LINGUIST List 3.825

Mon 26 Oct 1992

Disc: Language Preservation

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  1. Patrick John Coppock, 3.819 Language Preservation
  2. Stephen P Spackman, Re: 3.819 Language Preservation

Message 1: 3.819 Language Preservation

Date: Sat, 24 Oct 1992 13:05:28 3.819 Language Preservation
From: Patrick John Coppock <>
Subject: 3.819 Language Preservation

David Powers has obviously stirred up quite a wasp's nest with
his "flame" on the relevance of the ONL project. I don't want
to be accused of trying to go for (or jump down) Dave's
throat, as some others seem to done in the lively discussion
which followed his initial contribution.

Iwould though, like to bring up the question of at least one
family of minority languages and cultures which seems to have
documented a particular ability to survive processes of decay
and depletion due to their percieved (on the part of more
dominant cultures) lack of value as language systems,
dissolution of the political and cultural systems they coexist
with, increasing levels of inter- and intracultural mobility
for minority language users and minority culture members,
development and dissemination of more and more knowledge to
steadily increasing numbers of people by means of "majority"
languages. In spite of an apparent complete lack of "survival
value" within the "economy" of the lingustic and cultural
systems of the world it would seem that this particular family
of languages will probably manage to survive such processes
for a very long time to come.

As such they will surely be of great interest, not only as
objects for study, but also as languages and cultures which
should be actively promoted and developed. It is also
important that the people responsible for the work of
documentation, promotion and development are, to as large a
degree as possible, themselves members of these cultures, and
users of these languages.

The particular family of languages and cultures I am referring
to here is of course the various native sign languages and
cultures of deaf people throughout the world.

Why have these particular languages and cultures been so

The most obvious reason is their essential functionality for
the deaf and hard of hearing communities who have chosen to
use, maintain and devlop them. Another important reason, which
is closely linked to this particular functionality, is the
fact that these languages and cultures represent an important,
and in many cases, absolutely necessary, choice and are a
prerequisite for development of a realistic, tenable and
positive bi- and/or multicultural identity for the deaf and
hard-of-hearing people who are speakers of these languages. (I
use the term "speakers" here quite consciously by the way, in
spite of the fact that it can seem somewhat anomalous do do so
when talking about visual-spatial languages that do not
involve the use of the channel we generally use for speech,
i.e. the vocal-auditory channel.

Up until quite recent times, the sign languages of deaf people
have not had any status at all as "real languages" from the
point of view of the majority cultures they exist in close
relation to. In some darker periods of our collective history
sign languages and the cultures of deaf people have even been
systematically suppressed within education of the deaf, and
well-meaning attempts have also been made to replace these
languages with other types of visual-spatial code systems,
developed with the aim of visualising spoken language
structures. Interestingly enough, none of these constructed
code-systems have shown any survival ability within the
various communities and cultures of deaf people around the

Sign languages have also survived in spite of the fact that no
official writing systems have ever been developed for them.
The cultures of deaf people, and their sign languages have
been, and are still essentially transmitted and maintained

Sign languages and deaf people's cultures have constantly to
compete with, and yet exist in a kind of symbiotic
relationship to, the majority spoken and written languages
that are all around them.

What is becoming more and more apparent now though, is that
deaf people's cultures and sign languages in general represent
a vital resource for any society, in the sense that they
constitute a pool of carefully refined procedural and
propositional knowledge, built up over many generations, for
how to successfully manage a life in a predominantly hearing
culture without being able to hear sound, and even without
having the possibility of naturally acquiring and/or
maintaining full use of a spoken/ written language that can be
100% functional in everyday life together with people who

It might be interesting to hear how Dave (or others) would
view this particular family of cultural an d linguistic
minotities, within the framework of a language unification-
type theory? Will the need for the knowledge resources sign
language and deaf culture represent gradually disappear
because deafness at some time in the future will be totally
eradicated? What then will happen to those who suddenly become
irretrievably deaf as a result of accidents etc., or children
who are born deaf in spite of the last advances in genetic
engineering etc? When languages and cultures disappear it is
not just the language that disappears, but the procedural and
propositional knowledge bases that go with them; knowledge
bases which only to a very small degree have been written down
and formalized, even within our own more "advanced"
westernized cultures, but especially in more orally literate

pat coppock
dept of applied linguistics
university of trondheim
n-7055 dragvoll
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Message 2: Re: 3.819 Language Preservation

Date: Sun, 25 Oct 92 17:02:11 +0Re: 3.819 Language Preservation
From: Stephen P Spackman <>
Subject: Re: 3.819 Language Preservation

A small thought experiment: suppose that I, as a linguist, were studying
language extinction processes. Should I attempt to further (would I be
justified in furthering) my scholarly ends by discouraging indigenous
literacy movements? What about externally motivated ones?

Another one: suppose a language that is widely spoken in some places is
threatened with extinction in another. Should it receive the same
attention that a language faced with global extinction might? Does it
matter whether this language is a primary vehicle of cultural
transmission? Whether the culture so transmitted is distinctive? Does it
matter whether the threatened community has, in practise, access to the
publication facilities of the broader language?
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