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.

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.

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

Welcome to the Year of Un-Indigenous Languages

Today’s blog post is by Gerald Roche , an anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University, Australia.  His research focuses on the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation with special focus on Tibet, where he lived for eight years working as an applied anthropologist.  He is one of the co-editors of The Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization (2018).  Gerald has also been a DECRA fellow at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Uppsala University’s Hugo Valentin Centre. 

What is an Indigenous Language?

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages—but what even is an Indigenous language? Which languages are we celebrating? How would we know and why does it matter? 

It’s worth beginning with the obvious. There’s nothing in a language itself that makes it Indigenous. Indigeneity isn’t tucked away somewhere in the syntax or built into the morphology. The indigeneity of language is always located outside of it, a property of speakers rather than language. So we need to ask, then, who are Indigenous peoples? 

Since the Year was declared by the United Nations General Assembly, it might seem reasonable to begin looking there for a definition of who Indigenous people are. However, the UN has largely avoided defining Indigenous peoples, and has relied primarily on self-identification (Davis 2016). 

So if an Indigenous language is one spoken by someone who identifies as Indigenous, then all we have to do is ask, right? Unfortunately not. There are many people (and peoples) who prefer not to, or are unable to, define themselves as Indigenous people. 

This might sometimes simply be about naming preferences. In Australia, for example, many ‘Indigenous’ people prefer to be called by the name of their tribe or nation, and collectively as Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander people (Pearson 2015). This is not a rejection of indigeneity, but rather an assertion that the ‘Indigenous’ label erases important aspects of diversity. But for many communities around the world the situation is more complicated.

Un-Indigenous Languages

In some places, indigeneity is prohibited. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for example, there are no Indigenous people (Elliot 2015). All of the country’s ‘ethnic minorities’ and the Han majority are claimed to be equal in status, with none having rights of priority, because that would recognize colonization. By contrast, in Taiwan, the state not only recognizes 16 distinct Indigenous peoples, but also distinguishes between ‘native’ Han and those more recently arrived (Friedman 2018); the PRC, meanwhile, divides the Taiwanese population into a Han majority, and a single ‘minority’ group.  

This refusal to acknowledge colonialism and its role in creating indigeneity is not unique to the PRC. In fact, it is so widespread that it has a name: the Blue Water—or Salt Water—Thesis. This ‘theory’ suggests that unless someone crossed an ocean in a boat to get to a place, then what happened can’t be called colonialism, and therefore there cannot be any Indigenous people in that place. Many countries rely on this quasi-legal formulation to deny the existence of Indigenous peoples within their borders (Baird 2016).

And states aren’t the only ones capable of rejecting indigeneity. Sometimes, this is done for strategic reasons by peoples who might otherwise be considered Indigenous. Take the case of Tibetans, for example. Although Tibetans have selectively deployed discourses of indigeneity (Hathaway 2016) and recent trends see the term gaining more purchase in the diaspora (Dawa Lokyitsang 2017), indigeneity, and the label Indigenous, have largely been rejected by the global Tibet movement, in order to define their struggle as that of an occupied nation (Yeh 2007). So since neither the PRC state, nor the global Tibet movement, acknowledge indigeneity in the Tibetan context, none of Tibet’s dozens of languages (Roche and Suzuki 2018) can be labelled Indigenous.

The Rongwo Valley on the northeast Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans here speak at least three languages: the local variety of Amdo Tibetan, Manegacha, and Ngandehua. SOURCE: Author.

Refusing Indigeneity might be strategic in other ways too—an aspect of international relations, rather than national self-image. As Merlan (2009) notes, the ‘global’ Indigenous movement has largely been led by a handful of countries—the CANZUS bloc (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States). States that are not aligned with these countries may reject indigeneity as part of efforts to interfere in their domestic affairs, and potentially Indigenous peoples within these states may therefore need to disavow indigeneity to avoiding censure from the state, and fend off accusations of ‘foreign meddling.’

So, people are capable of distancing themselves from indigeneity for reasons of self-defense and strategy. But this also happens for other reasons that are connected to the pernicious harms of colonialism, and the way it transforms subjectivities and perceptions (Wa Thiong’o 2004; Fanon 1952). Consider, for example, the following exchange between Hawaiian and Okinawan language activists:

 “…when we [the Hawaiian activists] ask them [the Okinawan activists] what do they think of being Indigenous, they said, ‘No, we are not Indigenous.’ So I asked them… ‘…your idea of being Indigenous must be one of people who are uneducated, who are at the bottom of the ladder, economically and academically and socially.’ And they said, ‘Yes’….” (Eric Wada in Heinrich 2018: 459) 

Here, the Okinawan activists are reproducing colonial associations between indigeneity and ‘backwardness’. Wanting to distance themselves from such negative connotations, they refuse indigeneity. Dawa Lokyitsang (2017) argues that similar attitudes have tempered Tibetan attitudes towards indigeneity in India.   

So, in certain cases, a language cannot be Indigenous. Indigeneity might be forbidden by the state, hindered by nationalism, prevented by international relations, or proscribed by colonial legacy. Languages in these situations are neither Indigenous nor non-Indigenous; they are somewhere outside this distinction. They are un-Indigenous. We may ask their speakers and users if they are Indigenous, but we cannot receive an answer.

This map, showing official activities of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, has many blank spots. Are these home to un-Indigenous languages? SOURCE:

Being Un-Indigenous in 2019 

What does it mean to be un-Indigenous in 2019? What does this imply for endangered languages, and those of us who work with them?

To begin with, we should note that indigeneity is not just a label or an identity. It is also a predicament. Colonialism happened, and is happening: lands seized, people dispossessed, relocated, incarcerated, inferiorized, murdered. If empires and states take the land of Indigenous people and but refuse to provide conditions which enable their languages to flourish, then those languages are, in the words of Patrick Wolfe (2006), ‘slated for elimination’. In an important sense, this is what it means to be an Indigenous language in the twenty-first century: to be considered futureless in the eyes of the state. Being un-Indigenous entails a lack of freedom to proclaim and label this predicament.  

Being un-Indigenous also means isolation from the rights of Indigenous people. These are enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which contains the rights to “revitalize, use, develop and transmit [language] to future generations,” to provide education “in their own languages,” and to “establish media in their own languages.” Whether these rights are actually provided by states, or are ‘merely’ aspirational, these are rights that un-Indigenous people cannot claim.  

Nor can they tap into transnational activist networks that would enable them to struggle for these rights. The project of global indigenism (Niezen 2003) now has significant institutional, symbolic, and material resources at its disposal. Having grown from grassroots efforts to combine local movements (Estes 2019), the political struggles of global indigenism underpin most language revitalization work being carried out today (Roche, Maruyama, and Virdi Kroi 2018). Since un-Indigenous people cannot partake in this ‘global’ movement, they cannot draw on its resources to help protect their languages. 

Being un-Indigenous, then, has real implications: for how a people’s predicament is labelled, for what rights can be deployed to intervene in that predicament, and for what resources are available to help secure those rights. If being Indigenous is as much about a history of oppression as it is about aspirations for the future, being un-Indigenous means alienation from the capacity to express or act on those aspirations, whilst often sharing the same history.

The Year of un-Indigenous Languages: From Celebration to Justice

So, although the International Year of Indigenous Languages is an important chance for us to celebrate the world’s Indigenous languages, it also offers us a chance to reflect on the world’s un-Indigenous languages, and the challenges they face. Doing so reveals an important and seemingly irreducible gap: between un-Indigenous languages, and the regime of Indigenous language rights which has been built up by the global Indigenist movement. This gap highlights a central paradox inherent in the nature of human rights: that they are always predicated on what Hannah Arendt (1949) called ‘the right to have rights’. 

The right to have rights—we might call that justice. Justice here isn’t simply a synonym for something good or morally desirable. The ‘justice’ we see deployed so frequently today in the well-worn phrase ‘social justice’ has its roots in a specific set of theories, which were developed to describe the shifting terrain of political movements in the 1960s and 70s (Taylor 1994, Fraser 1996), and which have broadly come to be known as identity politics (Taylor 2017). These theories focus on the idea of recognition—the capacity to openly declare and be respected for one’s identity. 

When we celebrate Indigenous languages, we are pursuing justice and engaging in the politics of recognition by helping to reverse centuries of colonial status subordination. But for un-Indigenous languages, justice involves securing the conditions where they can choose to identify as Indigenous if they wish, and participate in transnational indigenism if they want. As people who are concerned with protecting global linguistic diversity, working throughout the world, here’s how we can help with that.   

  1. Always ask communities if they consider themselves Indigenous. If they say ‘no,’ respect their decision, and be mindful that labelling them Indigenous might expose them to danger. However…
  2. If a community does not wish to be labelled as Indigenous, this does not mean they are not Indigenous. Learn to interpret silences around this issue within the political and social context. 
  3. Read the literature on linguistic justice (e.g., Piller 2016, Flores 2017, Avineri et al 2019), and consider how these concepts can be applied wherever and however you work with endangered languages.
  4. Consider the ways in which supporting endangered languages involves seeking social justice, and the ways in which this work can be informed by understandings of other social justice struggles: anti-racism, anti-colonialism, feminism, Queer struggles, the pursuit of environmental justice, and so on.


Arendt, H. (1949). “The rights of man”: What are they? Modern Review, 3(1), 24–37. 

Avineri, Netta Graham, Laura Johnson, Eric Riner, and Jonathan Rosa. 2019. Language and Social Justice in Practice. New York: Routledge.

Baird, Ian G. 2016. Indigeneity in Asia: an emerging but contested concept. Asian Ethnicity. 17.4:1-5.

Davis, Megan. 2016. Data and the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Canberra: ANU Press:25-38.

Dawa Lokyitsang. 2017. Are Tibetans Indigenous? 

Elliott, Mark. 2015. The Case of the Missing Indigene: Debate Over a ‘Second-Generation’ Ethnic Policy. China Journal 73:186-213.

Estes, Nick. 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso.

Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1952). 

Flores, Nelson. 2017.  Developing a materialist anti-racist approach to language activism. Multilingua 36(5): 565-570. 

Fraser, Nancy. 1996. Social justice in the age of identity politics: Redistribution, recognition, and participation. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Utah: Tanner Humanities Center, the University of Utah

Friedman, Kerim, 2018. The Hegemony of the Local: Taiwanese Multiculturalism and Indigenous Identity Politics. boundary 2 45(3):79-105. 

Hathaway, Michael J. 2016. China’s Indigenous Peoples? How Global Environmentalism Unintentionally Smuggled the Notion of Indigeneity into China. Humanities 5(3):54, doi:10.3390/h5030054

Heinrich, Patrick. 2018. Revitalization of the Ryukyuan Languages. In Leanne Hinton, Leena Huss, and Gerald Roche (eds) Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization. London: Routledge, 455-463.  

Merlan, Francesca. 2009. Indigeneity: Global and local. Current Anthropology 50(3): 303–33.

Pearson, Luke. 2015. Why We Will Never Find the ‘Most Appropriate’ Term to Refer to All Indigenous Australians. IndigenousX.

Roche, Gerald and Hiroyuki Suzuki. 2018. Tibet’s Minority Languages: Diversity and Endangerment. Modern Asian Studies. 52(4): 1227-1278.

Roche, Gerald, Hiroshi Maruyama, and Åsa Virdi Kroik (eds). 2018. Indigenous Efflorescence: Beyond Revitalization in Sapmi and Ainu Mosir. Canberra: ANU Press,

Taylor, Charles. 1994. The Politics of Recognition. In Amy Gutmann (ed) Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, ed. 2017. How we get free: Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Wa Thiong’o , Ngugi. 1981 [2004]. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers/ London: James Currey/ Portsmouth NH: Heinemann/ Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House. 

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research. 8(4): 387-409.

Yeh, Emily T. 2007. Tibetan indigeneity: Translations, Resemblances, and Uptake. In Marisol de la Cadena, Orin Starn (eds). Indigenous Experience Today, Oxford: Berg, 69-97.

The UN International Year of Indigenous Languages: optimism, skepticism, and unresolved tensions by Mel M. Engman and Kendall A. King

Intergenerational play at an Ojibwe family language camp

In celebration of International Mother Language Day, today’s blog post is written by Mel M. Engman (University of Minnesota; Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia) and Kendall A. King (University of Minnesota).

The United Nations has designated 2019 as the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages.’ With this proclamation, the UN aims to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote Indigenous languages through national and international work. The resolution also emphasizes the role of Indigenous languages in peace building, and describes Indigenous languages as resources for speakers, but also for the world’s cultural diversity more broadly.

Key stated objectives include:

“(1) Informing about the importance of indigenous languages for social development;

(2) Creating greater awareness about the critical status of indigenous languages around the world;

(3) Stimulating intercultural debate around indigenous languages;

(4) Imparting new knowledge on the importance of indigenous languages;

(5) Shaping attitudes of relevant stakeholders about indigenous languages.”

However, few specifics on the policies, programs or funding to meet these goals are provided on the engaging, colorful website. As of February 2019, the only defined initiative was a call for papers written by practitioners and researchers on Indigenous languages to be published by UNESCO Open Access. As researchers and advocates for language revitalization, we therefore view the UN proclamation with an optimistic, but slightly skeptical eye. Like many in the field, we are encouraged and excited by this high-status body’s interest in promoting a cause that we see as critical to a socially-just world. Simultaneously, we worry about the overly broad objectives of the proclamation and we also question the absence of material and political specificity. We also wonder how work will be accomplished with unclear budget and limited identifiable programming to date. Drawing on years of experience working in support of Indigenous language revitalization efforts, we explore this skepticism in greater depth by comparing the language of the resolution and action plan with the language used by our Indigenous colleagues to describe community desires linked to language revitalization. We look for alignment between local and international efforts and we identify areas where greater connections are needed despite their politically fraught nature.

Trilingual (Spanish-English-Quichua) sign welcoming visitors to the Saraguro community of Lagunas

We look at the UN documents as university-based scholars who have studied language revitalization in communities in Latin America and the U.S., and as (non-Indigenous) allies and advocates for language rights and Indigenous sovereignty. Our experiences with Quichua-language revitalization activists (in Ecuador) and Ojibwe language reclamation experts (in the U.S.) have highlighted how language survival is intertwined with community and family well-being, to land rights, and more broadly, with economic and political justice.

We both came to research work as academically trained linguistics, initially interested in technical or cognitive phenomena of language contact and change (King) and language acquisition (Engman). Long-term engagement with communities forced our attention to the ways that these linguistic phenomena are embedded in language ideologies and social hierarchies which in turn are rooted in historical trauma and injustice. These experiences have expanded our conceptions of the relationships between Indigenous languages and numerous other spheres of life, and concomitantly, color our view of international political bodies and proclamations such as this one.

We note that there is much that seems hopeful and appropriate in the UN materials. For instance, the resolution is inclusive of many Indigenous people and perspectives. The authors also recognize that supporting Indigenous languages also supports families, education, health, and longstanding Indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, the language of the action plan shows a willingness to include Indigenous peoples (instead of making policy on their behalf) in their efforts to support and promote Indigenous languages. This is also evident in the ways that the proclamation reportedly structured its steering committees to include people who can provide a wide variety of local perspectives, and it is evident in much of the plan’s language, which points to numerous social concerns that are deeply entangled with language. For example, the materials address the intersecting and converging interests of sustaining and reclaiming Indigenous languages alongside the maintenance of longstanding cultural practices, the development and dissemination of Indigenous ecological knowledge, and the promotion of basic human rights.

These ideas are sound and decidedly non-controversial. Yet there are numerous concerns that are of critical importance to our Indigenous community collaborators and friends whose language-related work resists the legacies of dominance and erasure. Our experiences with these innovators lead us to note that key words such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘colonialism’, ‘wellness’, ‘water’, and ‘land’ are absent from the UN’s action plan. There are certainly peripheral references to some of these ideas in the resolution and plan (e.g., “a significant cross-cutting pattern of disadvantage and discrimination” refers to colonialism without using the word), but they are not stated directly despite their deep entanglements with the sustaining and restorative work of Indigenous language regeneration.

Language games at an Ojibwe tribal school

To us, as to many readers we imagine, these points of omission and tension look familiar. Furthermore, these omissions parallel the kinds of tensions we often find ourselves navigating as researchers. For many language activists, numerous pressing community threats are seen as fundamentally connected with language work. Such concerns are often social, political, and environmental, and include, for instance, land and water rights, overt racial discrimination, and self-determination. These concerns are more immediate, more linked to displacement and colonialism, and more controversial than what the UN has laid out in the action plan. They are also central to why most Indigenous languages in the world are in need of resolutions and action plans in the first place.

Several decades into this work, the sorts of validating and affirming discourses anchoring the UN’s efforts are familiar to those of us who study language and who work with communities to sustain and restore cultural and linguistic continuity. We agree that language and the attendant social phenomena described in this action plan are basic human rights, and it is easy to see the value of these ideas being recognized by the UN on such a grand scale. This is likely “easy to see” now because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous communities who have labored to educate and cooperate with the individuals and institutions who hold disproportionate amounts of power. White, English-dominant settler academics like ourselves have benefited enormously from the generous and educative thinking of our Indigenous colleagues. We also have a responsibility to elevate the ideas, entities, and practices (e.g., sovereignty, wellness, water) that are fundamental to the current realities of our Indigenous colleagues’ language work.

Wall mural in town of Saraguro woman in traditional dress

Our experiences have shown us how language work at the local level touches on other social and intellectual domains like Indigenous environmental science, political activism, and healing and wellness. The silence around some of the contentious issues associated with these concerns in a sweeping policy document means that those of us with the ability to impose listener and readership (e.g., UN resolution-drafters, policymakers, guest-bloggers) have more work to do in order to hear and promote the voices of our Indigenous friends and colleagues. An example of such efforts can be found in recent efforts by Minnesota clergy who have aligned with Indigenous-led groups to oppose a pending replacement oil pipeline in the state. This pipeline, locally known as Line 3, would run through sensitive headwaters of the Mississippi River and sacred wild rice beds. Through marching, letter-writing, and protesting, this interfaith group shows how non-Indigenous leaders can leverage their power to follow Indigenous groups’ lead for joint, sustained efforts that advocate for a host of concerns related to social justice, cultural and linguistic continuity, and environmental protection.

The UN’s annual International Mother Tongue Day, the occasion of this invited blog post, is dedicated to “promot(ing) linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism” – a generally non-controversial, humanizing goal that we can expand, extend, and unsettle in this 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages. As non-Indigenous beneficiaries of settler colonialism, we aim to follow our Indigenous collaborators’ leads. Importantly, the concerns that our colleagues identify as interlaced with community language work are not apolitical. In order to follow their lead and support their efforts, we are required to resist the status quo. When we support Indigenous land recovery programs, champion Indigenous efforts to protect clean water, or defend Indigenous sovereignty we lean into the politically charged and controversial but critical work of honoring Indigenous languages around the world.

Kendall A. King (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is Professor of Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches and researches in the areas of sociolinguistics and language policy. Recent publications appear in the Modern Language JournalApplied Linguistics and the Journal of Language, Identity and Education. She has written widely on Indigenous language revitalization, bilingual child development, and the language policies that shape immigrant and transnational student experiences in the U.S., Ecuador, and Sweden. Her current research, based in Minneapolis, examines the educational policy and practices which (under)serve adolescent migrants with limited or interrupted formal schooling experiences. She is a former editor of the journal Language Policy and current Vice President (to be President) of the American Association of Applied Linguistics.

Mel M. Engman (PhD, University of Minnesota) teaches courses on applied linguistics at the University of Minnesota and she is the Administrative Director for Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia (GIM), a non-profit organization devoted to reclaiming the Ojibwe language in the Great Lakes region.   Her recent and upcoming publications can be found in the journals Language Documentation and Description, Heritage Language Journal, and Linguistics and Education.  Mel’s current research interests include Indigenous language reclamation, heritage language education, and critical approaches to language and sign in institutional contexts.