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Review of  New Perspectives on Endangered Languages

Reviewer: Benjamin E. Frey
Book Title: New Perspectives on Endangered Languages
Book Author: José Antonio Flores Farfán Fernando F. Ramallo
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Book Announcement: 23.76

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EDITORS: Farfán, José Antonio Flores and Ramallo, Fernando F.
TITLE: New Perspectives on Endangered Languages
SUBTITLE: Bridging gaps between sociolinguistics, documentation and language
SERIES: Culture and Language Use 1
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Benjamin E. Frey, Department of German, University of Wisconsin - Madison


“New Perspectives on Endangered Languages” collects the analyses of various
researchers who have worked in endangered language communities, with a focus on
determining the role of the researcher in relation to the goals of the
community. One primary question of the work concerns the intersection between
documentation, sociolinguistics, and language revitalization, and how those
fields should interact. A second core question of the work also addresses the
divide between community-oriented documentation and documentation oriented
primarily toward scientific description.

Within the past few decades there has been a shift in the mentality of
documentary linguists. Whereas formerly such researchers were concerned
primarily with preservation of languages and with generalizations which could be
made based on the data found in the languages, scholars are now are moving
toward a new philosophy of language documentation as a means to a different end.
Increasingly, linguists have been using their research to serve the needs of
language revitalization programs within indigenous communities as well. Such
cooperation between researchers and local communities has proven mutually
beneficial, as the language's preservation leads to interesting discoveries for
the researcher as well as avenues toward continuing the community's use of the
heritage language and culture.

The editors' introduction, ''Exploring links between documentation,
sociolinguistics and language revitalization: An introduction,'' frames the
general questions the volume seeks to address and outlines some potential
problems, such as the omission of context from acquired data and the power
imbalance between researchers and so-called ''informants'' -- a term they note as
telling, as it can be seen to index a person ''… conceived as a depositary of
data meant to be extracted'' (2010:5). It introduces the distinction between
documentary linguistics for the purpose of acquiring data, which can yield
''contaminated'' results, as the informant attempts to cooperate, and documentary
linguistics ''with revitalization in mind'' (2010:7).

Chapter one, ''The social life of a language: Will Manambu survive?'' by Alexandra
Aikhenvald, outlines the sociolinguistic situation of Manambu; one of the
endangered languages of Papua New Guinea's Sepik river basin. Although Tok
Pisin and New Guinea English are used fairly frequently in the community --
whether as signs of power, means of lexical disambiguation, or ''shortcuts'' for
accessing cultural knowledge -- the return of socially prestigious older Manambu
speakers to their villages of origin is helping to secure Manambu's position as
the local language of spiritual and symbolic power. While other languages may
be spoken in Manambu-speaking villages, Manambu is experiencing revival in the
form of a school program and enthusiastic leadership. Aikhenvald concludes that
because of Manambu's status as a carrier of spiritual and symbolic power, its
position in the community is secure despite the enduring presence of Tok Pisin
and New Guinea English. Manambu, she states is the language of the people to
whom it 'belongs.'

Chapter two, by Nancy C. Dorian, is called ''The private and public in
documentation and revitalization.'' Although schools have been an effective way
to revitalize a language, they often initiate dilemmas as well. As a minority
''home language'' begins to be spoken in a public setting, speakers outside this
public setting can sometimes feel alienated. Because the school necessarily
promotes the development of a standard variety as well as the process of coining
new words, speakers in other settings may begin to feel like outsiders. Dorian
provides insights into the nature of such schools as sites not only for
revitalization but also for possible leveling and koinéization, cautioning that
a multi-tiered approach might work better for communities than an immersion
school alone. This perspective is valuable to consider, since although it may
be an enticing prospect to place all the community's eggs in one basket, so to
speak, there may be debate among older speakers about the nature and validity of
the emerging sociolect such schools may produce.

In her discussion of team-based elicitation, Dorian broaches the issue of
informed consent, as, although free conversation among groups promotes quality
data, recording such communication can compromise the privacy of those who enter
the discussion unaware they are being recorded. The discussion continues with
the notion of language as an in-group right, as private individuals and local
communities sometimes claim outsiders should not have access to the language, or
may not want linguists interfering in their situation. Dorian notes that it is
not necessarily the researcher’s advice to the community about how to proceed
with their language that sways community members, but rather the researcher’s
interest in the language and his/her attempt to learn it. The chapter stresses
the interplay between the goals and desires of the researcher and those of the
community, stating that ultimately, no effort by researchers will be adequate to
satisfy all who would utilize the research. Still, Dorian adds, this is no
reason not to try.

Chapter three, ''Bridging linguistic research and linguistic documentation: The
Kuikuro experience (Brazil)'' by Bruna Franchetto, is on Kuikuro, an Upper Xingu
Carib language in Brazil. It deals with a progression of attitudes between
researcher and community as they change from suspicion to a sort of ''adoption''
of the researcher by the community, to the community finally taking control of
their revitalization process. Stressing an outcome of community agency,
Franchetto gives the example of certain younger members of the community who
became documentary filmmakers and even linguists themselves, working in their
own interest to spread awareness about the language. The works produced by
these community members reveal interesting insights about the progression of
relations between indigenous communities and mainstream societies in their
respective countries, as in the case of Upper Xinguan peoples and the wider
Brazilian community.

Chapter four, ''Language vitality and revitalization in the Arctic,'' by Lenore A.
Grenoble, deals with Evenki, a Tungusic language in Siberia, and explores the
potential problems presented by variations in dialect and the discrepancies
between those dialects and a written standard. Although secondary education
exists for Evenki, texts are frequently produced in a standard developed in the
1930s which does not accurately reflect spoken varieties. Texts were developed
with the intention of teaching first-language Evenki speakers, though students
today more commonly speak Russian as an L1. Grenoble recommends that to work
towards resolving such issues in education and revitalization, the role of the
linguist should be that of a facilitator and collaborator, working with the
community's knowledge and providing knowledge of the field of linguistics and
the nature of language shift.

In the fifth chapter, ''The demise and attempted revival of Uchumataqu (Uru):
Values and actors,'' Pieter Muysken adopts an actor-centered approach to address
the changes in value that led to the demise of Uchumataqu, an Uru language of
the Bolivian altiplano. The primary question of the chapter is the subjective
nature of values, and how the value that individuals or organizations place on
languages differs depending on the actor. He analyzes the decline of Uchumataqu
in terms of urban migration, economic and socio-cultural restructuring,
population decrease, exogamy, and ecology. Importantly, Muysken points out the
nature of community dynamics as an influential force in the process of language

Chapter six, ''Linguistic vitality in the Awetí indigenous community: A case
study from the Upper Xingu multilingual area,'' by Sabine Reiter, details the
situation of Awetí, a Tupian language spoken in the Upper Xingu multilingual
area of Central Brazil. One stabilizing factor for Awetí seems to be the
preservation of traditional sociolinguistic norms within village life which
demand that children raised in households where each parent comes from a
different ethnic group be raised bilingually. The preservation of this norm has
contributed to furthering a multilingual environment, even after the recent
split of an Awetí village into two. While recent interest in mainstream media
has sparked some desire to learn about Brazilian national culture and acquire
Portuguese, this tendency may be combated by interest in Awetí sparked by
Reiter's documentation project itself.

Ramallo & Farfán's summary, ''Linking three agendas: Opening a debate and
directions for the future,'' argues that documentary linguistics is only
beginning to benefit from the tools and methods of sociolinguistics, a field
which could provide solid grounding in helping to empower communities to
revitalize their languages. Although documentary linguists may seek to record
languages to preserve linguistic diversity, sociolinguistics provides tools for
communities to utilize documentary records as a means to the end of
revitalization, bridging the gap between documentary linguists and local


The volume presents a progressive view of language documentation and work with
endangered language communities, endeavoring to challenge and inform the reader
about potential issues and benefits to be encountered by linguists as well as
community members. In several of the chapters we gain a glimpse into the
development of relationships between researchers and indigenous communities.
Over time, these relationships shift from a shared notion of ''otherness'' into
more of a relationship between equals. Accordingly, the volume emphasizes the
position of the researcher not as some kind of 'savior' coming from the ivory
tower to help rescue languages from certain extinction, but as an individual
coming to work with the community to determine what happens to their language.

The potential benefit of this volume is in informing would-be documentary
linguists about the experiences of researchers who have been in the field, and
in offering a new perspective about the values and goals that can be associated
with the work of documentation. Although documentation as a practice could
certainly be beneficial for the larger scientific community, it is important to
consider how the acquisition of such knowledge interacts with the goals,
attitudes, and customs of those people who possess it.

The authors have achieved their goals with this book insofar as it presents
several new perspectives on endangered languages. It outlines potential
problems that researchers can run into in doing work with indigenous communities
and provides information about the kinds of solutions to be found in doing such
work. The volume will prove particularly valuable for linguists preparing to do
fieldwork and/or participate in language revitalization projects in indigenous
communities. Some researchers who have already been active in the field of
language documentation and revitalization may also be interested in the
experiences of peers and colleagues as each situation is unique and requires
innovative solutions. Another potential audience for this work would be members
of indigenous communities who are endeavoring to work with linguists in
documenting and/or revitalizing their language, as reading about the experiences
of researchers in other communities may give community members an idea of what
to expect when working with linguists and the challenges both groups may face.

This book fits well with other works that deal with indigenous communities, as
it attempts to emphasize the agency of such communities and the interplay
between researchers and indigenous people as equals. Works such as Devon
Mihesuah's “So You Want to Write About American Indians?: A Guide for Writers,
Students and Scholars” and Linda Tuhiwai Smith's “Decolonizing Methodologies:
Research and Indigenous Peoples” provide similar views regarding the sensitivity
necessary in doing collaborative work between academics and indigenous people.
Such works provide valuable insight on ways in which researchers and communities
can work together successfully.

The volume weaves together several stories of researchers' experiences in
communities engaged in an effort to revitalize their languages. Each of the
descriptions presents a problem and various solutions being employed by the
community and/or by the researcher. While common themes arise, each community
has different needs and manages to meet them in different ways. As such, the
work coheres nicely by displaying the variety of possible experiences in
revitalization and documentation.

Future research on the topic could follow up on individual programs presented in
this work, or possibly examine the progress made by other groups seeking to
revitalize their language. One possible avenue for exploration would be on the
potential contributions of media, as is touched on briefly in chapter 3. Given
the availability of new social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,
future research could pursue the extent to which such media is being used in
language documentation and revitalization.


Mihesuah, Devon. 2005. So You Want to Write About American Indians?: A Guide for
Writers, Students, and Scholars. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous
Peoples. London: Zed Books.

Ben Frey is a PhD student in the Department of German at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. His dissertation tests and develops the 'Great Change' model of language shift to English, including a case study of two minority language groups in the United States -- Wisconsin German and North Carolina Cherokee.