Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jul 9 13:01:21 UTC 2003

Forwarded from LINGUIST List 14.1892, Tue Jul 8 2003

Janse, Mark, and Sijmen Tol, ed. (2003) Language Death and Language
Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive Approaches, John
Benjamins Publishing Company, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 240.


This volume is a collection of twelve papers given at the symposium
''Linguistic Bibliography and the Languages of the World'' in 2000 in the
Netherlands. Somewhat unusually for a volume on endangered languages, it
does not mention languages of the Americas, but all other continents
besides Antarctica are covered. It is dedicated to the memory of Stephen
Wurm, who died before the publication date. The papers fall into three
categories: general remarks on and approaches to endangered languages,
state of the art surveys of large linguistic areas, and detailed reports
on endangerment of individual languages or small groups of them. I will
discuss these in descending order of scope.

Mark Janse (''Introduction: Language death and language maintenance'')
gives an overview of terminology and factors leading to language death. He
demonstrates that language death is not just a recent phenomenon, drawing
particularly on the Hellenization of Asia Minor. He discusses the
necessity of documenting endangered languages for a variety of reasons.
Finally, he gives a history of linguists' attention to endangered
languages, citing several works that are less well known in the usual
endangered languages literature.

Paul Newman (''The endangered languages issue as a hopeless cause'')
deliberately limits himself to the issue that language loss is scientific
loss, and that documenting endangered languages is an urgent matter. His
contention is that linguists are doing very little about it, and in fact
are part of the problem. Why? First, ''Linguists don't care.'' Theory
rather than description of languages drives most university linguistics
departments. Also, most students just don't care to get out to
uncomfortable situations. Second, ''Linguists care too much.'' He
maintains that documentation is the primary task, not what he calls
''linguistic social work.'' Though fieldwork does entail real ethical
responsibilities to the people whose language you are studying, this must
not drain all one's time and effort. Third, ''Our nonwestern colleagues
don't care and would be unprepared to help out even if they did.'' This is
an extension of his first point. Though non-westerners are in an
advantageous position in many ways to research languages in their home
countries (no visa problems, travel expenses are internal, not
international), they have been trained in the same mindset as above.
Newman is pessimistic that the situation will soon change.

Stephen Wurm (''The language situation and language endangerment in the
Greater Pacific Area'') has the most ambitious goal of this volume: to
describe the language situation in the ''Greater Pacific area,'' which
includes the 1200 language Austronesian group, the 838 Papuan languages,
and the 300+ surviving or recently extinct Australian languages -- about a
third of the world's languages. Except for Australia and New Caledonia,
the Pacific languages have been less affected by language death than other
areas of the world. For Austronesian, Wurm traces migrations of the
various families from their original Taiwan home, sketches the internal
classification of languages in the family, and discusses in detail the
endangerment situations where Austronesian languages are found, which of
course differs significantly from one region to another. Indonesia and
Papua New Guinea, the areas with the greatest number of languages,
understandably get the lion's share of the discussion. He cites SIL's
literacy programs as a major factor in increased use of local languages in
Papua New Guinea, and states that in the Solomon Islands and eastern
Indonesia, SIL is the only positive force favoring the maintenance of
local languages. For Papuan languages, Wurm likewise traces the history of
the family and its internal classification, but summarizes the language
endangerment situation by saying that the same factors discussed in the
Austronesian section also apply here. Australia is a different situation;
of over 400 languages existing before European settlements, only 24-25 are
fully functioning now, with about 120 existing in various stages of
endangerment, including 50 in the final stages of disappearance. Wurm
sketches the historical events and policies that have led to this, but
also mentions the reinvigoration of a number of languages recently.

Maarten Mous (''Loss of linguistic diversity in Africa'') in his overview
of languages of Africa makes the point that African languages in general
are healthy; most are not on the verge of extinction. However, there are
entire endangered families such as Khoe and Kordofanian, as well as 8
endangered isolates. He prefers to talk of loss of linguistic diversity,
which includes not only language loss by shifting to a more dominant
language, and loss of the entire group by genocide, but also loss of
lexicon in a language. Rather than European languages being the villains,
it is more often other African languages such as Amharic, Swahili, and
Hausa which are replacing the smaller ones, as is seen in some other
papers in this volume. He gives a brief overview of all the language
families and the relative endangeredness of the languages therein.

Rogier Blokland and Cornelius Hasselblatt (''The endangered Uralic
languages'') survey the Uralic language family (Finno-Ugrik plus three
Samoyedic languages), mentioning several languages that have died out in
the last 1000 years, leaving approximately 30 living ones today. They note
that Russian-speakers' denigration of local languages still causes many
Uralic speakers to be ashamed of their own language. The large state
languages Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are not endangered. The authors
spend the bulk of the paper discussing five ''medium-size'' languages
which have some official status and are potentially endangered, six
smaller languages which are more endangered, and six ''minor'' languages
which are in the process of vanishing. For each of these they talk about
political and social status, the where and who of language use, its
function in higher education, text production and age of the written
tradition. Most are not yet seriously endangered, but 4 are moribund. They
note that social welfare systems are a two-edged sword: a lack of a system
can mean less pressure to conform to a dominant language, but the presence
of a system can support the maintenance of a language as well.

Stefan Georg (''The gradual disappearance of a Eurasian language family:
the case of Yeniseyan'') presents the situation of the Yeniseyan language
family, one of the families belonging to the Paleoasiatic (or
Paleosiberian) language family of Russia. He gives a history of the
language family starting with the reconstructed Proto- Yeniseyan,
including quite a few details on toponymy, names of rivers and other
places which often retain the names that the first settlers in the region
gave them. Toponomy shows that the original Yeniseyan settlers have been
superseded by Turkic and other groups. In addition, in the 1600's there
were devastating smallpox epidemics, analogous to events in the American
continents. From contemporary travelers and researchers, we have
information on nine Yeniseyan languages, with indications that several
more existed. But by the end of the 18th century, only Key, Yugh, and Kott
still survived. Kott died in the next century, probably as a result of
language shift to Turkic.  Yugh died in the 1980's, and Ket, the sole
remaining Yeniseyan language, is now severely endangered. Only 99 of 454
ethnic Kets report being fluent speakers, and most of them are over 60
years old. Georg gives several tables of comparative usage by age. He
concludes by pointing out that people must feel a need to use a language
if it is to survive, but since the Kets largely don't have such a felt
need, their language is steadily giving way to Russian.

In the individual languages category, Aone van Engelenhoven (''Language
endangerment in Indonesia: The incipient obsolescence and acute death of
Teun, Nila, and Serua (Central and Southwest Maluku)'') focuses on the
isolects Teun, Nila, and Serua, of Maluku Province, Indonesia. The
language/dialect relation among these is still unclear, and van
Engelenhoven refers to them all tentatively as a single TNS language. He
gives 6 pages of phonological and grammatical description. A demographic
history of TNS is given, focusing on the massive influx of Christian
refugees (to the extent that half the people in the TNS district were
refugees) and the Dutch colonial results. The use of TNS is still strong,
but Malay is interfering with the transfer of it to children. TNS speakers
are traditionally bilingual. He suggests a dictionary would emphasize the
importance of TNS to its speakers and help contribute to its maintenance.

Astrid Menz (''Endangered Turkic languages: The case of Gagauz'') gives a
brief overview of the geography, development, and linguistic features of
Turkic languages in general, and lists some endangered Turkic languages,
but focuses on languages in the former Soviet Union, in particular Gagauz.
Menz lists historical factors enhancing the decay of Gagauz, including a
basic agrarian society that no longer uses a written form of the language.
Turkish is also increasing its influence. Factors encouraging the
preservation of Gagauz include an active bilingualism (with Russian) and
active use in the homes among all generations, as well as active promotion
among the intelligentsia. Though Menz is pessimistic, it appears from the
information in the paper that Gagauz as a spoken language is actually not
very endangered at this point in time.

Graziano Sava (''Ongota (Birale), a moribund language of Southwest
Ethiopia'') reports that the language Ongota of Ethiopia is moribund, with
only 8 elders now speaking it. A 6-page grammatical sketch is given; one
interesting feature is that Ongota is an object-initial language (OSV),
quite typologically unusual. Ongota speakers are almost all switching to
the Ts'amakko language. The language is almost dead, and the best thing to
do is document it before it dies altogether.

Andrew Haruna (''An endangered language: The Gurdung language of the
Southern Bauchi Area, Nigeria'') presents the case of Gurdung of Nigeria,
which has been largely replaced by Hausa; there are no monolingual
speakers left.  He discusses Gurdung's basic classification as well as
historical migrations such as those forced by the Hausa/Fulani Jihad in
the 18th century. The bulk of his discussion centers on pre- and
post-Jihad factors leading to this language shift, such as ethnic
hostility, natural catastrophe, conversion to Islam, intermarriage,
diminished language loyalty, government policy, etc. On the positive side,
educated Gurdung people have developed a Gurdung language association, the
language is being taught formally, and Haruna himself is publishing a
grammar of Gurdung he hopes will contribute to its preservation.

Han Steenwijk (''Resian as a minority language'') writes of the Slovene
dialect Resian, spoken mostly in a fairly isolated area of Italy. It may
be the only endangered language in this volume to have its own web page
(though in Italian...). The municipality of Resia itself has about 1800
people, and most of these are fluent Resian speakers.  Everyone is also
fluent in Italian, and a majority in Friulian as well. He discusses the
political situation at some length. Steenwijk says that in the European
context, language survival depends on its written form and usage, and only
a dozen or two speakers use it regularly in written form. There is
increasing influence from both Italian and Slovene. Its prospects for
survival are mixed.

Finally, Giavanni Stary (''Sibe: an endangered language'') gives a brief
look at Sibe (China), spending the bulk of the paper on the history of the
language. It seems that the main endangerment issue with the Sibe is the
loss of its written form (to Chinese) rather than the spoken language,
which is vigorous for all age groups.

Indexes of languages, of names, and of subjects are included in the

EVALUATION Overall, this is an excellent collection. The case has already
been made for endangered languages as a subject worth linguistic attention
in recent works such as Crystal (2000) and Nettle and Romaine (2000), as
well as the seminal Krauss (1992). Rather than sounding the alarm with
percentages that are sometimes just guesses, and recounting poignant
stories about the last speaker of a language, most papers in this work
give solid data about the languages of the world, often with population
studies and the results of sociolinguistic studies of domains of usage. As
mentioned, the focus of this book is the Eastern hemisphere, concentrating
on areas often neglected, especially in the American press. More works of
this kind are needed if we are to get a true grasp of the magnitude and
extent of the endangered language issue.

A final comment: it is interesting how often two themes come up in the
above papers: literacy and grammar/ dictionaries. Both of these legitimize
a language which may have been stigmatized, giving the speakers a feeling
that theirs is a ''real'' language on a par with others.

Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Krauss, Michael. 1992. The World's Languages in Crisis.  Language

Nettle, Daniel, and Suzanne Romaine. 2000. Vanishing Voices.  Oxford:
Oxford University Press.


Mike Cahill has done on-site linguistic investigation in the Konni
language of northern Ghana for several years, including application to
literacy and translation work. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State
University in 1999, and is primarily interested in African phonology,
cross- linguistic patterns in tone, and labial-velar stops and
nasals. He currently serves as SIL's International Linguistics
Coordinator, and is the 2003 chair for the LSA Committee on Endangered
Languages and their Preservation.

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