LINGUIST List 14.1892

Tue Jul 8 2003

Review: Descriptive Approaches, John Benjamins P

Editor for this issue: Madhavi Jammalamadaka <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. Mike Cahill, Language Death and Language Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive Approach

Message 1: Language Death and Language Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive Approach

Date: Mon, 07 Jul 2003 20:17:22 +0000
From: Mike Cahill <>
Subject: Language Death and Language Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive Approach

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.

Announcements at
Mike Cahill, SIL International


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

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

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 volume.

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

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.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue