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Review of  Language Death and Language Maintenance

Reviewer: Michael C. Cahill
Book Title: Language Death and Language Maintenance
Book Author: Mark Janse Sijmen Tol
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.1892

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Date: Mon, 7 Jul 2003 13:04:08 -0500
From: Mike Cahill
Subject: Language Death and Language Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive Approaches

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.

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 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

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 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 others.

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

Krauss, Michael. 1992. The World's Languages in Crisis.
Language 68:4-10.

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

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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.