Did you know this was endangered languages week? I didn’t, but I’m glad it’s happening. With all the alarming news that has hogged the headlines over the past few months, endangered languages have sunk to a lower rung of our consciousness, mine anyway. So it’s time to stop and think for a moment about the many benefits of preserving endangered languages:
1. Every language embodies a system of family and governmental relationships, titles, and rules. Nobody has gotten either system right yet, and we can learn a lot from each other. These systems disappear with the language.
2. Every language uses a certain set of sounds, which express themselves in everything from lullabies to swear words. These help us understand the human brain, and our physical capabilities.
3. Can you imagine a world in which there was no longer a ”Rock-a-Bye Baby,” or an “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” not to mention, “To be or not to be” which other people could understand? Literature and music has been composed in every tongue, whether the culture is literate or not.
4. More than one set of experiments has proven that knowing more than one language improves our method of learning everything else as well, and develops the brain.
5. Extinguishing language means extinguishing identity, relegating certain groups to inferior status. This goes against our principles of self-worth and democracy.
6. Now. If only the Spanish-, Greek-, and French-speaking people I know would answer me in Spanish, Greek, or French when I address them in their native tongue. The United States not only does not foster multilingualism, it mutes the tongues of people who immigrate. It annoys the hell out of me that I cannot practice my second, third, and fourth languages with people who live around me. The less they respond in their native tongue, the less I hear their native languages, and the quicker I lose contact with them.
7. We embrace diversity in all else, why not in language? There is a virtue unto itself of diversity.
Endangered Languages Week 2013 – Here is a weeklong celebration of same in England, if any of you happen through this week.
Celebrating our Sounds, Signs and Songs
SOAS, Russell Square, London
20-28 May 2013
Endangered Languages Week 2013 will present a variety of workshops, talks, films, demonstrations, debate, and more. Events include:
- ELDP workshop on technology and African languages.
- APLL6 conference on Austronesian and Papuan Languages and Linguistics
- Talks and seminars:
- Caroline Kerfoot: ‘Multilingualism as epistemic resource: rethinking ‘languages’ in educational policy’
- Kearsey Cormier on Sign languages
- Henrik Bergqvist:‘The problem of accounting for TAME and related expressions in the context of language documentation and description’
- Catherine Ingram on music and language documentation
- Sarah Ogilvie on web technologies and endangered languages
- Peter Austin: ‘And still they speak Dieri. Language revitalisation in northern South Australia’
- ELAR Open Day, including:
- Film Day: films on/in endangered languages
The full programme of events will appear here soon!
All events are free of charge and open to anyone who is interested in languages.
I am copying into this blogpost an email which appeared on the Language Policy List email@example.com about the ancient languages of the Caucasus Mountains. I have edited out some parts of it which were technical, in order to make it a tidy size for a blog post, and to make it accessible to non-specialists. The title of the original posting is “New Book: A Proposal for Pan-Caucasian Alphabet,” posted on March 24th.
[Several of the languages of Northern Caucasian languages were not traditionally written down.] Standardized writing systems for the North Caucasian languages have been implemented only in the 20th century. Initially based upon the Latin script, the adapted alphabets have been shifted to Cyrillic-shaped graphics during the mid 30s. … These writing systems are incapable to represent [sic], in an unambiguous way, the phonetics of the North Caucasian languages, which in their turn possess an outstanding feature of having one of the richest consonant inventories among all the languages of the world….
For instance, the language of the Ubykhs (extinct since 1992) has 86 consonants and two vowels; the Archi language, presently reduced to 1200 speakers, distinguishes 81 consonants and 26 vowels (many of the former do not have exact correspondences in other languages); the consonant inventory of the Bzyp dialect of Abkhaz includes 68 phonemes, etc.
All Caucasian languages have a regular three-level phonation for stops and affricates (voiced, ejective and aspirated voiceless), whereas the Cyrillic script distinguishes only two levels of phonation (voiced and unaspirated voiceless) in case of stops and one (aspirated voiceless) in case of affricates. The Latin alphabet does not represent affricates at all. … [T]he Cyrillic script until the 20th century has chiefly been confined to a limited range of a few Slavic languages sharing similar phonetic traits. … [D]issimilar sets of symbols often with illogical combinations were introduced into the alphabets of particular North Caucasian languages during the adaptation of the Russian script.
For instance, the series of Ubykh postalveolar affricates and fricatives numbers 22 distinct phonemes, for which there is only one (!) correspondence in the Cyrillic script – the letter ч (tɕ). Obviously, this one sign alone is quite insufficient to express the overall phonemic diversity of this extensive series by means of Cyrillic graphics. Set aside the letter х, there is no other direct or indirect graphical correspondence for uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal and glottal stops, affricates, fricatives and sonorants, which in Caucasian languages abound.
As one can see, the quantity of phonemes of these languages by far exceeds the graphical capabilities of all alphabetic systems that have previously been proposed for them or are currently in use. Such a vast phoneme inventory significantly hinders the possibilities of adaptation of any actual script and constitutes the prime reason for the current project.
[Twenty-four[ out of 69 characters of Adyghe alphabet are double, and 11 – triple, making in sum 35 compounds, which is more than half of the total listing with 69:35 ratio. The similar statistics of the other Caucasian Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Abaza (74:40), Kabardian (55:25), Abkhaz (64:24), Akhvakh (56:30), Aghul (69:32), Avar (53:37), Lak (59:25), Tabasaran (59:25), Tsez (40:14), Chechen (45:16) etc. The Chechen alphabet alone having merely 45 characters in the presence of 44 authentic vowels and diphthongs in the language itself, clearly convinces one in the fact that even at the cost of universal violation of the alphabetic principle and inappropriate complication of orthography, the given alphabets are unable to express the phonemic structure of the Caucasian languages even in the least satisfactory manner.
All above-mentioned complications essentially limited the means of graphical expression of these languages and led to a point, where, set aside rare dialectal phonemes, a series of sounds of literary languages were omitted in a number of alphabets. In many cases, these very same circumstances also defined the selection of dialects upon which the literary versions of some Caucasian languages were subsequently based: neither the extent of geographical distribution, nor the greater number of speakers was the decision criterion, but the minimal consonant inventory.
In summary, we may conclude that presently for the languages of both North Caucasian families there are practically no alphabets with a satisfactory level of phonematicity. Moreover, in Cyrillic script we deal with a quite inconsistent system of symbols, the potential of which in respect of grapheme morphology and structural correspondences is extremely low and insufficient not only for a simple, practical and phonemically complete rendition of the North Caucasian languages, but also for their aesthetic graphical representation.
The latter is of paramount importance for psychology of writing and determines the representativeness and competitiveness of an authentic language under the dominance of another – an official language with an identical writing system.
Besides the imperfection of the writing system or even its absence, the official status and the cultural dominance of Russian has a no less considerable impact on the marginalization of the spheres of usage of the native Caucasian languages, promoting their gradual extinction. A large number of languages, among which were examples unique by their grammatical and phonetic properties, either completely died out or are on the brink of extinction being reduced to a few hundred or thousand of speakers, such as Archi, Akhvakh, Khinalug, Khwarshi, Tsez, Hinukh, Hunzib, Bezhta, Ghodoberi, Kryts, Budukh, Udi and many others.
Granting these languages a new impetus and means for development may be a possible break through the mentioned difficulties. To achieve this goal we suggest a scientifically valid development of completely new and well-adapted Caucasian alphabets that are adjusted by the morphology of symbols and the logic of their modification. At the same time, they must correspond to the complex intrinsic phonetic features of these languages, render them with full phonemic representativeness and alphabetical unambiguity, and at the same time be free from any irrelevant political or cultural context and enforcing influence.
The best illustrations to the aforesaid are the 1600-year time-tested alphabets of once dominant languages of the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands – Armenian, Georgian and the extinct and only recently deciphered Caucasian Albanian. Among the writing systems of the world, these three alphabets are distinguished by their highest level of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence and are listed among the phonetically most perfect. Caucasian Albanian, inter alia, was the only language of the South Caucasus possessing phonetic features similar to the North Caucasian languages and an ancient alphabet adapted to it.
Throughout the centuries, the viability of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, alongside with the power of tradition and some peculiarities of the identity of these two nations, was supported by the fundamental fact: they reflect the phonetics of these languages with the highest level of perfection. These alphabets were never superseded by the Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian or Latin scripts, as they weren't adopted or modified, but from the beginning developed on the basis of a meticulous scientific analysis of the phonetics of Armenian and Georgian (as well as Caucasian Albanian).
Hence, we set forth the idea to introduce completely original, easily legible, and most importantly – phonetically perfect and grammatologically thorough writing systems for the North Caucasian linguistic area, based on the character forms and graphical principles of construction of the alphabets of geographically adjacent and historically akin South Caucasus.
To achieve maximum efficiency, two similar, but mutually independent generalized sets of characters for [the] language families are introduced, wherefrom the specific alphabets for the particular languages are subsequently deduced.
Additionally, for the Ossetic language alike, which is an integral part of the Caucasian heritage, an independent alphabet sharing the features of both the newly developed North Caucasian and the ancient Transcaucasian alphabets has been created.
Thus, we attempt to give a new and historically sound unity and continuity to the millennial writing culture of the Caucasian region, a new impulse to the development of greater speech communities, as well as viability for preservation and future revival to smalle
An article in The New York Times today makes the case that not only does bilingualism make us smarter as children, it also wards off mental deterioration in older people.
I might add my own two cents on this subject. There is no time in life when bilingualism is anything less than a great bonus (except when memorizing vocabulary lists, that’s just the price you pay). Traveling, watching television, reading newspapers in another language, speaking with the local hardware store owner or taxi driver or musician in his or her native language is a kick which opens your social life and sprinkles glitter on our everyday activities.
Max Markham, a recent Stanford graduate with some impressive international experience, even at his young age, has written an article which appeared on the blog policymic and presents some of the compelling arguments against having English-only legislation passed in the U.S., whether on the state or national level. It was written five months ago, and refers to Jon Huntsman as the only presidential candidate who speaks a language other than English fluently (Chinese), and Huntsman is no longer a candidate, but the points made in the article remain true. (I believe that Romney speaks pretty good French, but perhaps he was excluded because he isn’t fluent.)
One factoid teachers can use to introduce this subject is that, counting immigrant enclaves, there are around 337 languages spoken or signed in the U.S. One hundred seventy-six are indigenous, such as Athabaskan, Chinookan, Iroquoian, Uto-Aztecan, and many more. Fifty-two are now extinct, with others falling into extinction as native speakers die out. Some of these are Delaware, Jersey Dutch, Iowa-Oto, Narragansett, Shinnecock, Wyandot, and many more.
My favorite historical anecdotes on this subject concern the debate which occurred in Revolutionary War times. There were a number of Americans who objected to adopting the language of their enemies, the British, though most people in the fledgling U.S. spoke English. Some wanted the official language to be either Hebrew, French, or Greek (the languages of God, rationality, and democracy), and some suggested Latin, which was universally taught in upper class schools. There were so many German speakers at that time that a bill was introduced to print official documents in German. It failed.
Exercise: As with other language policy-related issues that have been discussed on this blog in the past, have students find out what the language policy of their state, town, or school is, and hold a class discussion of the findings, which includes a pro- and con- dialogue about declaring an official state or national language.
Do you know there is an “International Mother Language Day?” It’s today, February 21st. It is sponsored by Linguapax, a non-governmental organization supporting linguistic diversity, in the belief that “…essential vehicles of identity and cultural expression are inseparable from the goals peace and intercultural understanding.”
The Linguapax Award for 2012 is being given to:
“Jon Landaburu Illarramendi (1943), Basque with French and Colombian nationality is a leading specialist in the field of indigenous languages in Colombia. With over 40 years of experience in the field, he has combined professional dedication with personal engagement in his work promoting linguistic diversity and linguistics ecologies in Colombia. He has come to be a key name in their protection and revitalization.”
You can read the whole article here.
Language seems benign – don’t swear in front of your grandmother, don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and you’re okay. There are, however, many inflammatory issues which intimately involve language and here are a few.
Controversy One: The New York City Council once debated whether to ban the words, “bitch, “whore,” and “nigger,” because there was too much abuse occurring on involving these words. The ban was voted down. It turned out that these words could be abusive, but were also often affectionate. Sometimes “my bitch” turned out to mean “my best friend,” “whore,” especially when shortened to “ho’,” was used as a greeting among buddies, and “nigger,” was also commonly used, especially among African-Americans, as a term of affection. The rub was the impracticality of banning words which were used thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of times a day in New York City, and also the fact that the council was proposing to ban a series of contexts, not a few words. Who would be the judge of the motives of the people using these words? What would be the punishment? Besides, as any linguist can tell you, a new slang would pop up in the blink of an eye. Should these words have been banned?
Controversy Two: Writing about the recent British riots in The London Daily Standard, Lindsay Johns referred to “mass BBM broadcasts, written in street slang, inviting [the rioters] to join in the thuggery. … [English] is being squandered by so many young people of all races and backgrounds.” He describes an “inarticulate slang full of vacuous words such as ‘innit’ and willful distortions like ‘arks’ for ‘ask’ or tedious double negatives.” Mr. Johns is too upset to see that the rioters were consciously or unconsciously using language as a tool for protest. They didn’t like the standard British ways; the way people dressed, or their banks, or their method of governing, or their condescending attitudes, or their education system, to name a few, and they used their own non-standard language to protest against these oppressive arms of society. The language was a straw man, and Mr. Johns fell for the deception, railing against “arks” and “innit” instead of confronting the true objective of the protest, which was an overthrow of the status quo in all its forms. Did the American “Occupy” protests use language as an anti-establishment tool – besides creating the new meaning of the word “occupy?”
Controversy Three: I have been watching women wheeling babies along the street in my town, Hoboken, New Jersey, and have noticed that mothers constantly talk to their babies, often laughing, gesticulating, and giggling. “Look at those pretty Christmas lights!” “You’re such a pretty girl!” Nonsense, babbling, strings of language. Nannies often (usually?) wheel their charges in silence, or talking to others on their cell phones. It would take more research than I would undertake to determine the effect on the babies of this language drought, if indeed such a drought exists. Maybe I am seeing an artifact. The larger sociological question would be, should we provide longer m[p]aternity leaves so that parents can provide the kind of nurture which only a parent will bother to provide? Besides other areas, the linguistic richness which the children cared for by parents who are bonded closely to them must be a good thing for the children as a means of developing not only their vocabulary and syntax, but their emotional and intellectual intelligence as well. What do you think? How much would your students sacrifice to stay home and raise their children themselves, or isn’t that worth it at all?
Controversy Four: Languages are disappearing along with species. The number of languages in the world has shrunk drastically, and the rate of shrinkage is accelerating. Is it worth preserving dying languages? Should the American government, for example, fund the efforts of the Wampanoag Indian tribe to resuscitate the language they spoke when they greeted the Pilgrims? Wampanoag leaders have been painstakingly reconstructing their native tongue through studies of documents written in the Wampanoag language in the 17th century, along with other methods. The argument for letting Wampanoag die is evident – who needs it? All of our commercial, religious, governmental, cultural, academic, and other life gets along very well without it. The argument for supporting Wampanoag’s revival is more subtle; they had a system of government, education, family life, religion, and commerce which ran on unique principles. Since our systems are in some ways crumbling today, wouldn’t it be good to learn about other systems which we haven’t thought of yet to find ways of correcting our weaknesses? The Wampanoag, for example, knew that the world was round long before the Europeans did. Hmmm. Maybe their way of thinking was productive. Every language reflects a nuanced way of living and thinking; imagine living without your lullabies and fairytales, without Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tennessee Williams, without southern accents and “ain’t”, without our ways of addressing each other (Ms., Mrs., Miss, Mr., Sir, Madam, Master, Hey You). The world could get along fine without all of those things, right?
Exercise; Any one of the above controversies could form the basis for an essay, or a class discussion.
Exercise: A more challenging exercise would be to ask students to ferret out other controversies involving language. It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to find such controversies in our political life in America in this election year.
Wampanoag is the language of the tribe that coexisted with the Pilgrims. Their language disappeared in the 19th century, but has recently been reconstructed by a Wampanoag woman, Annie “Little Doe” Baird, who won a MacArthur “genius” Award for her work. A whole fascinating article can be found here. A film about Baird and the Wampanoag reconstruction, We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân, was shown on PBS in October, 2010. A short PBS news report about the project can be found here, and a DVD can be purchased at this site.
The article concludes:
“Why should you care about Wampanoag, or any extinct language, for that matter? As Noam Chomsky says in the film, “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.” But most importantly, as [Anne] Makepeace clearly shows in her film, a language can contribute significantly to mankind’s collective knowledge. That’s something for all of us, not just the Wampanoag, to be grateful for.”
Exercise: Discover what language(s) were spoken by native societies in your community. Which ones are still spoken, and which have disappeared. Is the language(s) still studied somewhere, at MIT, for example? Are there relics of it on the Internet or in local libraries?
Here are a last few thoughts on the reasons to save endangered languages, the last of a series of posts.
Languages are interesting. Each language leads to a troves of knowledge about the human brain, human behavior, and human systems of governance. It also keeps us humble – languages discovered by colonialists were dismissed as animalistic or primitive, but have been found to be intricate, complex mechanisms of expression. Can you make the South African click? How many of your relatives can be named by their relationship to you? Is there, for example, a different name for the sister of your mother than the sister of your father? Do these names reach the level of third cousins? Is there a special name for the eldest child? What is the difference between a chief and a chieftain? Why are there two different words? How many ways of making the future tense exist among the world’s languages? (Answer: hundreds)
It develops your brain power: Research has suggested that learning to speak other languages provides mental gymnastics which refine your thinking powers. Research also suggests that the more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn yet another.
Given humanity’s depressing failures at maintaining peace and a healthy ecology, humility should be one of our most treasured qualities. Crystal quotes Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Amen.
If knowing a second, third, or fourth language in any way diminished us, there would be a reason to support monolingualism, but the human mind is capable of mastering numerous languages. An African student of mine said he spoke 11 languages because his father had 11 wives, each from a different tribe, and he was raised by all 11. We don’t need to embrace polygamy to be multilingual. All it takes is the will.
Here are a few more reasons why we should make the effort to save endangered languages.
Languages contain our history. Take away Shakespeare, Pepys, Wordsworth, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Stephen Sondheim, and a host of other poets, authors, and lyricists and much of English speaking culture becomes invisible. As the Irish seek to reclaim their history, much access is through language – - their poets, songs, and sagas. Not all access is written, to be sure. In what ever place we find the words of our ancestors, we can speak with them and interact with them through language. They disappear without it.
Languages contain knowledge unique to each. David Crystal quotes Emerson, “As many languages as he has, as many friends, as many arts and trades, so many times is he a man.” A diplomat negotiating a contract in an unfamiliar language (she may be thinking, “Don’t they all speak English?”) may learn the hard way that she has not thought of everything; for example, commas are crucially important in English, but don’t exist in many languages. If the diplomat does not know what is used in their stead, errors can, and have, occurred. Nomenclature and other knowledge about animals and plants among tribes familiar with a remote area have led to transformative discoveries and a deeper understanding of nature. The Whorfian Hypothesis even suggests that if there are no words for a concept, we cannot think it. Different languages have different definitions of time, for example, even of color. Each language provides a new window into the human mind.
There is a current belief that perhaps consolidating into fewer language groups will grease the wheels of peace, progress, trade, and education, but I disagree. Many of the reasons why have been summed up beautifully in the prolific author David Crystal’s book, Language Death. Anyone interested in the subject will find a thoughtful and profound argument for preserving all the languages we can in this book.
Linguistic diversity is as important as ecological diversity. Just as ecological diversity is a source for renewal, so also linguistic DNA is a source for renewal. In language lies the secret of being human, which involves constant adaptation. Every language represents a linguistic, governmental, familial, religious, historical, and artistic body of knowledge and achievement which can feed those who come in contact with it. Some languages produce sounds we never knew humans could produce; some produce the plural in similarly amazing ways. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, “Pity the nation that knows/No other language than its own/And no other culture but its own.”
Languages express our identity. Crystal quotes a Welsh proverb, “A nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” Imagine being forced to forsake your mother’s lullabies, the Grace said at table, the songs of your childhood. Our hearts wrap around such things. Many aspects of our home culture are to be found in our language. By realizing this, we can appreciate the sacrifices made by immigrants when they join our cultures.
Exercise: Introduce students to the Omniglot website which has analyses and soundbites of many different languages. They can continue their research into their heritage language, or into another language of their choice.