[NDNAIM] Activists . . . Endangered Languages

rwd0002 at unt.edu rwd0002 at unt.edu
Tue Jul 8 22:18:52 UTC 2008

Quoting "Rankin, Robert L" <rankin at ku.edu>:

>> Willem writes: At least one morphological feature of Modern Hebrew, 
>> its typically Semitic nonconcatenative morphology, is not Slavic and 
>> is still productive. That cannot be explained through relexification 
>> of a Slavic language.
> The morphology is non-concatenative when viewed by a professional 
> linguist who sees historical  and derivational relationships in terms 
> of processes.  This isn't necessarily true of the learner though.  
> S/he can just plug newly-memorized lexical items into the Slavic 
> syntax and happily chatter away.  I argued Willem's point with Wexler 
> when he lectured here, since he made similar claims for Romanian 
> (which retains its Romance morphology pretty much intact).  So I 
> agree his definition of Israeli Hebrew as a Creole may be extreme, 
> but that doesn't alter the fact that what is taught/spoken there is 
> very different from Hebrew when it was spoken as a natural language.  
> I question whether we can call it "revival".
To get back a bit about what Modern Hebrew is.  The reason I would 
question that it is a revival would rather be that it has never died in 
all its spheres of usage. It died as a first language acquired after 
birth, but it never died as a language of prayer and as a written 
language. The Jewish tradition of Hebrew education was such that there 
were always people who could write very fluent Hebrew.  All this made 
the transition to revived spoken language much easier, and less 
artificial. There is no situation comparable with Indigenous Languages 
because (with the exception of Maya) there was no Indigenous tradition 
of writing.

It is also interesting to think of Latin. We think of Latin as a dead 
language, deader than Hebrew, but Latin has had an extremely slow 
death.  Like Hebrew, Latin ceased as a spoken language long ago, but as 
a written and even spoken language of science, religion and scholarship 
it continued well into the 19th century.  The literature written by 
second language speakers or writers of Latin is massive compared to 
what was written by the Romans themselves.  And Latin is still not 
dead: there are still individuals, mostly living within the confines of 
the Vatican, who are able to write and speak quite fluently in Latin.  
So, if we needed to revive Latin as an everyday language (I am sure 
this will never happen), it would be an easy thing to do.  But would it 
be the same language as what Cesar and Cicero spoke?  In pronunciation, 
Cesar and Cicero would probably not recognize what they hear as Latin, 
but in writing they would probably understand it fairly well, and 
certain usages of modern Latinists, comparable to the Lakota "good 
morning" example given by Dave Rood, would be very puzzling to them.

To summarize, the case of Modern Hebrew and (potentially revivable) 
Latin, are probably not helpful models for activists reviving 
languages.  But on the other hand, the standards of Modern Hebrew and 
Modern Latin are quite high.

When little is documented about the language to be revived, the concern 
of linguists (not necessarily shared by Indigenous Activists) is that 
the language looks like some sort of Esperanto relexified with native 

It is interesting that one of the specialists in the extinct Mutsun 
language (a Costanoan language from California, well documented by 
Spanish missionaries and by J. P. Harrington) is Marc Okrand, also the 
creator of the artificial language Klingon.  But despite efforts of 
Mutsun activists, there are now more speakers of Klingon than there are 
of Mutsun. (Of course, Okrand could be the judge of what is good 
Klingon, but he wisely does not comment on such speakers, and he does 
not consider himself a speaker either.)  I asked a Mutsun activist 
about that, and the answer was:  "Oh, well, what is happening to 
Klingon is an inspiration to us."  We don't all feel this way about it.

So our goals for a revived language should approach these of Hebrew and 
Latin as far as authenticity is concerned, and we should be cautious 
about the temptation to "Klingonize" or "Esperantoize", i.e. simplify 
the morphology because the existing documentation of the extinct 
language does not tell us what it should be.

So, what is a "sufficiently authentic" revived language, will, to be 
sure, be a matter of debate for quite some time.


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