Occitan in the time of COVID-19: Creating connections through minoritized languages under crisis conditions

Sara Brennan

Dr. Sara Brennan is an associate professor in the Département des Langues et Civilisations, Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, France. She has published widely on the role of minority languages in times of crisis and recently was co-PI on the project “Language revitalization as community building in  Occitania: Language, economics and the politics of transmission” as part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s ‘Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe (‘SMiLE’) initiative.

“I speak Occitan!” facemask from Macarel, an Occitan activist enterprise with a storefront in Toulouse 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of social life to a grinding halt…unless you happen to be learning Occitan.

Almost a year into the evolving restrictions, lockdowns, and curfews imposed by the French government, two highlights of my weekly social calendar here in Toulouse are the introductory and intermediate Occitan classes I have been taking since September 2020, which are organized by the local branch of the Institut d’Estudis Occitans and have been conducted over Zoom since October. Activity on the WhatsApp group chats comprised of Occitan learners and speakers that I joined in 2018 and 2019 has positively skyrocketed since the first confinement measures were put in place in March 2020. While group chat members had exchanged messages in Occitan here and there before this period, the number of daily texts soared during lockdown, and Occitan-language Zoom happy hours were organized several times per week.

Even now under current ‘lockdown-lite’ curfew restrictions in France, the momentum has only barely slowed, with weekly Zooms and daily exchanges of Occitan memes, suggestions for socially distanced activities, grammatical insights, and TV, book, and music recommendations en lenga nòstra. Beyond Occitan aperitifs, Zoom has also been the venue for the November 2020 world premiere of a documentary about Occitan entitled Occitan, gardarem la lenga, which I attended along with nearly 100 audience members. As commented by several of the viewers during the spirited post-screening discussion, many of us – including someone working in indigenous language revitalization in Mexico – would not have been able to attend the originally planned in-person premiere in southeastern France and were grateful for the opportunity to take part.

These observations illuminate the complex junction at which the Occitan language now finds itself. Unfortunately, we’re used to talking about minoritized languages being in crisis, and Occitan is no exception: only last year, a sociolinguistic survey commissioned by the Euroregion Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Euskadi, Navarra and the Ofici public de la lenga occitana (OPLO; a French interregional public body tasked with Occitan language promotion in the Occitanie and Nouvelle Aquitaine regions) found that the language was more in danger of extinction than ever before, with speaker numbers having undergone a worrying drop over the past decade. However, as traditional speaker communities have in many cases dwindled, new dynamics have emerged.  Like many other European minoritized languages, Occitan has increasingly become “a language of networks” (Alén Garabato, 2019, p. 189), and this new reality has been rendered resoundingly evident as speakers from across and beyond France have messaged, memed, and Zoomed an online Occitan community into being, maintaining a social use of the language in the face of unprecedented obstacles and overarching uncertainty. What the pandemic has highlighted, therefore, is the potential of such minoritized language networks to provide vital reinforcement for social connections and emotional well-being under wider conditions of crisis. The extended networks individuals have actively built around learning and speaking minoritized languages can indeed offer crucial outlets for interaction and distraction in isolating, unsettling times. In this sense, the very nature of evolving minoritized language practices in the 21st century may in some cases help speakers maintain not only their use of these languages, but also some semblance of a normal life.

An Occitan cross in need of a very large facemask from Macarel, across from the Ostal d’Occitània in Toulouse 

Though my observations from the Occitan context represent one tiny sliver of perspective, this experience of creating connection in crisis through minoritized language practice is likely far from unique. Not only can engagement with minoritized languages strengthen links across at times far-flung digital speaker communities, as Occitan Zooms seemed to suggest, but it can also solidify a renewed focus on localness that has come to the fore during the pandemic. In the midst of a global crisis, our lives have become profoundly local as our movements have been restricted and we have focused on the course of the virus in our local areas. Whether it be a question of (re)discovering the cultural richness of our own backyards or seeking out the public health updates most pertinent to our surrounding communities, recent reports suggest that minoritized languages have in some cases generated (re)new(ed) interest or been given greater importance in daily life under confinement. Duolingo, for instance, observed in April 2020 that the “the proportion of learners studying Irish [in Ireland] has nearly doubled: during the initial stay-at-home order [in March 2020], 43% of new learners in Ireland were studying Irish.” Their Global Language Report published in December 2020 then confirmed this local swell of interest in Irish, noting that it has overtaken Spanish as the most popular language to study in Ireland. This same report also highlighted the popularity of Hawaiian and Navajo among Duolingo users in the United States. Though but lone data points, these insights offer a glimpse of a potential revalorization of local minoritized language under crisis conditions. The European Centre of Minority Issues (ECMI), meanwhile, drew on observations from 10 minority language media contexts to note (sometimes substantial) increased in audience figures and social media engagement, which they linked to viewers seeking out local news about the pandemic.

The implications of the current crisis for minoritized languages and their speakers are of course not always so rosy. This same ECMI study highlighted the negative impact of funding cuts, precarious employment, and the suspension of sporting and cultural events on minority language media, while other researchers have emphasized the lack of public communication in minoritized languages during the health crisis. The abrupt switch to remote education has brought the dearth of learning materials in minoritized languages into sharp focus. Researchers working in diverse contexts worldwide, including contributors to this blog, have indeed sounded the alarm about the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic on endangered languages and their speakers, particularly among indigenous communities.

In the midst of seemingly never-ending and ever-evolving crises though, the glimmer of hope offered by Occitan group chats and Duolingo learners is worth further investigation. As individuals worldwide are forced to regroup and recover in the face of unprecedented challenges and overwhelming uncertainty, there may be room for a reconsideration of the value of minoritized languages. Whether it be as social bridges in socially distanced times or as gateways to local culture and localized news, such languages might very well emerge from this crisis invested with new meanings and purposes as daily life is resumed – or perhaps more accurately, reconfigured – in a post-pandemic world.  

We invite you to tell us in the comments about your experiences of learning or speaking a minoritized language during the pandemic.


Alén Garabato, C. (2019). El occitano en el siglo xxi: ¿la utopía de la normalización? In J. Giraly Latorre & F. Nagore Laín (Eds.), La normalización social de las lenguas minoritarias. Experiencias y procedimientos para la salvaguarda de un patrimonio inmaterial (pp. 181–210). Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza.

A novel way to learn a minority language: Writing a novel in the language

Tim Armstrong

Tim Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer in Gaelic and Communication at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, and his novel, Air Cuan Dubh Drillseach, won the 2013 Saltire Society award for best first novel.

At this year’s conference, FEL24, Tim delivered a plenary on minority language learning in tertiary education as well as gave a reading of Gaelic novels in the evening.  This blog post draws on both talks and the lively discussions that followed afterwards.

I write science fiction in Scottish Gaelic, and when asked why, I have to admit that my reasons are fairly prosaic. While do I hope that my novels might eventually contribute in some way to the continuing vitality of the language; truthfully, that’s not why I do it.

The fact is that I just really enjoy writing—but also, writing long fiction in Gaelic is a great way for me to continue to work on my proficiency in the language.

I learned Gaelic as an adult, and the first long piece of writing I tackled in Gaelic was my PhD thesis. At the time, I would have considered myself reasonably fluent, but writing 93 thousand words on a specialised, technical subject in the language forced a step-change in my ability. The act of composing my thesis was as much about acquiring a significantly larger vocabulary and better command of Gaelic idiom as it was about composing an extended account of my research, and language learning played an even more central role in my writing process when I turned to drafting my first science fiction novel in Gaelic.

Writing fiction presents a very different challenge from writing technical non-fiction, and this is particularly true for science fiction, which combines plenty of technical terminology with the kind of broad vocabulary and idiom needed to author a long narrative in any genre. Writing a science fiction novel in Gaelic lead me to acquire a whole new level of language expertise.

I built my writing routine around vocabulary acquisition in particular. Each time I would sit down to write, I would first read a page from my favourite Gaelic dictionary (Colin Mark’s Gaelic-English Dictionary), and would note in my journal any interesting words or idiomatic constructions. Then I would read through a page or two of these word-lists, before I would finally open my laptop and start writing.

I found that this practice helped my get my head into a Gaelic space at the beginning of each session, but it also made my writing better. Again and again, I would read an item on my list and would realize that this word or phrase would either be useful in a scene I was about to write, or would work better than something I had previously written. Day after day, this practice improved my draft, but also, it built up my command of the language. I have since read and annotated all 736 pages of Colin Mark’s dictionary and have moved on to reading and annotating fiction by other Gaelic authors I like. More than anything else I have done, it is my writing that has progressed my Gaelic skills from an advanced-learner level to a level that allows me to confidently teach fluent Gaelic-speaking university students in an immersion classroom.

My Gaelic is not (and never will be) perfect. I am still learning every day, but I am sure that if I hadn’t turned to writing long fiction in Gaelic, I would still be stalled at an advanced-learner stage. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted to go further, and I suspect that I am not unusual, that most advanced learners would want to take their Gaelic as far as possible, and I have learned that writing a novel in Gaelic is a great way to do that.

I try to encourage my own students to consider writing long fiction in Gaelic, and I think it would be great if authoring a novel became a recognized right-of-passage to super-fluency for new speakers of Gaelic in general. Individual authors would enjoy the benefits of having a richer, more powerful Gaelic at their disposal, but also, all that writing would generate a wealth of new fiction in the language: scores of new Gaelic novels each year from a wide range of voices. Returning to my initial point, while authors might be writing these novels (in part) for personal reasons, to improve their own Gaelic, in the end, all of this new fiction would surely contribute to the vitality of the language for everyone.

Of course, writing a draft is just the first stage. That draft needs to be edited and published, and I have benefited from expert editorial support through my publishers, CLÀR and Sandstone Press, who were in turn financially supported by the Gaelic Books Council. A healthy literary scene in a minority language requires the patronage and practical support provided by an organization like the Gaelic Book Council.[1] Gaelic publishing will never be a profitable enterprise in a purely economic sense, and it need not be. Compared with other language development initiatives in Gaelic (like the Gaelic TV channel or Gaelic-medium education), Gaelic publishing for adults and children is cheap, a bargain really given the impact reading and writing can have on speakers’ confidence and competence in the language, and in turn, on their Gaelic use.

The more I study language revival movements, the more I am convinced that there is no silver bullet— there is no one strategy or single target for language redevelopment that will alone guarantee the future vitality of a threatened language. You have to do a lot of different things all at once, and considering how valuable a lively literary scene can be for the status and use of a threatened language like Gaelic, I believe that significant structural and financial support for writing and publishing long fiction should definitely be in the mix.

[1] I am indebted to Mark Wringe, and the discussions in his literature classes at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, for developing my thoughts on this point.

FEL grant report: Ti Liv Kréyòl

This is a report by Nathan A. Wendte of the Department of Anthropology, Tulane University, concerning his project funded by FEL in 2018 on Ti Liv Kréyòl: A Learner’s Guide to Louisiana Creole.

FEL provided a grant in 2018 that enabled professional illustrations and design for a second edition of a learner’s guide book on Louisiana Creole called Ti Liv Kréyòl. Louisiana Creole is an endangered French-based creole spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, mostly in the US state of Louisiana. It developed in the 18th century from contact between the French of colonial settlers and various West African languages spoken by slaves imported between 1719 and 1743. This is the story of the Learner’s Guide project.

In the spring of 2016, I began compiling a short list of Louisiana Creole vocabulary items for my own personal use. At the time, there was a burgeoning online revitalization effort underway for the language, and prior to my involvement, the community had decided on a distinctive orthography that would give Louisiana Creole a unique visual identity. There were many things still in flux, however, and the orthography was being occasionally tweaked here and there to meet the needs of learners. That short vocabulary list eventually grew to almost 1,600 items, which I shared with my colleague Oliver Mayeux, lecturer in Linguistics at Cambridge University, UK. He then suggested we do something with it.

At the time, there were rumblings in Louisiana about expanding the local French immersion school curriculum to include a ‘Creole component’. While everyone agreed that this was a noble goal, there was no consensus on what such a component should actually look like. One of the only Creole voices in these discussions was Herbert Wiltz, a longtime educator and the first person to produce contemporary teaching materials in Louisiana Creole. Education authorities were confused by the many French-influenced languages called ‘Creole’, including the vernaculars of Haiti, Guadeloupe, and others. Many thought that any of these could be ‘good enough’ for French immersion students in Louisiana.

(l-r) Oliver Mayeux, Herbert Wiltz, Nathan Wendte.

Driven by the conviction that Creole ethnolinguistic identities are not interchangeable (even though they may share the Creole label), I began working on a short language primer for conversational learners of Louisiana Creole. I drew up preliminary drafts of 18 lessons and sent them to Oliver and Herb for corrections and suggestions. We added the glossary and a brief introduction that laid out our goals for the project. Thanks to Oliver’s keen eye and Herb’s native speaker intuitions, the first edition of Ti Liv Kréyòl was released in summer 2017. Herb, Oliver and I made it available to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) for use by immersion classroom teachers wishing to include a ‘Creole component’ with Louisiana-specific materials.

Soon after, it became apparent it needed revisions to make it more user-friendly. Thanks in large part to edits and suggestions from Adrien Guillory-Chatman, who is a learner, teacher, and advocate for the Louisiana Creole language spoken by her ancestors, we modified the guide to make it clearer for learners using it outside the classroom. We also added a separate section to address issues of Louisiana Creole grammar and regional variation. Finally, with support from FEL, we enlisted local Louisiana illustrator Jonathan “radbwa faroush” Mayers and talented designer Irina V. Wang to produce a vastly improved second edition of Ti Liv Kréyòl, as a downloadable pdf and book (available on Amazon.com from 1st October 2020).

Help support FEL’s grant scheme

In association with FEL’s 24th annual conference, which is being held virtually on 23rd to to 25th September hosted by University College London, we are raising funds for our small grants scheme that supports community-directed projects for endangered languages. If you can help, please click on this link and give as much as you can, because every pound we collect goes towards support for work with communities around the world. Each 800 pounds (= USD 1,000) we raise represents another grant that we can give.

In the past, FEL has given grants for a wide range of projects around the world — there is a full listing on our website, but the following are examples of the work we have been able to fund recently.

Many thanks in advance for your support for our work!

FEL 24 conference registration open

FEL will be holding its 24th annual conference online from 23rd to 25th September 2020, hosted by University College London. The theme this year is “Teaching and Learning Resources for Endangered Languages”. Registration for the conference is free and now open via this link. Please register before 19th September. The programme will be available in the next couple of weeks, and a link will be posted on this blog when it is ready. Note that the programme will include a concert of Yiddish music with Polina Skovoroda-Shepherd, a globally renowned performer, composer, choir leader and cultural activist. Polina was born in Siberia and grew up in a home where songs were often sung at the family table. When she was a young child, her family moved to Tatarstan, where she found herself drawn to the specific Islamic ornamentation and timbre of the area. She brings the songs of the Steppes and the Shtetl bang up to date with passion and haunting soul. 

FEL wishes to thank the local organisers Dr Lily Kahn and Dr Riitta-Liisa Valijärvi. If you have any questions about the conference please email them at fel.london2020@gmail.com.

Roza Laptander: Nenets research, and thesis defence during a pandemic

This post was contributed by FEL Executive Committee member Tjeerd de Graaf who lives in The Netherlands.

Roza Laptander is a member of the Anthropology Research Group and the Global Change Research Group at Lapin Yliopisto University of Lapland, and an associate researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Groningen. Roza is a native speaker of Nenets, one of the endangered Samoyedic languages of Siberia, Russia. Her research interests cover sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, documenting the Nenets language, and the spoken history of the Western Siberian Nenets. In her work she describes Nenets memories about the past, and their present life in the tundra. She recently defended her PhD thesis remotely.

Roza doing fieldwork on the Yamal peninsula Siberia (photo (c) 2020 Roza Laptander).

I first met Roza in the beginning of 2008 in Salekhard (the administrative centre of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, western Siberia, Russia) and invited her to the FEL conference which in that year we organised at the Fryske Akademi (Frisian Academy) in the Netherlands. There she met a Frisian journalist and the next year they were married in Helsinki, following which she came to live in Leeuwarden, in the province of Fryslân in the Netherlands. Since then she has continued her work in Finland and Yamal.

Arctic languages researchers at 2008 FEL conference in Leeuwarden: (l-r) Leila Dodykhudoeva, Lily Kahn, Roza Laptander (photo (c) 2008 Tjeerd de Graaf).

On 29th April 2020 Roza defended her PhD dissertation at the University of Lapland on the topic When we got reindeer, we moved to live to the tundra – the spoken and silenced history of the Yamal Nenets. Since Roza is living the Netherlands, and due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the resulting limitations to travel, the defence of this first ever western PhD by a Nenets scholar took place via the internet. It involved official participants from Saint-Petersburg (Russia), Rovaniemi (Lapland), Tampere (Finland), Aberdeen (UK), and Leeuwarden (Netherlands), and an audience around the world.

Roza Laptander’s PhD thesis defence in progress

Roza dissertation is based on the stories of the Nenets reindeer herders from the Yamal peninsula, Western Siberia. It shows that spoken stories and interviews concerning big changes on the tundra reflect a general mechanism of making Nenets official historical narratives. Through analysing silence in the Yamal Nenets people’s stories, Roza studied the role of silence and silencing, offering a new approach to understanding how small indigenous societies keep alive memories and stories about their past.

Location of the Yamal peninsula

With a population of more than 45,000, the Nenets represent the largest community of Uralic-speaking indigenous northern people of the Russian Federation. The spoken history of the Nenets includes individual life stories; personal biographies; stories about relatives, friends, and neighbours; historical narratives; individual songs; stories of songs and people who made these songs; and collective narratives. There are monologue narratives, dialogues, group talks, discussions, and different versions of a particular story told by many people. In general, all of these stories represent the Nenets’ past from the beginning of the 20th century until today. This elucidates how the Nenets society maintains oral history stories and narratives about past and recent events in the tundra that live in both individual and collective memory.

Roza’s dissertation can be downloaded from the website of the University of Lapland. Information about her defence and thesis is available in English, Russian, Finnish, Saami, Dutch, and Frisian.


Laptander, Roza. 2020. When we got reindeer, we moved to live to the tundra: the spoken and silenced history of the Yamal Nenets. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 278. University of Lapland Printing Centre, Rovaniemi. ISBN 978-952-337-200-9. ISSN 1796-6310. [download here]

More on Covid-19 and minority and lesser-known languages

Since I published a post about Covid-19 and minority and lesser-known languages on 4th May, a number of people have commented on Facebook, or in the recently opened Comments section on this blog, about various other initiatives to make information available in languages around the world. The following is a summary of some additional work I have been made aware of.

Alexandre François and colleagues at CNRS Laboratoire Lattice have produced an interactive map cataloguing Covid-19 information in dozens of languages. Access to the resources is through French and/or clicking on the map.

For Southern Africa, Kerry Lee Jones of Africa Tongue together with the Kalahari Peoples Fund are producing materials in Afrikaans, OtjiHerero, Khoekhoegowab, Naro, ǃXun, Khwe, Juǀ’hoansi, ǀGui, ǁGana, and Khwedam. The team includes Ben Begbie-Clench, Jennifer Hays, Ashley Hazel, Kerry Jones, Megan Laws, Hessel and Coby Visser, and Velina Ninkova. You can support their work and the provision of masks, soap, and food to Kalahari people via this link. As Kerry notes, recently “the (South African) rand has plummeted so stronger currencies will go a lot further than they did before”.

The Chin Languages Research Project at Indiana University has published coronavirus information for speakers of Laiholh, also known as Hakha Lai, on risk factors, transmission, treatment & symptoms, prevention, and face masks. Several members of the team are speakers of Chin languages from Myanmar (Burma).

David Nathan reports from Groote Eylandt (Northern Territory, Australia), where the Indigenous Anindilyakwa language is spoken, that they seized the messaging initiative on the coronavirus pandemic by establishing two major outlets. The first is a daily radio show on Angurugu Radio called Buddha and the Beard, which gives background, explanations, and updates, including local as well as national and international perspectives in English and Anindilyakwa. The second is a website Anindilyakwa Safe which catalogues and provides access to all locally relevant sources with an emphasis on materials in Anindilyakwa which they have created, translated, and collected (including edited versions of the radio shows).

The Alice Springs Baptist Church in central Australia has produced essential information about Covid-19 in Alyawarr and Warlpiri so far, with Western Arrernte and Anmatyerr to come.

Again, further information or links to other projects are welcome and can be noted in the Comments box below.

Covid-19 and minority and lesser-known languages

In a recent post on this blog, Sebastian Drude pointed out that the current coronavirus pandemic is having, and will have, both direct and indirect impacts on indigenous communities in Brazil. A report on SBS television in Australia broadcast on 3rd May also discussed similar issues for Aboriginal communities in Australia, and elsewhere.

In some countries, government and non-government agencies have made information about the virus and the Covid-19 epidemic available in minority languages. For example, the Doctors of the World organisation in the UK has translated information from the National Health Service from English into 49 languages, including Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Filipino, French, German. Greek, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Kiswahili, Krio, Kurdish Sorani, Latvian, Lithuanian, Oromo, Malayalam, Nepali, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Sindhi, Slovak, Spanish, Somali, Tamil, Tigrinya, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Wolof, and Yiddish (see our blog post earlier this week by Lily Kahn, Kriszta Eszter Szendrői, and Sonya Yampolskaya from University College London (UCL) about issues with the Hasidic Yiddish translation). Community activist and educator Zubair Torwali worked with the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, to produce a series of information videos in Wahki, Indus Kohistani, Torwali, Pashto, Shina, Palula, Gojri, and Gawri. A compilation of links by Anna Belew of the Endangered Languages Project lists similar translation work by governments, NGOs, and public health organizations into hundreds of languages around the world, including audio and video recordings, as well as text materials. Wikimedia commons also has links to information in 75 languages.

Several groups of linguists and speaker community members are also creating information for lesser-known languages, including minority and endangered languages. For example, the virALLanguages initiative is a volunteer-run project involving the KPAAM-CAM project (University at Buffalo), SOAS World Languages Institute (UK), and the Community for Global Health Equity (University at Buffalo), and its outputs so far can be seen on Youtube and Facebook.

The Society for Endangered and Lesser Known Languages launched an initiative headed by Kavita Rastogi (University of Lucknow) that has been co-ordinating efforts by volunteers to translate Covid-19 information into lesser-known languages throughout India. So far, they have created translations in over 50 languages, including Assamese, Awadhi, Baavari, Bangani, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Biate, Bodo, Byans, Chattisgarhi, Darma, Dimasa, Dogri, Gaddi Pahari , Garhwali, Gujarati, Halbi, Jad, Jaunsari, Kannada, Karbi, Khasi, Kumauni, Kurukh, Lariya, Liangmai, Magahi, Maithali, Malyalam, Marathi, Meitei, Mising, Nalbaria, Nocte, Ollo nocte, Oriya, Pahari , Paite, parvatiya, Pashto, Phongsung, Raji, Rawalti, Rengma, Ruanglat, Sargujiya, Shekhawati, Sylheti, Telugu, Tharu, Tolchha, and Zeme, with more being prepared.

SEL information posters in Pahari, Dimasa, Bodo and Sylheti

Rusaslina Idrus, Department of Gender Studies, University of Malaya, has co-ordinated teams of translators, medical specialists and native speakers to make Covid-19 information posters in a range of Malaysian indigenous languages, including Badjau, Dusun, Jahut, Jakun (Johor), Jakun (Pahang), Mah Meri, Rungus, Semai (Pahang), Semai (Perak), Semelai, Semaq Beri, Suluk, Temiar, Temuan (Selangor), and Temuan (Negeri Sembilan).

Posters in Dusun, Semai, Mahmeri and Temuan.

Also announced today is the COVID-19 Language Matters in the Pacific project led by the Linguistics and Languages team from the School of Language, Arts & Media at the University of the South Pacific. To date, they have compiled information in Bislama, Fijian, Fiji Sign Language, Gagana Samoa, Māori Kuki Airani, Rotuman, and Solomon Islands Pijin, and there is work on five more languages in progress.

If readers know of other local projects creating information for minority communities, especially those whose languages are under threat, let us know via the comments link below.

Translating Covid-19 information into Hasidic Yiddish

This post was contributed by Lily Kahn, Kriszta Eszter Szendrői, and Sonya Yampolskaya from University College London (UCL). Their biographies are at the bottom of the post.

For the past year we have been working on an AHRC-funded research project on contemporary Hasidic Yiddish based in the Departments of  Linguistics and Hebrew & Jewish Studies at University College London (UCL). Yiddish, the heritage language of Eastern European Jews, had around 10-12 million speakers before World War II, but is today considered an endangered language, under pressure from various dominant majority languages such as English, Dutch, and Hebrew. However, it remains the everyday language of up to 700,000 Hasidic Jews globally, with major centres in New York City, London, Antwerp, Jerusalem, and Bnei Brak. Present-day Hasidic Yiddish exhibits striking linguistic differences from the traditional pre-war Eastern European dialects of the language as well as from its standardised variety. Nevertheless, despite the intriguing differences in its structure, and its central role in the contemporary Yiddish world, very few studies exist on Hasidic Yiddish grammar or language use. The main aim of our project  is to change this situation by providing the first in-depth description of the grammatical and sociolinguistic features characteristic of the Yiddish used by Hasidic communities worldwide, along with an analysis of their implications for linguistic theory. Our research team consists of four UCL-based linguists and three research assistants who are native speakers of Hasidic Yiddish from the Stamford Hill area of London, and from Israel.

Yiddish-language information poster produced for Hasidic communities before Passover, reading Kaddesh [an element of the Passover seder], not Kaddish [prayer for the dead]: Stay at home, stay healthy.

Since the project began we have been focusing on collecting linguistic and sociolinguistic data from Yiddish speakers in the main Hasidic centres worldwide, with extended fieldwork conducted in London’s Stamford Hill area of the Borough of Hackney, the New York City area, and Israel. The Covid-19 pandemic put an abrupt stop to our work as we suddenly found ourselves unable to conduct interviews. We expected that we would spend the lockdown working on written materials and analysing data that we had already collected. However, like everything with this pandemic, things moved very quickly and we soon found ourselves with an unexpected role to play during the crisis.

All around the globe, Covid-19 has affected various groups of people unequally, even within a single country. Especially in the beginning, Hasidic communities appeared to be quite vulnerable to the pandemic in contrast with other groups in the UK, USA, Israel, and Canada. The Hasidic community in London’s Stamford Hill comprises approximately 40,000 people, the majority of whom are Yiddish-speaking. The community is extremely tight-knit and members frequently avoid secular sources of information, especially online media. Moreover, many in the community are relatively unfamiliar with English. It is clear that a strong flow of information is a key means for all of us to adjust our daily routine drastically to this new emergency mode of living, and the information flow to London’s Hasidic community was quite lacking. Given the fast-moving situation, health and police guidance started to appear in several waves on online forums which many in the Hasidic community do not have access to. In any community, it is natural that such inconvenient rules can be better adhered to if the authorities provide clear and transparent guidance as to why they have been put in place. We thus decided that we had a role to play in making such advice available in an accessible format, and immediately contacted the National Health Service (NHS), the Metropolitan Police, and Hackney Council with an offer to provide them with a Yiddish translation of their Covid-19 guidance for the Stamford Hill Hasidic community. All three institutions were enthusiastically supportive of our endeavours. In addition, we also published information pages in a local magazine in Stamford Hill which reaches over 5,000 households, and worked with Doctors of the World, who have translated NHS information into 49 languages, in partnership with British Red Cross.

The first page of our AHRC Yiddish project’s NHS Covid-19 information sheet in Yiddish.

We decided to translate the official guidance into colloquial Hasidic Yiddish, a generally spoken variant of the language employing vocabulary, grammar, and expressions that are perhaps surprising to the eyes of a trained Yiddishist, who is accustomed to the literary version of the written language. Our translation process was a team effort, with one native speaker of Israeli Hasidic Yiddish and one linguist producing the first draft, which was then checked with the other members of the team. Two of these are native speakers of Stamford Hill Hasidic Yiddish, who scrutinised the text to make sure that it reflected vocabulary and usage characteristic of the community rather than that of Israel.

Although there is a high degree of linguistic similarity between the various Hasidic Yiddish-speaking communities around the world, there are also a number of noteworthy differences. Some of these raised interesting questions during the translation process. For example, our Israeli team member sometimes employed Hebrew-derived vocabulary, while our Stamford Hill team members were often unfamiliar with these and would instead use a Germanic equivalent, or in certain cases an English loanword.

Hasidic Yiddish is also used differently by men and women in certain respects, and some of these gender differences played a role in the translation. For example, we had a discussion about the best way to translate the word ‘essential’, which lacks a straightforward equivalent in Hasidic Yiddish. One option, הכרח hekhrekh, a Hebrew-derived term suggested by our male researchers, was rejected by the female members of the team, who pointed out that women would be unlikely to understand it. This is because this particular term is typically used in legal contexts and would be familiar to men from their studies in yeshivah (Talmudic academy), which women do not attend.

As well as these regional and gender-based challenges, there were also interesting challenges relating to the formulation of understandable Yiddish versions of certain key terms. For example, the phrase ‘social distancing’ has only recently come on the radar of English speakers, and lacks a recognised Yiddish counterpart. In this case, the team used the Yiddish phrase מענטשלעכע דערווייטקייט mentshlekhe dervaytkayt ‘personal distancing’, which conveys the sense of the original, and has a relatively transparent meaning. One particularly memorable discussion involved arguably the most important word of the entire translation, ‘cough’. There are two variants of this verb in Yiddish, הוסטן hustn and היסן hisn, both of which are in use in the Hasidic world. Different members of the research team, as well as other Hasidic Yiddish speakers with whom we consulted, had particularly strong opinions about which was the correct one to use, and it was important to come to a satisfactory solution for such a crucial word in the context of the information we were trying to convey!

In addition to the linguistic issues concerning the translation, there were also cultural factors to be taken into account. The NHS and police information did not contain any mention of specifically Jewish issues, such as prohibitions on going to the mikveh, forming minyanim, attending synagogue services, etc. We felt that it was vital to include details of these culturally salient topics so that the translated notices would be as helpful and comprehensive as possible for Hasidic Yiddish-speaking readers. We were pleased that the NHS and police allowed us to make these additions so that the final products were not only in the Yiddish language, but also culturally relevant for the intended readership.

It has been a very moving experience producing these translations, and even more so to hear reports of them being disseminated in North London. We were particularly touched to receive a positive message from a friend of a friend living in Stamford Hill who had seen the Yiddish information on display in the community. It is our sincerest hope that these translations will go some way towards helping to support London’s Yiddish-speaking residents in these grim times.  


The authors (l-r): Lily Kahn, Kriszta Eszter Szendrői, Sonya Yampolskaya

Lily Kahn is Reader in Hebrew and Jewish Languages in the Department of Hebrew & Jewish Studies at UCL. Kriszta Eszter Szendrői is Professor of Information Structure in Language in the Department of Linguistics at UCL. Sonya Yampolskaya is a researcher in Hebrew and Yiddish sociolinguistics in the Department of Hebrew & Jewish Studies at UCL.

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.