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World’s Endangered Languages

World's Endangered Languages - Fran ANAYA (Linguist)

If we trace the history of linguistics as a science, from the realms of mere speculation as recently as the eighteenth century to its status as a relatively exact science, with many distinct specialisations, at the beginning of the twenty-first, and compare that history with the history of demographic, political and economic change across the globe over the same brief period in the span of man’s existence as a speaking animal, then it begins to become clear why the concept of ‘endangerment’ is so new to the realms of linguistics. To document a diversity that is fast attenuating, in a world where ‘diversity’ in other spheres – the natural world, the cultural world and even in race relations – is a quality which has enjoyed a heightened appreciation only within the past two generations or so.

Linguistics may be a relatively exact science now, but it is still very much a science whose object of study moves and changes more rapidly than its practitioners can follow it. It is also the science that is perhaps most closely bound up with the expression of human emotion, a science where the objective is in constant collision with the subjective. Everybody has an opinion about language to some extent, and except in purely monolingual societies, everybody is made aware at some point of externally imposed policies, other people’s prejudices, and an almost instinctive sense of ‘appropriateness’ about language use. Even monoglots are not free from the strictures imposed by society on their language use; they, too, must learn to graduate and refine their use of the different registers within a language. In more fragmented language communities, dialect differences must be distinguished. Language is a badge of the individual’s place in the community.

There are well over 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. This is itself a fact that is only recently established by linguistic science, and there is some debate still about the exact number. Not only is the difference between a ‘language’ and a ‘dialect’ a perennial bone of contention, but even in the late twentieth century, new languages remained to be discovered, identified and classified – often misclassified, when the data about them was only sketchy. Whatever the exact number, even though perhaps some few genuinely new cases remain to be discovered, it is not a number that is growing. It is diminishing, and diminishing at a rate that should worry anyone who regards diversity as healthy in the same way that we may worry about the accelerating endangerment to the world’s rare flora and fauna, or the shrinking of the polar ice-caps.

It is easy enough to take the view that this state of affairs simply does not matter. It is especially easy for native speakers of the language in which these lines are being written and read – but it is in many cases easy even for speakers of tiny minority languages that have barely any currency outside the immediate environment. The need to communicate is an urgent imperative, and the ability to communicate fluently is intimately bound up with self-esteem. If we can communicate on an equal footing with those people with whom we must come into daily contact, what does it matter if we have to dress our thoughts in another’s language? The end justifies the means. Only the fittest survive.

Language has always been a powerful weapon in the subjugation of peoples and nations. Empires have come and gone by the sword, but their true staying power, their lasting influence over many generations, long after the trappings of government and formal administration have disappeared, lies in the power of language. At the centre of each empire lies a tradition of book learning – literacy, whereby a nation’s traditions can be passed in a stable and unchanged form from one generation to another, which in turn implies the power to legislate, the power to standardise language and conquer dialect differences, the power to institute formal education, the power to expand and amplify the findings of science. Without these things, a society remains fragmented and weak, and a language remains variable and dependent on the accidents of geography and demography. With them, it has the opportunity to conquer even numerically stronger opponents. The secrets of shipbuilding, arms making, colonial administration, trade regulation, are all passed on in written form.

Empires have spread out in various forms from or within other continents, but in Europe the process of colonial conquest whose linguistic fruits we see today began over five hundred years ago, and it is no coincidence that it began in the same century as the invention of movable type. The acquisition of printing multiplied and accelerated the opportunities for conquering the hearts and minds of those who did not have it. In the twentieth century, within our own living memory, attempts have been made to redress the balance; once the United Nations made possible the (at least theoretically) equal representation of sovereign nations in a world forum, the movement to banish colonialism was able to gain a stronger foothold, but whereas all the other trappings of colonial administration fell gradually away in what is habitually called the Third World, language lingered on. It served to unite countries that were in many cases the artificial creations of European overlords dividing their spoils at the conference table. The tongues of former masters were pressed into service to educate the vital infrastructure of the new civil service, to pass on the vital data of technology, and to engage in trade with powerful partners.

But it would be a gross oversimplification to lay the blame for minority language attrition only at the feet of colonial powers. There is a hierarchy, a pecking order, within multilingual states that obtains quite independently of any former external conquest. This is true even of some of the colonial powers themselves: Britain, France and Spain themselves all have minority language situations, and for some of the languages indigenous to those countries (Cornish and Manx in Britain, for example), the late twentieth-century attempt to reverse the trend of language attrition has come far too late for their first-language native speakers. And it is true of states that have retained their sovereignty over long centuries: Thailand and Ethiopia are two examples of multilingual nation-states that spring to mind. In both of these cases, a single national language centred around the court and the capital has consistently been used as a tool to forge national unity, without snuffing out the many languages of purely local currency that have survived within their borders.

There are many pitfalls in trying to generalise on a global scale about what causes language attrition. The economic factors that lead to language death are undeniably important, but they are not uniform. We can say with some certainty that urbanisation is a killer of languages, especially if rapid economic change takes place over one or two generations and attracts the rural poor to urban centres in search of work. Not only does urbanisation fragment families, especially in post-colonial states, where the breadwinner may be constrained to move to the city from a subsistence economy to earn a livelihood in a new major-language environment, but it generally fails to provide an institutional basis for maintenance of the non-local languages within the new urban environment.

Economic factors, however, do not merely attract small linguistic populations to the urban centres and erode the nutrients from the soil of their continued existence; they also contribute to the linguistic invasion of even the most settled speech communities.

Increased local and national wealth brings with it the opportunity and the desire to ‘plug in’ to global communications networks, with all the linguistic baggage that this implies. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, more than ever, the key to linguistic hegemony lies in the possession of the media. And here we confront a painful moral dilemma of our age: should we deny the populations of what we have come to see as unspoiled rural Arcadias the access they crave to the knowledge we have at our fingertips, which is only available through the medium of a few standardised major languages? Even if ‘we’ wanted to, ‘we’ could do nothing to prevent it.

The agents of change are no longer the bands of conquistadors of 500 years ago, who changed the linguistic map of ‘Latin’ America forever; they are the faceless mortals who sit at millions of computer screens dotted all over the globe.

Allied to this problem is another, to which linguists cannot be indifferent; should the effort to rescue a language from annihilation come from inside or outside the speech community? Linguists who are outsiders must be sufficiently well trained as anthropologists, sufficiently observant and methodical as scientists, and sufficiently compassionate and sensitive as human beings, to be able to tackle both of these problems head-on. When a language is on the threshold of extinction, its speakers may well be demoralised in other, non-linguistic ways as well – economically deprived, dependent on aid, malnourished, unable or unwilling to draw on their cultural or religious traditions: any combination of these factors is possible. While it is not reasonable to expect the linguist to provide for all of these needs, it is impossible to act as if one were unaware of them. Likewise, the linguist may also be acting out of motives that are other than strictly linguistic.

In the past decade there have been various initiatives to foster awareness of the accelerating rate of the loss of languages. The UNESCO Red Book, which appeared in 1993, was a pioneering effort in this direction. Then in 1995 the University of Tokyo set up a Clearing House for endangered languages, the emphasis being on recording newly discovered instances of disappearing languages rather than taking action to preserve them. There swiftly followed the creation of ‘activist’ groups on both sides of the Atlantic in 1995: in the USA, the Endangered Languages Fund (ELF), and in Britain, the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL). These bodies have taken an active part in the actual preservation of endangered languages, by acting as charitable grant-giving bodies which make awards to scholars who are doing valuable investigative work; they stipulate that the published results of the work undertaken shall benefit the community concerned. The prestige of the study of endangered languages was further enhanced in 2002 with the creation of the first university chair in the subject by the Rausing Foundation at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This foundation, too, is engaged in giving grants for research projects that it deems will assist in language recovery.

Training of linguists in language documentation is a crucial issue for the future, and courses like the one offered in London are a valuable and all too rare asset, if the task of reclaiming disappearing languages is to be met. Perhaps new disciplines within linguistics and in cross-fertilisation with other scientific disciplines will arise in the near future as a result of the academic interest in endangered languages; one possible pointer to the future was indicated in an article on ‘Ecolinguistics’ – the comparison of language attrition with ecological decline, by Professor Bill Sutherland in Nature (May 2003). Fruitful collaboration with the disciplines of anthropology and sociology may result in a better understanding of the power relations between strong and weak languages within and beyond national boundaries. And the full implications of the economic causes and effects of language switching have yet to be understood.

The serious study of language endangerment and attrition is still in its infancy. It is an ironical fact that the estimated number of languages in the world was put as much lower at a time when the real number was much higher than it is now, as David Crystal points out in the introductory chapter of his book Language Death (2000).

The estimated number, he notes, has grown from around a thousand, a conjectural figure, mentioned in 1874, to the 4,500 or so listed in the first attempt to catalogue them all, the Voegelins’ Classification and Index of the World’s Languages (1977), and on to the 6,703 entries cited in the 1996 edition of Ethnologue. The Atlas of the World’s Languages (Moseley and Asher (eds) 1994) mapped well over 6,000 languages.

Inevitably we have come up against the age-old question of ‘what is a language, as opposed to a dialect?’ Since in the case of endangered languages the adage ‘a language is a dialect with an army and a navy’ cannot possibly apply, we have had to err on the side of generosity: sometimes there is so little information to go on that the question is left in doubt.

Christopher Moseley was retired from two decades spent covering Baltic affairs for BBC Monitoring, part of the BBC World Service. He now works as a freelance translator and editor, with a particular lifelong interest in the languages and literatures of the Baltic and Nordic areas. He is the editor of the Journal of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. His other books include Atlas of the World’s Languages (Routledge, 2007), Colloquial Latvian (Routledge, 1996) and Colloquial Estonian (Routledge, 1994).

Fran ANAYA, translator, linguists, philologist and professor of languages and linguistics.

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