguistic science.