criteria for endangerment (or: what to do instead)

Trond Trosterud trondt at
Sun Dec 8 15:29:16 UTC 1996

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Allan Wechsler writes:
.Several overlapping constituencies rally around the endangered
.languages banner.  There are linguists (and folklorists) for whom
.languages (and the cultural artifacts they convey) are precious and
.irreplaceable objects of study; human rights advocates for whom
.language oppression is only a symptom of broader oppression of
.minority cultures; speakers with a personal love for their mother
.tongues; and probably other I apologize for neglecting.
.Although there are large areas of consensus between these
.costituencies, there are also salient differences, and these
.differences lead to different definitions of endangerment.
.(Perhaps this is why traffic on this list has been so light.  We seem
.to be having trouble finding anything to say besides "Language
.endangerment?  Oooh, bad thing.")

Allan is right in his analysis of our different #main# concern: As a
linguist, I care more about lg structure, whereas  (it probably is so that)
the main point for antrophologists is culture, for lg human right activists
is lg h. r's, etc. etc. But I still take it for granted that all of us in
principle agree with the other groups about the importance of their
concern. I don't quite see which group would be the neglected one. In the
public, it certainly is lg death, human rights & culture are more on the
general agenda than grammatical structure, but I assume that all
subscribers to this list would agree that, everything else being equal, we
would prefer a situation where a (to some extent) documented lg with known
relatives disappear over a situation where an unknown isolat (or
perhaps-isolat) disappears. Probably all of us also agree both on the
importance of documenting lgs that inevitably will disappear, and on the
importance of securing human lg rights for minorities, also in cases where
the lg in question is spoken elsewhere, and thus in no immediate danger
from the linguist's point of view (although for the speaker).

My point is: We probably agree in principle, although our personal
participation in the field, when writing articles, etc. is on one fo the
subfields. Correct me if I am too naive.

To give some practical examples, I include an article I wrote for the
"Terralingua" newsletter (the bad thing about many organisations is that
you have to post your stuff so many times :-)  ). As you can see, even as a
morphologist working with paradigm structure I am concerned about road
signs, so I think the light traffic is not due to disagreement. The problem
has probably been the concensus. As scientists, we are used to write only
when disagreeing, not when agreeing. This time we shall not prove analyses
and pooints, but support lgs. The writing and debate should thus be on ways
to acheive that goal, and, secondary, as a means to do that, to map the sad
status quo situation (In Fishmans terms: The "loss" side of the debate
should be seen as a support for the "reverse" side.

Here we go:

On supporting threatened languages

by Trond Trosterud, trondt at

The bottom line is that only the speakers themselves can save their
language. But as linguists, there are a lot of things we can and should do.
The following points are collected on the basis of personal experience,
focusing on topics at least I haven't seen that often in the discussion.

Exact information on the state-of-the-art
A bilingual society can change into a monolingual assimilated one very
fast, without fluent speakers realising what is going on until it is too
late. Thus, in unclear and critical cases, age pyramids should be set up
that show the fluency of (each speaker of) each age group. Panu Hallamaa,
Helsinki, has done some nice work on both Aleut and Skolt Saami, and he
also discusses general methodological questions involved.

Active utilising of intervening majority language borders
Languages always die via a bilingual stage (except genocide cases). With
all speakers fluent in the same majority language, "there is no use in
speaking the minority language". Contact across majority language borders
should thus be encouraged. In cases where the minority language spoken on
the other side of the majority language border is a different, but related
language, both passive (speak own lg - understand other lg) and active
bil-ingualism (speak-understand both) should be encouraged. A "useless"
minority language can be turned into an important device for international
com-munication if it is used as a basis for learning a related language in
a neighbouring country. Minority language speakers may end up as
much-needed interpreters, and multilingualism within the ethnic macrogroup
will also strengthen own ethnic identity. Thus, both active and passive
bilingualism should be taught.

The right to positive identification with own ethnic identity
School education in and on one's mother tongue is more and more seen as a
part of linguistic human rights. In addition to that, I will emphasise the
right to learn the language of one's ethnic group, also when it is no
longer the mother tongue for the pupil. This is of central importance for
the self-identification of the pupil.

Dictionary FROM the majority language
Every minority language should have a dictionary from the majority to the
minority language, a dictionary giving the speakers back words in exchange
for all the words that are stolen as a part of assimilatory language
pol-icy. Such dictionaries will provide a (common) vocabulary for phenomena
outside the domestic and traditional sphere, and they will function as
guidelines when borrowing new concept from the majority language. Today,
minority language dictionaries are all too often made by linguists in order
to understand collected text material, thus, they are FROM the minority
language, they contain only words found in the text collections (hence no
neologisms), and they are typically not written in any official

Not only small languages are threatened
For us, as linguists, the "worst case", is when the last speakers (of a lg
without close relatives) dies. But large-scale language shift can as well
start on million sized languages (the Mordvinian languages of Russia are a
bad example), and happen more or less simultaneously (and fast). Shifting
the perspective to the speaker, it is sad to loose the lg of the community,
even though it is spoken by a Diaspora group some hundred kilometres away.

Internet and the number of graphemes in the character set standards
Internet and interactive Text-TV will soon become wide-spread. Radio has
proven useful for minorities, it is cheap and does not require literacy.
Internet poses some additional problems, that must be addressed by us
lin-guists at once, especially since we are the ones to blame in the first
place: Often, we were the ones that invented good, phonemic or syllabic
writing systems, utilising a large number of graphemes not contained in the
A-Z English (or in the A-JA Russian) alphabet. I prefer the Czech solution
(one-phoneme graphemes) to the Hungarian and English one (digraphs) myself,
but having invented these graphemes we must now make them available on the
net. To do this we need code table standards and information on how to use
them. <a href="">Work on the S.i
languages</a> , especially .<a
href="">Funny characters on the
net. What information technology can (and cannot) do to support minority
languages</a>, by Trond Trosterud.

To be specific: We must make sure that every grapheme of every written
lan-guage of the world (including tone and length diacritics if in use) is
found in the 32-bits ISO/IEC 10646-1 standard. There are holes there, and
we are the ones that should fill them. Today, 3/4 of the space in part 1 of
10646 (16-bits Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP), or the first 65536 character
positions) are being filled by Korean and Chinese characters. After having
had their basic (some tenths of thousands of characters) in BMP, the
Chinese should be satisfied, and given a whole plane of their own (koreans
should have used only the basic components of Hangul, but the accident
already happened..). What is left of the BMP should then be reserved AT
LEAST for phoneme- and syllabic-based symbols of all the worlds written
languages. Raising the number of Cyrillic positions from the current 256 to
e.g. 512 would make no difference whatsoever to the space consideration of
Chinese, but it will solve ALL problems for the Cyrillic-based scripts
(today, not even the stress-marks of Russian are included, which will come
as a great surprise to text book providers). Also, minority languages
should have local 8-bits standards while waiting for 10646-1  to be
implemented. In the Saami community, it has been (and still is) hazardous
to transfer electronically (by exchanging discs, sending e-mail..), thus
mak-ing all publication and communication slower and more expensive. When
minority languages are claimed to be .difficult.  to read or write (even
though we as linguists know that their orthography are incredibly much
bet-ter than the ones of e.g. English or Norwegian), it is due to the fact
that their languages are never seen in print. This is one of the most
important ways of making them visible.

Minority language road signs
Road signs and public other public sign in the minority language is a very
important measure, as seen by the strong reactions of the majority
popula-tion against them wherever they are introduced. Sometimes minority
group members that have lost their language are among the strongest
opponents to introducing minority language signs, perhaps because they in a
way feel be-trayed by the country administration to whom they gave their
language loyalty. Making minority languages visible is the most important
effect of these signs, but they also teach how to write local place names,
and they show the official name of public institutions in the minority

As a result of the work of philologists and comparativists, huge bodies of
fairy tales, myth-o-logical texts, legends on the creation of the world,
etc., are compiled and published, often with a parallel translation. These
test should be translated from the phonetic transcription they probably are
written in, and into the official orthography that hopefully exists for the
language today, and then published. Simultaneously, the syntacticians among
us get searchable, machine readable corpora to work with. Thus, such work
can be financed by university grants. The publications will tell about
tra-ditions before the cultural suppression set in, and it give the peoples
in question back their own cultural heritage. Linguists visited the peoples
and got their stories, now is the time to give them back.

Passive bilingualism in families
Many parents that otherwise are motivated to pass their language to the
next generation will eventually give up speaking their mother tongue to
their children when the children (al-ways/of-ten/more and more) answer them
in the majority language. But why should they? As long as both participants
in the conversation understand each other, they can talk like that for the
rest of their life. The child will learn the majority language anyway, and
by knowing the minority language well passively, it later on will have a
chance to activate it.

I recently heard about a case like this, where the child in question mixed
the two lgs (as they of course do), but got teased and hit in kindergarten,
and with no support from the staff there. These problems (not relevant for
bilinguals with high-status 2nd lg) should be anticipated and addressed in

Attending a meeting of S.i and Norwegian officials, one of the S.i
participants was asked: Do you need an interpreter? No, she answered, I
don.t. But I will give my talk in S.i, so it might be that you will need

Trond Trosterud                         email: trondt at
Barentssekretariatet, P.O.Box 276,              work: +47-7899-3758
N-9901 Kirkenes, Norway                          fax: +47-7899-3225       home: +47-7899-2243
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