criteria for endangerment

Nicholas Ostler nostler at
Thu Dec 5 11:49:56 UTC 1996

At 11:51 am 4/12/96, kammler at wrote:
>Have there any criteria for "endangeredness" of languages been agreed upon in
>this ELL?

Dear All

I was very interested to read about Henry Kammler's various interests
(especially since like me he seems to be an Americanist marooned in
Europe), and certainly look forward to meeting him soon.  But this last
"throw-away" remark stimulated me a little. Hence this squiblet.

I am often asked "what are the criteria for endangerment?" when I introduce
or mention our Foundation for Endangered Languages, but when this happens I
like to avoid, or better subvert, the question.  Why? Well, for two
reasons.  One, the question may serve to distinguish languages into two
groups, the endangered and the non-endangered.  And two, it may  restrict
too much our consideration of what makes for language survival.

Let me expand a little.

If you give criteria, presumably some languages will meet them, and others
won't. (Of course, some may be border-line.) That means that you will be
interested in just the languages which happen to meet the criteria at the
moment.  That means some languages are "suitable cases for treatment"; the
rest can be left to get on with their lives.

In practice, however, most languages (including English) have been
endangered at one time or another; what moves us (well, me) is the point
that "languages can die, you know" with all the implications that has for
people who may care.  It is the predicament of language endangerment, and
the policies that may be undertaken, academic, social, global, local,
whatever, that mean there is a point to having a Foundation for Endangered
Languages or whatever other organizations there are over the world. (The
more the merrier.)

On the other hand, if the attempt at "defining your terms", giving
"criteria for endangerment", leads to a definitive statement, it may serve
to cut off debate on what influences the survival, decline or resurgence of
languages which don't have too many speakers left.  There are in fact all
sorts of ways that languages can go down, or up.  Sometimes explicit
prohibition serves to give a subversive strength to the speakers of a
language that was moribund, but in many cases such prohibition might just
kill the language off.  Moving populations may disrupt a speech community,
so that it dries up, but in  other cases movement might transplant a
community somewhere where it could thrive on new soil.   Print media may
give one language self-respect, but put another into direct competition
with a metropolitan competitor and so hasten its demise.  Some peoples seem
to be able to hang onto their culture but lose their language, while close
neightbours manage the converse feat.

So (in my humble view) forget looking for "criteria": seek instead the
dynamic forces, and the features of circumstance, that create the prospects
for a language's future.  It's language endangerment that is the concern,
not judging whether language L is really endangered or not.

                           Nicholas Ostler
			   Managing Director
			   Linguacubun Ltd                       Foundation
                           for Endangered Languages

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