Matrimonio all’Arbëresh – Marriage Arbëresh style

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Eda Derhemi. It is an edited version of a story that appeared in Ogmios Newsletter 66.

I met Antonella and Vincenzo on their wedding day, 18th July 2019 – Antonella with huge eyes that seemed to grasp all the light and life around her, Vincenzo with eyes only for her. These two young Italo-Albanians from Vaccarizzo Albanese, a small town in Calabria, have both worked at a Law Firm in Milan for a couple of years now. But they have returned to Vaccarizzo to be married.

Calabria and its languages

It is an old and painful tradition for southern Italians to leave their homes in search of work in the Italian north, with Milan being one of the most attractive centers. For about 200 years now, the exodus of the young adults of the south has slowly and incessantly depopulated Calabria, leaving empty villages or paesini fantasma. This exodus has not slowed down in the 21st century. In the last 15 years, 2.5 million Italians have left their homes in the south for opportunities in northern Italian cities: 50% comprising youth, and 30% with university diplomas. The southern region of Calabria, with its beautiful Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts, is the region with the lowest per capita income and the highest unemployment in Italy. Antonella and Vincenzo belong to this most recent wave of educated, idealistic youth who cannot find work in the region they grew up.

I had come to Calabria for field work. Calabria is poor economically, but it is still linguistically rich, and not only with languages: various Italian subdialects are still used by most Calabresi inhabitants and there are over 30 small communities that speak Arbëresh, as well as a few villages in the toe of the peninsula that speak Greko (in Bovesia and Reggio Calabria). Arbëresh is a variety of Albanian, brought to Calabria in the late 1400s by refugees from Albania and Greece fleeing the Ottoman invasion. Griko (in Salento-Puglia) and and Greko (in Calabria) are varieties of Greek brought to Calabria for the same reason. All are recognized as minority languages by Italian law no. 482, while the Italian dialectal varieties of the region are not. Arbëresh is categorized as definitely endangered in the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages. Griko and Greko are in a more advanced state of endangerment than Arbëresh and are very rarely used now in Calabria. The following map from the University of Calabria shows the 50 Arbëresh centers of Italy today. Vaccarizzo is number 22 in the enlarged square of the Calabrian area.

Vaccarizzo Albanese

According to linguistic research, the number of speakers is an important factor for linguistic maintenance, a factor that is lacking in the small community of Vaccarizzo Albanese, and seriously threatens the use of Arbëresh there. The number of inhabitants has dwindled to somewhere between one and two thousand. The main Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) priest of the village, Papa Lia, who is also going to marry Antonella and Vincenzo, complains that there are no new births in Vaccarizzo. Recently there were only one or two newborns in the whole year – “how can one maintain the language when there are no young people to learn and use it?” he asks. Fortunately, Vaccarizzo is close to some other Arbëresh centers of a similar or even smaller size, like San Cosmo Albanese, San Giorgio Albanese, San Demetrio, and Macchia Albanese. The close relation of the first three centers has been attested from a long time (see Tocci 1865). Their good fortune consists not in exemplifying the belief that ‘misery loves company’, but in the possibility of creating a viable net of communication, a continuous coming and going that reduces the linguistic and cultural isolation of the Arbëresh people.

As endangerment shrinks the language and reduces the number of the active speakers, the sense of larger community becomes vital. It motivates these villages to create local and long-lasting synergies, share and celebrate Arbëresh-ness throughout different locations, and use the available financial resources in a more efficient way. Another problem faced by the Arbëresh of Vaccarizzo today is the decreasing number of speakers inside the village who use Arbëresh in at least one domain. Newcomers, especially those young in age, are the best thing that happens to small centers, but in Vaccarizzo the newcomers usually do not speak Arbëresh.

It is not surprising that Antonella and Vincenzo are having their wedding in Vaccarizzo and not in Milan. For them, Vacarizzo is still a magnetically attractive place, it is the warm fireplace to which they always return for at least a while. And this is not simply because in the last decades it has become a town with a picturesque piazza and charming narrow streets paved in stone.

Both Antonella and Vincenzo consider themselves to be from Vaccarizzo, while living and working in Milan. The truth however is much more complicated than this. They identify as children of Vaccarizzo and they speak Arbëresh (although with different levels of competence), but they were not born there. Antonella was born in Saronno of Lombardy in the North, the town of the famous amaretti di Saronno biscuits, and Vincenzo was born even further North, in Switzerland. The reason for their Northern birthplaces is the usual condizione calabrese: the parents of both the bride and the groom had to migrate to Northern Italy for work, lived there for many years, and brought their children back to Vaccarizzo when they could in the summers, to stay with their grandparents and spend their holidays in the sun of the South, and even for some school years. The fact is that Antonella, although having spent most of her life away from Vaccarizzo, still speaks Arbëresh well enough for her communicative needs at home, and Vincenzo has a passive understanding of the language. The connection to their family roots and the paesino Arbëresh is also how Vaccarizzo ‘kept’ Antonella and Vincenzo together, whether physically present in the village or far away from it.

After a long period in the North, Antonella decided to leave Milan and come back to Calabria to study at the University of Calabria, where she made Arbëresh a central part of her dissertation research. Vincenzo, on the other hand, after having stayed for some years in Vaccarizzo, decided to go and attend university in Milan. With whom? With Antonella’s brother, Francesco, who at that point had been his best friend for a while. Francesco’s life is a roller-coaster between the Italian North and South and then the United States, but let’s focus on our two main characters. Because of him, Antonella’s and Vincenzo’s paths crossed again. Once they finished at university, they found themselves again in Calabria where they really wanted to live and work. They both were very active in the Arbëresh movement in Vaccarizzo and the small towns around, participated in organized groups that performed Arbëresh songs and dances, took courses in Arbëresh offered by the Town Hall, and traveled to participate in competitions centered around Arbëresh. Antonella proudly showed me the beautiful Arbëresh traditional dresses in the Museum of Arberesh costumes and jewelry in Vaccarizzo, and explained that it was due to the insistence and the protests of her and a group of young people from Vaccarizzo that the Museum became permanent. I saw pictures of her and Vincenzo in the amazing costumes. One of them is now a postcard.

Their love grew and the way they understood each other matured as they worked to revive their little town and their shrinking language and traditions. But, alas! Calabria was unable to sustain these two young people’s ambitions, like so many before them, and like their parents who spent most of their lives working in other places. But always thought of Vaccarizzo as home. The two lovers gave Vaccarizzo more than one try, but at last decided to move to the North, taking with them the mementos and memories of their home, and the language of their mothers and grandmothers. Two years passed in Milan, a city that gave them good jobs, economic dignity, and freedom. At age 31 and 37 respectively, Antonella and Vincenzo decided to get married. They could think of only one place for their wedding: Vaccarizzo.

The Wedding, Peppa Marriti and Kuljaçi i Nuses 

The wedding of Antonella and Vincenzo was spectacular, warm, and different. I will not forget it, firstly because of the pure immense love of two beautiful young people and of many devoted family members and friends who made every moment bliss and passion. But I will also remember it because of the beautiful location and special food served at the wedding, the beautifully simple ceremony in the small church of Vaccarizzo among the golden colors of the Orthodox Saints, the strong smell of incense, and the Byzantine monotone chanting of Papa Lia holding the white crowns made of orange flowers for the newlyweds. Then there was the stray dog full of pulci ‘flees’, who lives in the main piazza of the Katund, and who uses every church ceremony to centrally pose next to the Alpha person of the day. And the fuming Papa Lia running after him to throw him out of the church while the young would complain: But why? Why?

The most important factor that made this wedding special is what it gave to its guests. It was carefully built to bring joy from the music, talks, food, dances, and especially the Arbëresh language and tradition. A nice bottle of grappa, the distilled drink from grapes that is typical of Albanian tradition (raki in Albanian), is the gift given to all the wedding guests to take home. An extraordinary local band was the musical soul of the wedding, although there were many very good musical bands invited. I had heard of Peppa Marriti and their work of bringing together Arbëresh music and rhythm with rock and blues in a ‘fusion’ mode. The surprising thing for me was the clarity of the Arbëresh and Albanian lyrics, and the creative mixtures of language varieties and geographies. Angelo, also called Bobbo, the main singer and the director of the band, was able to combine not only Arbëresh, but also the Albanian varieties of North and South and even Kosovar songs and melodies, in a way that made the 200 guests at the wedding sing and dance with him. Bobbo keeps the Albanian flag with him at his concerts, but what in Bobbo is Albanian? It is only the memory of the ‘blood’ which more realistically is mainly language. He keeps it alive in events like this wedding. The band danced and sang in Arbëresh together with all of us for hours. You would hear the language revitalized right then and there among people who probably didn’t even use it any more at their homes. It was like living a linguistic revival moment in a laboratory, after an experiment that involved love, music and energy. But I knew that it was not a laboratory, although the sound of Arbëresh, the raki,and the music had brought me to a state of pure joy. I could be anywhere at that point, and as long as it was in Arbëresh it would be the place to be for me.

And then came a special event in the wedding, namely kuljaçi i nuses. The Arbëresh tradition of Vaccarizzo demands that at some point during the wedding, nusja ‘bride’ and dhandrri ‘groom’ pull from opposite sides of a very large dessert made of flour and honey, shaped like a giant pretzel. I would say it demonstrates a feminist tendency of these villages, given that the result is that whoever is left with the larger piece of the kuljaç commands at home, and the tradition is that the bride always wins! In Vaccarizzo all men are taught to always pull sharply to get a small piece, while all nuses, the brides, are taught to not pull at all, but simply pretend to pull. That means that the larger piece of the dessert will always be left to the women. It was sweet to see Antonella and Vincenzo that night perfectly playing this ritual like two great actors, her asking her mother and aunts, all worried and in panic, what to exactly do at that moment, all of course in Arbëresh, while her nephews would cheer for her in Italian: Dai zia! Vai zia!. And the story ended up as expected, with the nuse being the one that commands at home.

I interviewed Lucia, Antonella’s mother, a middle school teacher all her life who is now retired, but is remembered in all the communities where she taught for her love of their language and traditions, and her energy in supporting and mobilizing youth, working with the children to teach them how to recite, sing and dance Arbëresh. She tells me that her parents, mëma and tata, spoke an Arbëresh much richer and more fluent than Italian. She and her sisters had a hard time with Italian in the elementary school, where they were not allowed to use Arbëresh. But Lucia today, with some embarrassment, resorts to Italian when Arbëresh does not allow her to fully express herself. Warm, cordial and smart, Lucia explained to me that traditionally the wedding dessert was not even called kuljaç, and she does not even remember when it started to be so named. It was part of the Arbëresh tradition of Vaccarizzo, she says, but we used to call it mustacioli i nuses, evidently an Italian word which is thought to have Latin origins. But Lucia explains that calling it kuljaç now with an Arbëresh word with a similar meaning, has become a tradition, as has performing this beautiful ritual of kuljaçi i nuses at weddings in many Arbëresh villages of Calabria.

Commodification of tradition and culture are often criticized from within communities and from purist positions in academia. But who can tell us today that tradition does not always start as a new invention, which we get used to just because we happen to live long enough with it, as with the language in which the invention is embedded? How are the beautiful dresses of Arbëresh women created all around the Arbëresh villages of Italy? How are the special foods ‘different from the surrounding areas’ born? Certainly they were not brought from Albania 500 years ago or more! Why and when does the invention of difference (which I think is what has kept a distinct identity and sense of belonging of these communities alive for so long) stop being the crib of tradition and turn into the coffin of commodified touristy culture? What I am expressing is not optimism: it is a need to cope with endangerment. It is hope based mainly on the linguistic attitudes of speakers like those of Vaccarizzo. Language revival is extremely hard, but not impossible. But the demographics and other cultural and economic traits of Vaccarizzo rather support skeptics who fear that the functions left from endangered linguistic varieties in their last ‘good days’, after decades of stigma and repression, are more museum ornaments than real linguistic functions. As Coluzzi (2009) says: “once it has lost its social stigma, the dialect – what little of the dialect that is still known – becomes a supplementary communicational resource, in ordinary communication, available for use in particular contexts and functions – a little bit like English, that here and there comes in handy for inserts, quotations, advertisement, irony, showing off, ‘we code’, etc.”

Epilogue of a wedding

The beautiful wedding ended. The two newlyweds got ready to go back to the Italian North. The work at their new home was waiting. Will they ever return to Calabria for good? Will their children ever speak Arbëresh? Will Vaccarizzo be empty one day, and northern Italian communities become large pockets of minorities within minorities within minorities containing somewhere also the pale figure of whatever is left from Vaccarizzo? I do not have the answers, but I do not want Vaccarizzo of the future to be a place that could exemplify Foucauldian heterotopia. I look with great respect at these people who fight for their language as for themselves in the best and worst of their days. I cannot wait to see them in another summer. At another wedding perhaps. On a return to Vaccarizzo of the Arbëresh.


Coluzzi, P. 2009. Endangered minority and regional languages (‘dialects’) in Italy. Modern Italy, 14(1), 39-54.

Tocci, G. 1865.  Memoria pei comuni albanesi di S. Giorgio, Vaccarizzo, S. Cosmo nella Causa dello scioglimento di promiscuita contro il comune di Acri innanzi all’ill. Cosenza. Tipografia Bruzia.

FEL grant report: Ambel trilingual dictionary

This is a report by Laura Arnold from University of Edinburgh concerning her project funded by FEL in 2017 (photos (c) 2020 John Flores).

From 2013 to 2018, I carried out a major documentation project of Ambel [ISO-639 code: wgo], an Austronesian language spoken by about 1,600 people in the Raja Ampat archipelago (West Papua province, Indonesia). Ambel is endangered, in that children are no longer learning the language, and the whole speaker community is under increasing pressure from the local variety of Malay.

Right from the beginning of the project, the Ambel community made it clear that they would appreciate a trilingual Ambel-Malay-English dictionary. There were several reasons for this, including:

  • to encourage the younger generations to learn the language;
  • to raise awareness of Ambel with the dominant neighbouring language communities;
  • to facilitate communication with the increasing numbers of western tourists in the region, many of whom do not speak Malay

Using the materials collected in the documentation project, my main Ambel collaborator Martinus Wakaf and I compiled a dictionary of 1,834 Ambel words, with Malay and English translations, and reversal entries. The dictionary also includes a guide on how to use it, written in Indonesian, and a pronunciation guide for the English words. Interested readers can download a PDF of the dictionary here. My other work on Ambel is listed on the publications page of my website.

I applied for funding from FEL to print the dictionaries in hardback, and distribute copies of the dictionaries in the Ambel villages. The plan was then to organise workshops to teach Ambel community members on how to use the dictionary, with one aimed at adults, and a second aimed at children of secondary school-age.

Using these funds, I self-published the dictionaries, and printed 30 hardbound copies. In each of the 11 villages where Ambel is spoken, I gifted one copy of the dictionary to the political head of the village (Indonesian: kepala kampung), and one to the chief elder of the village (Indonesian: bapak adat). In Kapadiri, which was my main fieldsite for the documentation project, I also gave copies to some of the people with whom I had worked most closely; and in Kabare, I gave some copies to a man who intended to hold informal lessons in Ambel language and culture. Finally, I deposited a copy in the library at the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation Universitas Negeri Papua, in Manokwari, the provincial capital, who were my partners during the documentation project.

Unfortunately, I was unable to hold the workshops I’d planned – problems with the UK-based printers and import regulations in Jakarta meant that the dictionaries only arrived in Raja Ampat one week before my visa expired. I haven’t been back to the villages where I distributed the dictionary since then, so I don’t have any first-hand information on whether or how the dictionary is being used.

However, I recently visited Raja Ampat for further fieldwork, to collect data on several other related languages spoken there for another major research project. While there, I met several of my younger Ambel friends in town, who told me that the dictionary is being used. It also seems to be a symbol of prestige, in that they are proud that their language now has a dictionary. For example, my travelling companion on this recent field trip was an Ambel man: whenever the conversation inevitably turned to language vitality in the villages I was working in, he would tell people about the Ambel dictionary, and how it has sparked an interest in the language in the younger generations.

The direct and indirect impact of Covid-19 on people speaking endangered languages in Brazil

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Sebastian Drude, who is based in Belém, northern Brazil.

Brazil is home to at least 150 Indigenous languages, currently spoken by around 220 groups whose ancestors were there before the arrival of Europeans about 500 years ago. They comprise a total population of less than a million, or under 0.5% of the current Brazilian population. All of these languages, even the largest (Tikuna, with more than 40.000 speakers, and  Kaiwá, with around 25,000 speakers), are to some degree endangered, as they all are under enormous pressure from and being replaced by Portuguese in more and more domains of use.

Endangered languages in Brazil according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger

The vulnerability of Indigenous peoples

Because South America was the most isolated continent over many millennia, all its Indigenous people now are survivors of numerous epidemics resulting from outside settlement, including smallpox, measles, and influenza. These diseases were brought to South America from other continents, in particular from Europe, and the inhabitants originally did not have any immunity defence against them. The survivors have either developed some immunity by now, or depend on vaccinations for their well-being.

Many groups have been contacted only over the last 50 years, during a massive expansion into large parts of the Amazon region, promoted in particular by the military dictatorship (1964 to 1985) and by later developmentalist governments, including in particular the current one. For all of these, the Indigenous people were seen as an obstacle. These recently-contacted groups in particular are still recovering – in numbers and culturally – from the dramatic blow that contact with the dominant society has usually meant. In most cases, even with vaccinations, only a fraction of the original group has survived, and much cultural knowledge was lost with the many who died, and important practices were interrupted.

In view of such a scenario, it is obvious that the vulnerability of all Indigenous peoples in Brazil (and their languages and cultures with them) is of special concern during a pandemic. Isolation of these groups is recommended – the more recent the contact, the more vulnerable they are.

Indigenous peoples, Covid-19 and information

There are some initiatives in Brazil that focus on bringing information about the Covid-19 disease and counter-measures like isolation and regular hygiene to the Indigenous people in their own languages. These initiatives are, as far as I can tell, hardly promoted by the government, for instance through its agency FUNAI, which is responsible for Indigenous matters. Indeed, the only mention of Covid-19 on FUNAI’s web-pages is a link to the official site with information in Portuguese by the health ministry (without any special information on the situation pertaining to the Indigenous population), and a refutation of supposed fake-news that FUNAI would have to respond to an official process due to inertia or omission in the pandemic crisis. Instead, FUNAI affirms, “the execution of the activities with a R$10.8 million (approximately $US 2 million) contribution for actions to combat Covid-19 is occurring at an accelerated pace” (my translation). However, apart from some general plans, there is no information about how these funds are actually being used.

We are, therefore, dependent on other sources of information, in particular the well-known Instituto Socio-Ambiental, which is certainly the most prominent Indigenous-support activist NGO in Brazil. Not only does its main website contain many relevant pieces of information related to Covid-19, but it has also set up a special site, monitoring the impact of the disease on Indigenous peoples and providing related information. They are also, in some crucial areas, one of the most prolific agents providing the Indigenous peoples with information in their own languages.

Social activists and the Wayuri Network join in the prevention of Covid-19 campaign in São Gabriel da Cachoeira | photo: Ana Amélia Handam

Side-effects and counter-measures worse than the disease?

When we try to assess the negative impact of the pandemic on Indigenous populations, we may focus on the numbers of (reported) infections and deaths from the disease. Here, by the way, the same caution is in order as with official numbers elsewhere, because in Brazil deaths FROM the disease may not clearly enough be distinguished from (often unrelated) deaths WITH the virus. As tests may not be reliable, and we are informed only of the absolute numbers of people showing a positive result (without putting this in relation to the total number of tests and the selection criteria applied to the people tested), the published numbers in fact may be misleading. The same may be true of the derived assessment of mortality levels and future projections. This holds also in the case of Indigenous peoples – after all, pulmonary diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis have always been among the top causes of sickness and death among this population in Brazil, even before the new virus arrived.

More importantly, focusing only on the Covid-19 numbers is way too narrow. Officially, as of the time of writing, 27 Indigenous people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus in Brazil, and three have died (Indigenous organizations like ABIP, however, claim that there are other unrecorded or unreported cases, and demand better monitoring). But that is just part of the whole picture: There are many other threats to Brazil’s Indigenous peoples during the current pandemic, some of them created by the measures against Covid-19, others exacerbated by them.

The most important agents harming the integrity of Indigenous peoples and their territories are not confined to their homes during quarantine, but are very much active right now. These are the illegal loggers, farmers and estate-agents stealing Indigenous lands, miners (in particular, gold prospectors), and others. With open support by the current government under President Bolsonaro (a blatant ally of agribusiness and mining corporations), their illegal and extremely harmful activities – including the frequent murder of Indigenous leaders who try to resist – have skyrocketed since January 2019.  Now, not only do these harmful agents bring the virus close to Indigenous villages, but they are even more emboldened as everybody else, e.g. the media, is focused on worrying about the pandemic. Many of those who should protect Indigenous peoples are in quarantine or for other reasons not working as necessary, meaning that the opportunities to pursue such criminal activities without any reporting or consequences have grown even more.

In addition, as is the case with many informal workers in Brazil, the quarantine restrictions are harming the Indigenous population who depend on activities in urban areas, such as selling their goods. Economic activities have mostly stopped, but unlike other sectors of Brazilian society, the government’s emergency programme is hard or impossible for Indigenous people to access, because it demands a social security number and a mobile phone, in addition to online-access and reading knowledge of Portuguese in order to apply. Large parts of the Indigenous population, including some living in cities, do not meet some or all of these requirements. Indigenous people thus have to choose between either not applying (and having no emergency income), or seeking help in a nearby town, thereby exposing themselves to the risk of infection, and to the even more severe risk of taking the virus back with them to their home villages. The same holds for necessary activities such as buying food and essential commodities, or receiving payments (wages, pensions, welfare) – for all of these they have to expose themselves to the risk of contracting the virus.

On a positive note: Missionary activity with uncontacted groups banned

For the reasons given above, groups living without any contact with the dominant Brazilian society are the most vulnerable peoples of all, even more so in times of a pandemic. They are, however, the preferred target of fundamentalist Christian missionaries who dream of an ‘untouched fresh slate’ to receive the ‘gospel’. In the past such missionaries have brought much harm to many Indigenous groups, not only by bringing diseases, but also by demonizing their traditional cultures, thereby culturally and socially dividing and weakening them, especially the most recently contacted ones.

Map of uncontacted peoples in Brazil, according to FUNAI

It is, therefore, very worrisome that at the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020 the current government, which has close ties to the quickly growing Fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christian sectors of Brazilian Society, put Ricardo Lopes Dias, a missionary and former member of Ethnos360 (formerly known as the ‘New Tribes Mission’), in charge of the division of FUNAI which is responsible for the protection of uncontacted and recently contacted peoples. This is a blatant conflict of interest.

Amidst this, frankly, terrifying scenario with and around the pandemic, there has now been one piece of positive news: a Brazilian judge has recently blocked evangelical missionaries from approaching uncontacted groups in the Javari Valley, home to the greatest concentration of such peoples anywhere on Earth. Although the decision explicitly refers to the current special circumstances which restrict such religious activities, we can only hope (and demand) that it will be enforced, and extended to other such areas. It is important also that the ban continues after the end of the current acute threat created by the novel corona virus pandemic.


In 2019 FEL registered its concern at the avowedly unsympathetic policies of the present Brazilian government towards Brazil’s Indigenous peoples. FEL relies on witnesses such as Sebastian Drude for fair comment on recent events, and presents such comment to readers to inform their own judgement. FEL has no independent validation of this report.

Jacinta Tobin and Dharug songs

This post, which arose from an interview in Sydney, Australia in 2019 with Indigenous singer-songwriter Jacinta Tobin (JT), was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Eda Derhemi (ED). It is an edited version of a story that appeared in Ogmios Newsletter 66. (Unless otherwise indicated, photographs are from Jacinta Tobin’s website.)

JT: When people ask me ‘how can I be indigenous and so fair’ or ‘what part of me is Aboriginal’, I say: “It’s that part that never left; it’s the part of me that has a deep connection and responsibility to this country”

ED: I first met Jacinta during the 23rd annual conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) which took place in Sydney, Australia, in December 2019. As bush fires grew everyday around Sydney, the Pacific ocean reflected red and smoky skies. The conference dealt with causes of linguistic endangerment and language loss today, and as we met during conference sessions, we thought about consequences as much as causes, and the ecological disaster that was related to that loss. The conference organizers could not have found a better activist to open the conference: she began with a story told in song about how tragic and complex the consequences of language loss are. Her words and songs moved us and framed this international conference in a way that brought the Indigenous Australian voice in to view during the whole conference. Her Aboriginal spirit of the past, which for her lives also as vibrations in the air, has the face of all women, and of community, Earth, and resistance.

JT: Some of my songs like Blacktown Joe were given to me by Aunty Gladys Smith, one of my elders. The Kookaburra song was given to me in language by Aunty Joan Cooper and Aunty Betty Lock. Most of the songs I have written myself, influenced by spirit. Weerawee was written with Cindy Laws and Michelle Laws. Cindy also gave me the words for Ancestors Plea which was given to her by spirits. I’ve also done music with Aboriginal women from other groups, such as Nardi Simpson and Sheily Morris. Recently, my son and I wrote music for his school, Katoomba High School, which was given an award. Very proud! I don’t do clubs or pubs; I do community events, and my public is everyone from government departments to non-government, to family and friends’ gatherings, and other communities and councils. I also sing for women, Earth Day, and for schools and universities.

ED: The research of my colleague Pilar Martinez-Quiroga at the University of Illinois focuses on the triple rebellious nature of female writers from linguistic and cultural minorities in Spain. There is something about growing up a woman in a minority whose rights are not guaranteed that brings them to the front of social activism as feminists, minority leaders in the fight for language and cultural rights, and artists. I saw all these features rooted that first day in Jacinta’s words, songs, and language.

19th century representations of Benelong (courtesy Natural History Museum, London)

JT: My ancestor Maria first married Dicky, the son of Eora senior man Woollarawarre Bennelong. After Dicky she had a second choice and married a convict called Robert Lock at Parramatta on 26th January 1824. He was a convict, but he stayed with Maria and raised nine children (theirs was the first mixed marriage in the settlement). He had blond hair and blue eyes. He was a carpenter — very good with his hands. Maria was daughter of a karraji (indigenous healer) leader of the Richmond clan of the Dharug (or Darug) people, and passed away on 6th July 1878 at Blacktown. The son of Maria and Robert, called William Lock, married Sarah Ann Castles, who became Granny Lock; she was of the Gannemegal clan of the Dharug language group.

ED: At this point in her story I am concentrating hard, trying to keep up with all the information given in brief sentences that appear like formulas of a recited ritual with more background knowledge than I can handle. It all seems fascinating. The elaboration and cultural depth of the sentence with the convict and the non-judgmental (as a matter of fact, embracing) attitude Jacinta transmits, fascinate me. Granny Lock, I think, must be Jacinta’s grandma.

JT: Granny Lock was known to have walked from Eastern Creek to Parramatta to see the first steam train. She was also a language informant for R. H. Matthews (surveyor and self-taught anthropologist). Their daughter called Theresa, married Edward Joseph Moran who was born on a boat from England. Their daughter Kathleen (Flo) Moran married a Burke; they were my grandmother and grandfather. Their daughter Valerie married my dad Kevin Tobin, then there’s me. I have two children: one is Jasper Daruga, my Falling Star, and Killimai, my Bright Eyes… and they follow culture because their mother does… but they have a choice… if they choose to or not when they get old enough.

ED: Boy, was I wrong about Granny Lock (Sarah) of the first half of 1800s, being Jacinta’s grandma! Granny Kathleen (called also Flo) was instead her grandma. Jacinta’s description of Maria and the Blue-eyed Robert Lock, as much as that of Granny Lock who walked for days to see the first train, then of Theresa and Kathleen and Valerie, were told with the same historic certainty and expressive detail, as stories about the schools and activities where Jacinta preferred to sing today. I made three different family trees to understand the lineage of members until I got it right. In my defence, I must say that the whole interview was not only a very strongly knit narrative, but the countless characters described in it interacted with each other in a supratemporal dimension, all brought to the interlocutor with the same ease and expressivity as those who, according to me, “really” lived in the present. And the answer to why her perception is not that which I am used to, and is shaped with particular strength and timelessness, is clear in what she said next.

Map of Sydney clan locations prepared by Brittany Crocker, based on work by Anita Heiss & Melodie-Jane Gibson.

JT: I’m a descendant of two clans of the Sydney language group: the Gannemegal from Prospect and Buruberongal from the Richmond Greater Sydney area … I come from an unbroken women’s line to Gannemegal Prospect. This is a vibration and frequency that lives in my DNA. I live in the country where my ancestors on my mother’s side have always been born; that’s how I know I’m Indigenous. I have a blood line responsibility. We have something to offer the 21st century and maybe, being a fair-skinned person, you might listen to us.

ED: Jacinta’s language has features mine does not. It is coded. It has a depth that mine is missing. As I listen and read and reread her answers, I find myself wondering about the meaning more than usual and questioning my logic and worldview, which have become obstacles. As I do, I decide to send her questions about our first interview and then more questions about the answers to my previous questions. The more I read and reread her answers, the better I understand that what I considered some sort of mysticism or Magical Realism in her world view is in fact her sense of duty to the world and her ancestors, a conceptual structure that sees all of us in all continents and all times, humans as part of nature, of past and future, as related in an uninterrupted line. It is an ecology that we have forgotten and which we as humans are having a hard time to re-establish. I understand that I am not part of the “I” and “we” Jacinta mentioned above. I lack her natural and effortless sense of ecology that includes climate, language, culture, forests, behavior, change, philosophy, physics, and her children as well as her remote ancestors. Jacinta lives, speaks, and sings it. I try to reach it as knowledge outside of me, and make it part of my life. But there are so many social and cultural filters (most of which are beyond my awareness) that weaken this connection for me. Jacinta lives her life with a clear mission, which I should join for my own good. For Jacinta, language, song, and culture are indivisible, and are also a way to save the future of our planet. Her voice in the planet comes through her songs, which are also her language and Aboriginal knowledge.

JT: I wrote my music to tell a story. Our story is our song. I sing to let people know we are still here and also to hopefully touch base with ancestors, landscape, animals, and family in our Aboriginal way. Through the vibration and frequency of country in Dharug and English … Music has always been a way to map our country, it is our title deed you could say. Our music, our song, reflects our realities maybe through quantum physics and other theories that are coming to light. Hopefully, in the future we would be able to see music as a science and not just an art or just a song. The connection of language and song is our strength; it is the way of saying prayer and showing gratitude to being able to be part of this existence. The messages in the language and song in our country also help the natural environments that are our home vibrate and become healthier. This is not about song for song’s sake … if we could understand a little bit more. In my country, music is seen as a school subject, and not a way of life as it was in times past. My understanding is that more music in one’s life means a more compassionate society. My song and language are for a sustainable living, understanding that we’re not the only living creatures on this earth and that there is a way to work in harmony with all that is. We need to stop being arrogant as humans and realize we are part of nature and we have a responsibility to it.

Jacinta teaches Dharug language

ED: I interviewed Jacinta right after months of fires all around Australia, but I did not ask any questions about the fires. Nonetheless, in her ecological view Jacinta sees her country and the world as her personal responsibility – the same way she sees language, music, and her ancestors’ culture as closely related agents for a better future. Her clear ideas and strong opinions make me realize how correct and useful her insights are in these grim days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As she says, “we are all connected in this world”.

JT: The absence of language and song is so present in my country. I believe this is why we are burning. It’s time for us to actually learn and relearn old lessons, and to join with other Aboriginal nations who know the connection to their country through song. I am an optimist. I believe that we can bring the 21st century into a new way of living together. I pray that FEL will help people understand vibration and frequency which have been the Aboriginal science of this country for a millennium. That’s why language is important in this country. Some of us are relearning and we thank the universe that some of the Aboriginal people still preserve that knowing. FEL, through its network, should work more to lift up those people in Aboriginal communities who have this knowledge. They may speak five languages, but when you hear their broken English, they are judged as people with simple minds. Please lift them up! FEL should continue to stress that language is part of environmental knowledge, language is part of health issues, language is part of education, language is part of music and song — and that we are all connected in this world. Thousands of generations have sung for me in language, and now I need to sing for thousands to come.

For more information about Jacinta Tobin’s work readers may wish to explore this video report, which includes her involvement in Big Sing in the Desert 2019 organised by Rachel Hore.

FEL 2017 grant: Development of an Uchinaaguchi karate and kobudo handbook

This is the fourth in our series of posts on grants awarded by FEL in 2017.

Overview. Uchinaaguchi ( ウチナーグチ ) is the most widely-spoken of six Ryukyuan languages in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, however it is expected to disappear within a few generations unless immediate revitalisation efforts are made. Sadly, if Uchinaaguchi disappears, so too will much of the rich vocabulary and concepts specific to Okinawan cultural arts, such as karate and kobudo ( 古武道, Okinawan fighting with weapons). Therefore, in collaboration with members of the Uchinaaguchi-speaking and martial arts practitioner communities, this project will collect and develop specialised martial arts-related Uchinaaguchi terminology into an Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Handbook, thereby promoting the use of Uchinaaguchi in the domain of Okinawan martial arts. Each page of the handbook will contain one Uchinaaguchi term, proverb, or place name, as well as Japanese and English translations, an illustration, and sample sentences. In addition to providing an opportunity for Uchinaaguchi speakers to use their language, the handbook will be a tangible Uchinaaguchi learning resource that will be made accessible to Uchinaaguchi speakers and karate and kobudo practitioners in Okinawa and abroad in print and via the internet.

Grantee. This project is led by Samantha May.

Samantha was an Okinawa resident between 2009 and 2015, and holds a 2015 PhD in Comparative Culture and Area Studies from the University of the Ryukyus, with a thesis entitled Uchinaaguchi Language Reclamation in the Martial Arts Community in Okinawa and Abroad. During her doctoral studies she began compiling the Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Handbook. She also holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics and Communications from the University of the Ryukyus. She has a third degree blackbelt in Meibukan Goju Ryu, and second degree blackbelt in Shorinkai Shorin Ryu. She has spent more than ten years practicing Tesshinkan Ryukyu Kobudo, collaborating with Okinawan martial arts instructors and other Uchinaaguchi speakers. She has 15 years’ experience in language teaching, and developing language learning materials, having also worked in graphic design and social media.

FEL 2017 grant: Trilingual electronic dictionary (Kryz-Azerbaijani-English) with Kryz pronunciation

This is the third in our series of posts on FEL grants awarded in 2017.

Overview. This project aims at preservation and language revitalization by creating the first dictionary for Kryz, an endangered Caucasian language spoken in the alpine villages of the Qrız, Cek, Əlik, and Hapıt in the Republic of Azerbaijan. According to the 2016 census these villages had a total of 1,602 inhabitants. In order to create a modern trilingual (Kryz-Azerbaijani-English) electronic dictionary, data on Kryz words will be collected during fieldwork and translated in Azerbaijani and English. The dictionary will be supplemented with audiovisual recordings to indicate the correct pronunciations of individual words. The end product will then be uploaded on to a dedicated website. Scholars and researchers, the Kryz people, and the world community will have free access to this content.

Grantee. This project is led by Elnur Aliyev.

Elnur holds BA and MA qualifications in Areal Linguistics and Caucasian Philology from Tbilisi State University. From 2015 he has been enrolled in the PhD programme there working on The position of the Khinalug language among Dagestanian languages. In 2016-17 he was a visiting researcher at Malmö University, Sweden. Since 2010, he has made research visits to different scientific centres, libraries, and archives of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan (Russian Federation), Turkey, and Sweden, working on endangered Caucasian languages of Azerbaijan.

Regional Interest Groups of the Foundation for Endangered Languages

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Tjeerd de Graaf.

The Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) has various relations with regional organisations and groups which co-ordinate local activities about endangered languages, and it stimulates the creation of such groups. In those groups one or more representatives have the following tasks:

  • establish and strengthen the relation of specialists with the endangered language communities and organisations in their region;
  • report on best practice experiences of such EL communities in the field of language maintenance, revitalisation, etc.;
  • disseminate Endangered Languages news stories and inform mass media about them;
  • build links with linguistic and other professional organisations (national, local);
  • contribute to (the preparation of) FEL conferences and publications in the FEL blog, Ogmios and on the FEL web site;
  • support the documentation of endangered languages in their area and provide an inventory of existing material (archives, sound recordings, teaching materials, literature, etc.);
  • set up fund-raising events and look for possible sponsors of the work of FEL in the area;
  • join a network for area representatives, with whom information can be exchanged. For this purpose the internet plays an important role.

One of the organisations involved in working with (endangered) minority languages is the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning. This is an independent and recognised centre for researchers, policy makers and other professionals. The Centre is hosted by the Fryske Akademy in the Netherlands, which concentrates on fundamental and applied research related to the Frisian language, culture, history and society.

Illustration 1. Mercator

The Mercator Centre is an academic platform where experts and policy makers can meet and exchange knowledge through conferences and workshops. With its Database of Experts, Mercator offers an overview of European expertise in the field of lesser-used languages. Via its Network of Schools, Mercator provides contacts between schools that teach lesser-used languages and the possibility to exchange ideas about their challenges.

The Centre shares knowledge via its publications:

Mercator gathers knowledge from all European countries about multilingual education and legislation and provides information to places all over the world. As an example, one can mention the Regional Dossiers, which in recent times are also published about some of the endangered languages of the Russian Federation (Nenets, Khanty, Selkup, Udmurt). In this sense, there exists an important link with the work of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Illustration 2. Nenets dossier in Russian

Dossiers about these languages are also published in Russian in order to reach more local people. We have safeguarded and published historical language material, not only texts, but also sound recordings. The reconstruction of endangered sound archives  provides material that can be used for the study and teaching of these languages, many of which are spoken in Siberia. This work can be considered as one of the aims of another regional organisation: the Foundation for Siberian Cultures, which works for the preservation of indigenous languages of Northern Eurasia. Learning tools and teaching materials by and for indigenous communities in Siberia may help to counteract the forces bringing about the loss of cultural diversity and the dissolution of local ethnic identities. Relevant learning tools have been and will be produced together with local experts using modern technologies. They are used for the teaching of the endangered languages to members of the local communities.

Illustration 3. Teaching in Siberia

FEL 2017 grant: Mapuzugun immersion camps in southern Chile

This is the third in our series of posts on grants FEL awarded in 2017.

Overview. Mapuzugun is an endangered indigenous language currently spoken by around 120,000 people (45,000 fluently) in southern Chile and Argentina. Throughout 2017, the Mapuzuguletuaiñ team of language activists organised language camps in rural areas of southern Chile where the language is still spoken, funded by FEL. Each camp consisted of an intensive schedule of language classes and immersion activities, including traditional Mapuche games. The aims of the camps were to create spaces where Mapuzugun is the default language of interaction, to improve the Mapuzugun proficiency of participants, and to foster a network of (neo-)speakers who interact with each other in Mapuzugun. An additional aim was for younger learners of the language to interact with fluent older speakers who live locally, thereby making the most of a small time window that exists when fluent first-language speakers still exist and there is a group of learners (mostly in their twenties) enthusiastic to learn from them.

Grantee. This project is led by Robbie Felix Penman.

Robbie completed an MA in Language Documentation and Description at SOAS, University of London, in 2016. On his third trip to South America in 2015, he researched the officialisation of Mapuzugun and the language policies of NGOs, for a course in language revitalisation and for my dissertation, respectively. He also presented at a SOAS conference on Mapuzugun revitalisation in connection to the so-called “Mapuche conflict”. Since finishing his MA he has been living in southern Chile, where he has been working on language revitalisation, particularly by advising the Ministry of Education on language pedagogy for Chesungun, the variety of Mapuzugun spoken in Osorno province. He speaks fluent Spanish and some basic Mapuzugun, as well as having a Trinity certificate in English teaching and professional experience in TESOL and translation. This project is being carried out in collaboration with the Mapuzuguletuaiñ team of Mapuche language activists.

FEL 2017 grant: Printing and presentation of an Ambel-Papuan Malay-English dictionary

This is the second grant that FEL awarded in 2017.

Overview. From 2013 to 2018, the grantee, Laura Arnold, carried out a major documentation project on Ambel, an endangered Austronesian language spoken in West Papua province, Indonesia. On the basis of materials collected in that project, she worked with members of the Ambel community to produce a trilingual dictionary (Ambel-Papuan Malay-English), with reversal entries. In this FEL project, she plans to publish and print the dictionary in a hardback format so that it will be durable, and travel to the Ambel villages to present the text to the local community. She will also organise workshops that will instruct the Ambel on the correct usage of the dictionary, and encourage its use in classroom activities targeted at younger members of the community.

Grantee. This project is led by Laura Arnold.

Laura is a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh working on Synchronic and diachronic investigations in Raja Ampat-South Halmahera, a little-known subbranch of Austronesian. For her PhD project she documented and described Ambel, an Austronesian language spoken in the Raja Ampat archipelago, Indonesia, and spent over a year living in Ambel villages. She has also worked with speakers of a range of other languages, such as Dogri, Luo, and Mee. In 2018 she wrote a FEL blog post about how our current research can tell us things about the past histories of communities. She loves the social and intellectual aspects of documentation work, and is particularly keen to help to preserve the wonderful linguistic diversity of our planet while the opportunity is still available.

FEL 2020 grant: Kinyindu song book project

This is the last grant awarded by FEL for 2020.

Overview. Kinyindu is an endangered Bantu language spoken in the Lwindi district in South Kivu, an eastern Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo by about 2,000 people. The overall objective of this project is to safeguard, strengthen and promote Nyindu indigenous cultural heritage by publishing a book of Kinyindu traditional songs. A Nyindu researcher, Kadogo Mujumbi, collected a range of songs from singers in the early 1970s and printed a draft collection with Shahidi Press based in Bukavu, however these are no longer available. This project will digitise them and make books available to younger members of the community. This work complements other revitalization activities to produce a lexical database (funded by grants from the Endangered Language Fund and Cultural Survival) and a collection of proverbs in Kinyindu (through a previous FEL grant).

Grantee. This project is led by Michel Musombwa Igunzi (in Kinyindu, Ndhashuba Michel).

Michel is a Nyindu man who grew up primarily speaking his heritage language until his family moved to a non-Nyindu area when he was 13 years old. As a result of Belgian colonial activities and killings from the 1920s many Banyindu took foreign names and joined with neighbouring communities, and as a result the language is now highly endangered with 90% of children not speaking it. Michel graduated in Social Sciences (Management and Development), and in early 2010 together with other Nyindu people created the Association for the Survival of the Nyindu Indigenous People’s Cultural Heritage (ASHPAN). This Association aims to promote and revitalize Nyindu indigenous cultural values, including the language, and to support other indigenous languages in the Democratic Republic of Congo.