written form; "extinct" living languages

Eduardo Rivail Ribeiro erribeir at MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU
Mon Dec 8 05:13:13 UTC 2003

I tried to send this message to the list yesterday, but apparently it
didn't go through.  Hope it works this time.

Hello everybody,

Thanks to Russell Bernard for bringing up this important distinction.  A
number of Brazilian indigenous languages indeed have orthographies,
introduced mostly by missionaries, but this doesn't necessarily mean that
writing in the native languages became a tradition.  This is due to a
number of factors, including poorly developed orthographies (due to a
misunderstanding of the language's phonology).

Among the Karajá, for example (for whom there is an orthography developed by
SIL members), writing is generally a 'school thing,' and rarely acquires any
social or professional use beyond that.  Once a student is out of the
village school (where teaching in the native language goes up to 4th
grade), there is virtually no use for reading or writing in Karajá, unless
one is to become a teacher at the village school or a linguistic consultant
(very limited job markets, as you could imagine).

The Karajá example also suggests that availability of the gospel in a
language as an indicator of functioning literacy is a criterion of rather
relative value.  There is a translation of the New Testament in Karajá, but
very few people read it, even among those who were converted into
Pentecostal denominations.  This may again be due to a number of combined
factors, including, of course, linguistic ones.  The few people who are
familiar with the New Testament in Karajá told me that "that is not their
real language."  They can't make much sense of it, and commonly poke fun at
what seems to be considered 'clumsy' metaphors to render biblical concepts
into Karajá.

As for 'extinct' languages which  aren't really so (fortunately!), I would
like to give another South American example: Ofayé (language code OPY).
Although it is listed as extinct by the Ethnologue, this language (which
I'll be studying in a ELDP-supported documentation project) has around
fifteen speakers.  Although I wouldn't question the overall usefulness of
the Ethnologue, I'm afraid it has some inherent flaws which are maybe a
consequence of its missionary background.  The catalogue relies heavily on
the work of SIL members, mostly ignoring the work of non-SIL researchers (at
least for the languages with which I'm familiar).  Ofayé was declared
'extinct' by an SIL missionary more than three decades ago, although further
research by non-SIL linguists in the subsequent decades--and most
importantly, the tireless campaigning of the Ofayé leaders for ethnic
recognition--have proven that the language is still spoken.

These were my two South American 'centavos'...  Thanks for the interesting



Eduardo Rivail Ribeiro
Department of Linguistics (University of Chicago)
Museu Antropológico (Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil)

----- Original Message -----
From: "H. Russell Bernard" <ufruss at UFL.EDU>
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2003 5:45 PM
Subject: written form

> Michal Brody wrote, in response to Alsadair McCleod's query:
>  >> Fishman 1999 (Handbook of lg & ethnic identity) claims 25% of world
> now have writing. Don't know how he arrived at that number, though.
> this brings up an important distinction between having an orthography and
> having a tradition of printed literature. many languages of the world have
> writing, in the sense that at least one orthography has been proposed by a
> linguist, bilingual educator, missionary, or local language committee.
> few languages of the world, however, have printed literary traditions,
> continual production of affordable reading materials. of the 6129
> in the ethnologue for which data on the number of speakers is available,
> just 331 (around 5%) are spoken by at least one million people. those 331
> languages are spoken by a total of about 5.6 billion people out of about
> 6.3 billion people in the world. thus, about 89% of the world's people
> speak 5% of the world's languages. turn it around for a more dramatic
> outcome: 11% of the world's people speak about 95% of the world's
> taking this one step further, 1742 of the 6129 languages for which the
> number of speakers is estimated in the ethnologue (28% of all languages)
> are spoken by just 1000 or fewer speakers. the total number of speakers
> these 1742 languages is about 600,000. in other words, 0.0001 (one
> hundredth of one percent) of the world's people speak about 28% of the
> world's languages. it's a good bet that the vast majority of those
> languages have no literary tradition, even if someone has produced an
> orthography or a dictionary or a grammar or translations of the
> judeo-christian bible or other sacred texts.
> for more on the power of print for small language communities, please see:
> http://nersp.nerdc.ufl.edu/~ufruss/commodit.html
> russ bernard
> H. Russell Bernard
> Professor of Anthropology
> University of Florida

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