[NDNAIM] Activists . . . Endangered Languages

Bryan James Gordon linguista at gmail.com
Sun Jul 6 18:26:01 UTC 2008

I think the main reason linguists wax so negative about language
revitalisation programmes is that the majority of the programmes we are
asked to help out with - and willingly lend our assistance to - are
programmes that rub against our very limited idea of what revitalisation is.
Obviously, as Bob has pointed out, if we take this limited idea to its
logical conclusion we can depress ourselves and others still further by even
stripping Hebrew of its title as revived language.

With regard to Hebrew, I would say that it is impressive that it was revived
regardless of its status as relexified Eastern Semitic. Calquing and sound
correspondences, as described at length principally by Ghil'ad Zuckermann,
are extensive in the language he refuses to call Hebrew (his preferred
descriptor being Israeli - perhaps a bit more politically sensitive than
Wexler's Ukrainian, but still rather incendiary). But this is naturally the
outcome of language shift in a community whose dominant speakers share
linguistic features foreign to the target language.

Unfortunately, linguists have yet to come up with a purposeful, thorough
theory of the process of language change in communities with dominant
second-language-acquiring speakers. This was originally my goal for my
dissertation, before I realised that it would involve my magically procuring
lots of Hawai'ian and Ma'ori friends out of mid-air, because there's really
nowhere else to do that study right now.

Nonetheless, we can see the signs in Siouan languages. I've noticed a lot of
calques from English idioms in contemporary Omaha. "Frightfully many"
"hégaazhi náNpewathé" is a frequent case that does not occur in Dorsey which
I have heard from 3 speakers as well as seen in a text or two. Even in
Dorsey there are some signs of things that may be calques. Really, there's
nothing linguistically unsound or unnatural about this process. What
linguists do when we are offended or bothered by this is assume a position
of alliance with conservative speakers who oppose such processes. Really we
ought to adopt a more value-neutral stance if you ask me. Hebrew had to
contend largely with the notion that it as a sacred language and reinserting
it into profane life and using it for profane and contemporary domains was
sacrilegious. Siouan languages are dealing with this issue, too, and we are
not helping by siding with a particular side of this debate, even

Hebrew did not necessarily have to come out as Ukrainian, by the way. The
reason it did was that the dominant speakers shared many Eastern Semitic
linguistic features. If the dominant speakers had been Mizrachim (also not a
"native" Semitic word but a calque of European "oriental" replete with the
associated orientalism), Hebrew today would look a lot more Semitic. It
would still be calqued, but the evidence would be a lot more subtle. Nobody
doubts that. Mizrachim who "make aliyah" are in the odd position of having
to acquire a "Slavic language in search of a Semitic past" because of their
low social status (vigorously covered up and denied by the Israeli
government and media as well as the mainstream academy, as described most
colourfully by renegade Mizrachit anthropologist Smadar Levie). Yet acquire
this odd language they do, albeit imperfectly, but in the same way that the
white minority could acquire Semitic imperfectly under different power

In short, if we want to problematise something about calquing and
superstrate influence, we need to be very cautious about how we go about
doing this, lest we wind up contributing to factionalism and colonial
discourses even more than we already do. There's nothing intrinsically wrong
with superstrate influence. It depends on the goals and needs of the
community members and subcommunities, just as does the definition of
aspired-to revitalisation itself.

The main things linguists would like to support in revitalisation
1) teaching infants
2) teaching parents
3) extending domains of use by producing easy-to-use lexemes in all relevant
4) preserving original semantics
5) preserving original morphosyntax
6) preserving original phonology
Obviously, (3) and (4) are in direct conflict with one another, and tend to
be a site of huge conflict in revitalising communities. Siding with (3) runs
us the risk of alienating elders and traditional types, while siding with
(4) is blatantly essentialist and a hugely colonial gesture, not to mention
impractical given ongoing cultural shift. Language nests and
master-apprentice programmes stand the greatest chance of success at
everything except (3), which is more supported by overt language planning as
well as typical slang generation and coinages among fluent or semi-fluent
adolescents who tend to disregard (4-6) more or less.

We can't have it all. We need to present (1-6) as possible outcomes favoured
by our particular academic community and allow community members to decide
which they can set as goals. We need to realise that some community members
may have additional goals not among ours and recognise that some of these
goals may have merit in a way we have not considered from our limited
perspectives. We also need to drop the idea of a monolithic community will
and recognise that different subcommunities idealise different of these
goals, and we need to find ways to work with all of these subcommunities
rather than just the one with the most power or prestige - especially
considering that this power and prestige is often a genocidal tool of the
United States, and not an indigenous construct.

And yes, I know that these things are easier said than done. They at least
need saying.

ShaN ie tHe wawípaghui shéna!
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