Endangered Language Alliance
As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them. Ken Hale, an MIT professor and language activist once said that losing any one language “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre”. Our knowledge of prehistorical human migrations and contact relations is largely based upon analysis of relations between languages. It is through language, for instance, that we know that the Polynesians and other Austronesian-speaking peoples of the Pacific began their enormous sea-faring journey from Taiwan roughly 6,000 years ago.
Every language carries with it immense reserves of cultural, historical, ecological and botanical information, vital for local communities and potentially to the broader world. In much of the world, languages are central to communal identity and multilingualism has been the historical norm.
When we speak of loss of knowledge, we also refer to the contribution each grammar makes to our understanding of how languages can vary from one another. Much of linguistics since the 1960s has focused on universals of linguistic structure, that is, inviolable rules that hold across all known languages. However, it is not uncommon that single languages overturn what were once thought to be universals.
While many linguists today appear to support the idea of an activist role for documentary linguistics, dissenting opinions exist as well (Ladefoged 1992, Newman 1998). Newman (1998:15) states:
The justification for doing research on an endangered language has to be the scientific value of providing that documentation and in preserving aspects of that language and culture for posterity. The purpose cannot be to make the few remaining speakers feel good.
It must be noted that this view actually reflects the status quo accurately when it comes to institutional support. None of the major funders for endangered language documentation and research directly support revitalization, and as scientific institutions they should perhaps not be expected to. The real question is whether researchers should go beyond research. More in line with the views expressed by Rice (2010) and others, we believe that it is an ethical responsibility for those linguists working on endangered languages to contribute to their perpetuation as spoken languages if such a will exists in the community. This of course should not imply that all linguists are ethically obliged to work on endangered languages no more than all biologists are obliged to fight for the preservation of bio-diversity. Nonetheless, in a society that puts so much value on academic degrees, wider institutional support for endangered languages and their communities will not be forthcoming if such support does not come first from academia. As others have also argued, the work that emerges from community projects of the type Newman refers to as linguistic “social work” have proven just as valuable to linguists as to teachers and learners.
In the following we outline three fundamental reasons for working to stem the tide of language death: Human Rights, Communal Identity and Science.
“The decline of linguistic diversity in the world is linked to the world political economy which invades and takes over the territories of indigenous peoples, threatens the ecosystems in which they live, wipes out their traditional means of livelihood, and (at best) turns them into low-caste laborers in the larger society in which they must now live on the margins.” (Hinton 1999)
Given the evident truth of the above, linguistic diversity must be intimately linked with the parallel issues of economic equality, social justice and land rights. The ability of communities to develop their own cultures, traditions, and languages free from coercion and outside pressures is now widely understood as a critical human right and is enshrined in articles 2, 10, 19 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Yet, the basic right for individuals and communities to use and promote their languages still goes unrecognized in many parts of the world. Until as recently as the 1980s, Native American children of many communities were removed from their families and forced to attend boarding schools where they were severely punished for using their own languages. Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of one the largest of these institutions, the Carlisle Industrial School, famously declared in 1892:
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
Under the sway of this supremacist ideology, many of the indigenous languages and cultures of the United States were brought to the brink of death in a process that could only be considered genocide. Nonetheless, if asked why indigenous languages are rarely heard now, the average American might answer that they were willfully abandoned as tribes entered the so-called “modern world”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the United States, Canada and Australia, among other countries, language endangerment was primarily the result of the residential school system, a system that had been responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 children in Canada alone and the abuse of many tens of thousands more. A 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada describes this in detail, as cited by Smith (2007).
“…church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, and medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure. In 1928 Alberta passed legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize Native girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate toll of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized entire groups of Native children when they reached puberty. The report also says that Canadian clergy, police, and business and government officials ‘rented out’ children from residential schools to pedophile rings.”
Clearly, language was but one of the casualties in the protracted war against native people on this continent. Only when this is understood can we begin to understand language revitalization efforts in their proper human rights context. The “why” of endangered languages thus becomes more than a simple desire to preserve linguistic diversity, it becomes a moral obligation.
In relation to language endangerment, Joshua Fishman states it best in his description of the destruction of a language as “the destruction of a rooted identity”. While culture and identity can survive even after a language has gone dormant (Baldwin 2003), historically distinct communities lose their most identifying features when they lose their language. Individual community members in turn become alienated from their own history.
The value of rooted identities to individual and communal health is only now beginning to find wider acceptance among scientific circles. Studies in both the United States and Australia have shown significant correlations between increased use of indigenous language and avoidance of drug and alcohol abuse. What is the reason behind this? It is very likely that the very act of speaking one’s traditional communal language is living proof that one does not belong to a vanquished people. As Garifuna activist and long-time ELA collaborator James Lovell sees it, when Garifuna children re-learn the language of their ancestors, it is “empowerment in itself”, both a means and an ends. Being unable to speak one’s communal language, on the other hand, can become a perpetual reminder of a painful colonial history.
In an important step towards the revitalization of their languages and identities, several Native American pioneers have created immersion schools where only indigenous languages are spoken and English is discouraged. One of these pioneers, Tom Porter of the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk community, has gone so far as to call their program “Carlisle School in Reverse” (on the Carlisle school, see the previous Human Rights section). Other prominent programs of this nature include the Māori language Kōhanga Reo in New Zealand and the Hawai’ian Pūnana Leo, both of which now serve as models to the rest of the world. In all of these cases, revitalization represents more than bringing the language back. It is part of a larger movement that seeks to reaffirm the distinct identity of a people and reinstate their power to self-determination.
Modern linguistics is founded upon the notion that the structure of language and the limits of its variation are set by our innate abilities to process and produce language. If this is correct, then understanding our linguistic capabilities as humans can only proceed through understanding the commonalities across all human languages. On this approach, when a language disappears, we lose a valuable window into our own biological endowment.
To take two examples from our own work at ELA, linguist Joseph Greenberg proposed the following apparent universal constraint on human languages: if an auxiliary (words like “can”, “will”, “do” in English) precedes the main verb (as in English “He will eat”), then the verb will precede the object (as in English “He eats pineapple”). Conversely, if the auxiliary follows the main verb, the verb will follow the object (as in Japanese, Hindi, Turkish, and myriad other “verb-final” languages). The Garifuna language counter-exemplifies this putative universal as the verb precedes the object but auxiliaries must follow the verb. To take another example, interrogative words like “who”, “what”, “where”, etc. typically either stay in their expected position in questions, e.g. “You said WHAT?”, or move to the beginning of the sentence, e.g. “What did you say?”. It is safe to say that these two surface patterns describe how questions are formed in well over 95% of the world’s languages. Two languages we have had the good fortune of being able to work with in New York show far more interesting patterns, however. In Ossetian, the interrogative must immediately precede the verb in questions. Whereas the regular word order in a statement is Subject-Object-Verb, e.g. “He me saw”, when questioning the subject, it would be Object-Subject-Verb, e.g. “Me who saw?”. An even rarer pattern is found in the Bantu language Ikota. Here, the interrogative must come at the end of the clause, an apparent mirror image of English. In Ikota the regular word order in statements is Subject-Verb-Object, e.g. “She saw me”, but when questioning the subject this order becomes Verb-Object-Subject, e.g. “Saw me who?”.
Such uncommon patterns are of great importance to the goal of identifying language universals. We are only beginning to explore the consequences of these particular patterns for our understanding of universal grammar.
New York may be the single area of greatest linguistic diversity on the planet. Half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home, and many others have languages other than English in their family history. Some 200 languages, if not more, are spoken by students in the New York City school system alone. All of the world’s major languages are represented here, but in individual homes we also find languages whose total number of speakers number only a few thousand.
The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) was founded with the goal of working with immigrant and refugee populations in New York and other cities, helping them document and maintain their languages. At the same time, ELA has worked through numerous outreach and education events to increase the public’s awareness of urban linguistic diversity.
The acronym ELA echoes the Yahgan word aiala /aiawala/ [eɑala] ‘visible; light; knowledge; wise, intelligent; to know, to learn, to understand, to be conscious, to take in the meaning’. Yahgan is an endangered language of Tierra del Fuego – the southernmost human language on Earth – and is famous for its complex and surprising word meanings. Yahgan is one of the few languages to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for “the most succinct word”, mamihlapinatapai, which means ‘a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start’. However, since there is at present only one known speaker of Yahgan, it is unlikely that mamihlapinatapai and thousands of other Yahgan words will ever be used again.
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