Lost languages day - reservations

Joseph Tomei jtomei at lilim.ilcs.hokudai.ac.jp
Wed May 29 02:13:18 UTC 1996

>Following discussions about the "Lost languages day", I would like to
>mention some views that might also be taken into account. <snip>
>Many people here believe that describing languages as "lost" is a way of
>obscuring the colonial experience whereby much more than language was
>indeed lost, often in terrible circumstances. In other words, "lost"
>seriously obscures the agency of the process: some say that instead we
>should use the word "destroyed" and say who did so.

I wanted to follow up on David Nathan's comments. I think he is quite right
in pointing out the problems that arise when we call things 'lost'.'
Several of my Ainu friends greatly object to the use of 'endangered'
because they feel it makes a claim that Ainu culture will disappear
completely because the parts that interests academics will be gone. This
sort of discipline-centric view of the value of culture is a dangerous
pitfall in working with 'endangered' languages.

Of course, one could argue that 'they're just words', but they do place a
strong value judgement on the culture. I don't want to pretend that this is
a clear-cut problem with black and white solutions.

Which brings me to a point that I hope will generate some discussion on the
list. Though I am quite happy that the LSA has taken the matter of
language endangerment as something deserving of attention, I wonder if
there should be a parallel effort to acknowledge not only any help that an
indigenous group gives in research work (something that I see very little
of, especially as compared with the number of government agencies that are
listed in the first footnote of many works), but also specifically pointing
out how the current research has been 'channeled back' to the indigenous
groups which use the language (which I have never seen).

Of course, one argument is that many of the papers that use endangered
languages rely on archival sources and treatments, so don't necessarily
have a relationship with the community. This is true, but I consider it a
less a way of how things should be and more like a sad commentary on how
the far the field of linguistics is from the languages that inform it.

As I said, I hope to generate some discussion on this, but please feel free
to respod to me privately.

Joseph Tomei
Institute of Language and Culture Studies
Hokkaido University
N17 W8 Kita-ku,  Sapporo 001 JAPAN
(81) (0)11-716-2111 x5387
fax (81) (0)11-736-2861
jtomei at lilim.ilcs.hokudai.ac.jp
 'Buying a newer computer is the triumph of hope over experience'

with apologies to Oscar Wilde

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