LINGUIST List 30.4178

Tue Nov 05 2019

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; Historical Linguistics; Language Documentation; Sociolinguistics: Rehg, Campbell (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 01-Jun-2019
From: Alexandra Galani <>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Kenneth L. Rehg
EDITOR: Lyle Campbell
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Alexandra Galani, University of Ioannina


“The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages”, edited by Kenneth L. Rehg and Lyle Campbell, is a collection of 39 chapters. It includes the contributors’ bibliographical note and an index. In his foreword, Michael Krauss introduces the birth, issues and attempts which led to the establishment of endangered languages as a subdiscipline in linguistics.

In “Introduction”, Lyle Campbell and Kenneth L. Rehg introduce the book’s purposes and structure. They refer to the criteria determining language endangerment, why language endangerment is necessary and define language documentation, revitalisation and conservation.

Part I: Endangered languages

Chapter 1, “The status of the world’s endangered languages” by Anna Belew and Sean Simpson, discusses the difficulties in determining the status of endangered languages. An overview of the world’s regional language endangerment--based on the Catalogue of Endangered Languages--is given. The database provides information about speaker numbers, intergenerational transmission and domains of use and language attitudes.

In Chapter 2, “Assessing degrees of language endangerment”, Nala H. Lee and John R. van Way offer an overview of the methods/tools which have been developed to assess language endangerment; i.e. Fishman (1991) Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale, UNESCO (2003), Krauss (2007), Lewis and Simons (2010). The Language Endangerment Index, developed by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, takes into account the intergenerational transmission, the absolute number of speakers, speaker number trends and domains of use.

In Chapter 3, “Language contact and language endangerment”, Sarah G. Thomason explores the relationship between language contact and language endangerment and the conditions under which contact results to loss (i.e. sociopolitical, economic factors, standardisation of minority languages, speakers’ attitudes). Language contact does not always result in language endangerment. It may involve bilingualism, multilingualism or pidgin languages. Attrition in receding languages results in a poorer language contrary to contact-induced change/language loss.

In Chapter 4, “Indigenous language rights – miner’s canary or mariner’s tern?”, Teresa L. McCarty presents the definitions attributed to the word “Indigenous” and their legal-political status recognition in Norway, Finland and Aotearoa. Indigenous language rights play an important role for the self-determination of Indigenous people, their language and culture. Language planning and policy orientations (i.e. tolerance versus promotions, norm-and-accommodation versus official language rights, personality versus territoriality) are reviewed. The status of Indigenous languages in education (i.e. Māori, Kanienke:ha, Cree, Secwepent, Telugu, Oriya) is discussed. If they are absent from the educational system, language loss, social and educational inequalities are caused.
Part II: Language documentation

In Chapter 5, “The goals of language documentation”, Richard A. Rhodes and Lyle Campbell refer to early attempts of written texts documentation (i.e. Sanskrit, Latin, Greek grammars) to exemplify the value of extensive corpora. Adequate language documentation should include an in-depth and theory-free linguistic analysis of phonological, morphological and syntactic structures and a dictionary of the vocabulary used in different cultural occasions. Language documentation and revitalisation are interrelated as revitalisation efforts contribute to documentation.

In Chapter 6, “Documentation, linguistic typology and formal grammar” by Keren Rice, language documentation is defined as a process that includes the collection and preservation of a corpus accompanied by linguistic analysis, grammar, dictionary and recordings (p. 124). Three types of data should be collected: observed communicative events, staged communicative events, elicitations. Elicitation is the most commonly used source of data. Documentation, linguistic typology and formal grammar greatly benefit from one another. Linguistic patterns in Amazonian and Austronesian languages and Kayardild (Epps, 2010) are discussed.

In Chapter 7, “The design and implementation of documentation projects for spoken languages”, Shobhana Chelliah discusses what language documentation researchers should keep in mind: e.g. use of audio and video recording devices, methods for recording narratives and conversations (i.e. Basic Oral Language Documentation, Aikuma app), creation of surveys, background knowledge of the language’s history and the sound system, the political context in which the language is spoken, digital repositories, funding and data management, task descriptions, dissemination methods and project evaluations.

In Chapter 8, “Endangered sign languages: An introduction”, James Woodward refers to the pressures culturally deaf people encounter. He discusses ten sign languages in Thailand (Ban Khor, Chiang Mai, Original Bangkok, Modern Thai), Viet Nam (Hai Phong, Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City), Cambodia (Cambodian) and Indonesia (Yogyarkarta, Jakarta) and notes that nine of them are endangered or dying, six of them are being documented. Sign language figures which illustrate sign phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon are provided.

Racquel-María Sapién discusses the “(D)esign and implementation of collaborative language documentation projects” in Chapter 9. She focuses on empowerment models (i.e. the Community Partnership Model (Yamada, 2010). Collaborative projects have several benefits: they best account for a community’s expectations, create a comfortable environment for the participation of elderly speakers. There are six phases in a project’s design and implementation: 1. community entry; 2. needs, assets, project management; 3: prioritising; 4: project planning and design; 5: training, team building; 6: implementation, reflection. How one can overcome obstacles related to time management and the loss of elderly speakers is discussed.

Ιn Chapter 10, “Tools and technology for language documentation and revitalisation” by Keren Rice and Nick Thieberger, the advantages and drawbacks of technology when documenting and revitalising languages are discussed. Technology can be used to digitalise and archive data from previous studies or to record, transcribe and annotate new ones. There are several transcription tools (Elan, Exmaralda, F4, CLAN). Automated transcription and metadata systems (CMDI, OLAC) save researchers valuable time and help them handle masses of data. Community members evaluate the technological products (apps, games, (e-)learning devices) as engaging. Nonetheless, tools do not provide cultural fluency and do not capture the complexity and social aspects of the language.

In Chapter 11, “Corpus compilation and exploitation in language documentation projects” by Ulrike Mosel, corpora types in language documentation projects are discussed: dynamic, static, sample, opportunistic, contrastive, sub-corpora of elicited data, comparable, parallel and multimodal. Different genres and registers are identified in the corpora; folk tales, procedural texts, descriptions, elicitations, spontaneous conversations, hybrid documentary genres. Corpora can be organised based on: a) hierarchical structure, b) the year of their creation or c) type, genre, topic, participants. Data types include: metadata, raw, primary, secondary annotations. A list of available tools for building and analysing corpora are provided.

Chapter 12, “Writing grammars of endangered languages” by Amber B. Camp, Lyle Campbell, Victoria Chen, Nala H. Lee, Matthew Lou-Magnuson and Samantha Rarrick, offers a guide for writing grammars. The authors refer to the audience a grammar is addressed to, the purpose it serves and the ideal situation regarding authorship--grammars written by linguistically trained native speakers or a team of authors (linguists and native speakers). There are various grammar types: descriptive, reference, sketch, pedagogical, community, comparative, formal. Grammar format, organisation and presentation are sketched and a grammar template for endangered or lesser-studied languages is also provided.

In Chapter 13, “Compiling dictionaries of endangered languages”, Kenneth L. Rehg guides us through dictionary compilation; research, preliminary planning, design and construction, distribution and support. During planning, researchers consider the audience the dictionary is addressed to, its scope, its orthography, team members and the software which will be selected. Dictionaries are organised based on: a) the target language and the language into which the target entries are being translated or b) its macrostructure (e.g. an alphabetic or semantic categorisation of the information), its microstructure (i.e. entries’ alternate spellings, pronunciation) and its megastructure (front matter, dictionary’s body, appendices).

Chapter 14, “Orthography design and implementation of endangered languages” by Michael Cahill, discusses various issues around orthography; when to capitalise, where to put word breaks, how hyphens, question marks and diacritics are used. An orthographic system is successful depending on the degree of its usability and acceptability by native speakers. Governmental policies, attitudes of neighbouring languages speakers and dialectal patterns affect its acceptability. Its usability depends on the stand one takes on phonemic matches, contrasts which are not represented or are over-differentiated, tonal patterns’ representation. Native speakers’ intuitions and judgements should be taken into account during development. Literacy in the mother tongue, community attitudes towards revitalisation, the value a community attributes to oral communication versus written representations affect a community’s attitude for the system’s development.

In Chapter 15, “Language archiving” by Andrea L. Berez-Kroeker and Ryan E. Henke, digital archives development is discussed. We have moved from the ‘one-way’ model and adopted a participatory one, according to which language users contribute to the curatorial process so that the archive serves their needs. Depositors should consider the following: archive choice, data formatting steps, material preparation for depositing the metadata, archive access and use. A description of the Digital Endangered Languages and Music Archives Network archives is offered.

In Chapter 16, “Tools from the ethnography of communication for language documentation”, Simeon Floyd shows how Hymes’s (1972) anthropological model (‘SPEAKING’; Setting and scene, Participants, Ends, Act sequence, Key, Instrumentalities, Norms, Genre) can be applied to indigenous language projects to unfold cultural information which may not be easily revealed in purely linguistic studies. The model is applied to two language projects, Cha’palaa and Imbabura Quechua.

In Chapter 17, “Language documentation in diaspora communities”, Daniel Kaufman and Ross Perlin discuss the role and the organisation of non-profit language documentation centers in urban diaspora communities. The work carried out by the Endangered Language Alliance in New York is presented. Such organisations may co-operate with municipal and academic departments, journalists, filmmakers, artists, photographers, and illustrators to document and preserve languages.

In Chapter 18, “Ethics in language documentation and revitalisation” by Jeff Good, case studies dealing with issues related to the ethics of documentation and revitalisation are reviewed (e.g. lack of trust between researchers and the community, focus on a specific community when a language is spoken by more than one, changes in the community’s political situation). Linguists and community members have their own ideologies about language and identity. Relationships between researchers and community members need to be established and community members should be granted access to the collected material.

Part III: Language revitalization

In Chapter 19, “Approaches to and strategies for language revitalisation”, Leanne Hinton argues that revitalisation of endangered and sleeping languages may occur via child and adult learning, language modernisation and language use. Child learning may take place at home, in language nests, bilingual or immersion schools or in majority-language schools where minority language classes are offered. Adult learning may occur in language learning courses in universities, by adopting Master-Apprentice approaches or when accessing and revising published material. Speakers should make an effort to use the language on a daily basis.

Chapter 20, “Comparative analysis in language revitalisation practices: Addressing the challenge” by Gabriela Pérez Báez, Rachel Vogel and Eve Koller, aims to document existing revitalisation efforts. The Global Directory of Revitalisation Initiatives (GDRI) serves as a guide for future projects and revitalisation practitioners. The design and the results of the Global Survey of Languages Revitalisation Efforts are discussed.

In Chapter 21, “The linguistics of language revitalisation: Problems of acquisition and attrition”, William O’Grady focuses on children’s language learning during the implementation of revitalisation/immersion programmes. Such programmes should aim at the development of bilingual speakers and communities.

Chapter 22, “New media for endangered languages” by Laura Buszard-Welcher, provides examples of endangered language communities in which electronically mediated communication (ECM) has been used. There are technologies which may enable natural language processing in any language: language identifiers (codes), Unicode, fonts and keyboard as well as corpora may all result in the creation of language tools (i.e. spelling and grammar checking, search, machine translation).

In Chapter 23, “Language recovery paradigms”, Alan R. King reviews two revitalisation programmes in Basque and Nawat in order to exemplify the implementation stages and paradigms of a successful language recovery (LR) programme. Paradigms are sets of clusters of doctrines (beliefs and value judgments), strategies (necessary actions) and focuses (emphases on specific issues concerning the language). There are five stages in a LR programme: Pre-LR, ineffective-LR, effective LF, mainstream LF, post-LR. Each stage is associated with a paradigm. Project design, community awareness and training also play a crucial role in a programme’s successful implementation.

In Chapter 24, “Myaamiaataweenki: Revitalisation of a sleeping language” by Daryl Baldwin and David J. Costa, the language revitalisation efforts of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma are discussed. Community language revitalisation should be seen as a social movement which involves capacity-building, planning, working with various ideologies. Organisational entities play a crucial role in such programmes as they can offer courses, workshops, weekend youth programmes. The Myaamia Center covered a wide range of research topics, created the first formal assessment to measure tribal student language and cultural educational experiences, developed technological tools, online learning tools and publications and provided teacher training.

In Chapter 25, “Language revitalisation in kindergarten: A case study of Truku Seediq language immersion”, Apay Ai-Yu Tang presents the results of a government-based indigenous language immersion programme which took place in three kindergartens in Taiwan. There are three main language immersion types, total, partial, two-way. Qualified teachers, pedagogical materials, immersion pedagogy, sufficient amount of immersion, administrative support, family/community participation are necessary elements for the successful implementation of such programmes. Reference is made to the Truku speech community, the goals and the activities of the programme and the implementation method. It was noticed that lack of qualified teachers and heavy administrative workload affected teaching quality.

In Chapter 26, “Māori: Revitalisation of an endangered language”, Jeanette King provides an overview of the language’s decline and revitalisation. She refers to the revitalisation movements (Kōhanga Reo, Te Ataarangi), the Māori immersion schooling system, the role broadcast media played, the governmental policies, the home and community support and tribal initiatives. Some of the factors that contributed positively to the language’s revitalisation are: Māori is the only indigenous language in New Zealand, it has a largely agreed alphabet, and culture is incorporated into the social life and interactions with non-Māori.

In Chapter 27, “Language revitalisation in Africa”, Bonny Sands sketches the extent of endangerment in African languages and the reasons behind it; i.e. socioeconomically dominant populations over smaller ones, minority language shift to regionally dominant languages, minority languages’ lack of prestige, and population movements due to war or political instability. Language revitalisation attempts are pursued by individuals, grassroots, organisations, missionaries and academics. An overview of the revitalisation attempts of small (Keyan, “Khoesan” languages, Malawian Ngoni, Eegimaa, Safaliba), medium-sized (Xironga, Maurice Tadadjeu, Tonga, Suba) and large languages (Igbo, Ekegusii) is offered.

Chapter 28, “Planning minority language maintenance: Challenges and limitations” by Sue Wright, shows how the nation-state system led to the concept of minority languages. Historical and political developments as well as human rights fights promoted minority linguistic rights. Nevertheless, issues still remain: standardisation of a minority language suppresses dialectal patterns, communication between speaker groups does not necessarily mean that they share the same cultural, historical, economic background. Consequently, language does not determine identity. Linguistic communication reflects identity and contributes to its creation.

Part IV: Endangered languages and biocultural diversity

In Chapter 29, “Congruence between species and language diversity”, David Harmon and Jonathan Loh show that species and languages behave similarly in terms of their evolution, diversity and distribution in the world. They discuss characteristics which led to this realisation, i.e. endemism, environmental factors which affected biological and cultural diversity in specific regions. Methods developed to assess biodiversity can be adapted to measure linguistic diversity too. Human population growth, resource and energy consumption, economic globalisation are factors which threaten both biodiversity and linguistic diversity.

In Chapter 30, “Sustaining biocultural diversity”, Luisa Maffi refers to the antecedents of biocultural diversity and the attempts to bridge the gap between nature conservation and conservation of languages and cultural traditions. Ecological, cultural and socioeconomic factors may cause biocultural diversity loss. The chapter concludes with reference to projects which have been implemented; Tanzania, Andaman Islands, Kimberley region in Western Australia, Northwest Territories in the Arctic Region of Canada, Arizona (Apache), Chihuahua (Rarámuri), Andean region of Peru.

In Chapter 31, “Traditional and local knowledge systems as language legacies critical for conservation”, Will C. McClatchey defines knowledge systems, knowledge about nature, traditional and local knowledge and knowledge legacies. He discusses possibilities and problems which may emerge when linguists co-operate with biologists, ecologists, physicians, local experts to accurately document and conserve cultural diversity. Physical evidence can be combined with linguistic documentation to conduct comparative analyses. Beliefs and worldviews, livelihoods and practices, norms and institutions as well as knowledge bases and languages apply to biological diversity and traditional knowledge about diversity.

In Chapter 32, “Climate change and its consequences for cultural and language endangerment” by Christopher P. Dunn, the effects of climate change on cultural integrity and survival are discussed. Droughts have led to political unrest and forced people to migration. Habitat destruction can result in the erosion of cultural diversity and language loss (p.721). Indigenous communities use ecological calendars to determine planting, harvesting, and hunting. Consequently, climate change which affects the environment (i.e. extinction of plants) results in the loss of cultural knowledge and thereby language loss. Island populations are mostly affected by climate change. Mitigation strategies should be developed.

In Chapter 33, “Interdisciplinary language documentation” by Gary Holton, it is shown that interdisciplinary research improves the quality of documentation as it results in accurate data documentation, description and analysis. The following interdisciplinary research projects are brought as examples; Abui ethnobotany, Gwich’in cultural astronomy, Yup’ik ethnomathematics. Nevertheless, interdisciplinary research may also face challenges: data ownership and access, availability of journals which may host interdisciplinary papers, funding opportunities, logistic challenges (i.e. transportation of equipment), and academic incentives for interdisciplinary research.

In Chapter 34, “Why lexical loss and culture death endanger science” by Ian Mackenzie and Wade Davis, background information about the theoretical frameworks which did not place emphasis on the role the lexicon plays in the architecture of grammar (i.e. the Chomskian school) is offered. The authors refer to the lexicosemantics of Eastern Penan to show that vocabulary is an integral part of a language as it shapes speakers’ thought and culture.

Part V: Looking to the future

In Chapter 35, “Funding the documentation and revitalisation of endangered languages”, Susan Penfield explores issues one needs to take into account when seeking funding: project characteristics, differences between grants and fellowships, funding agencies, on time submission. To secure funding, projects need to be innovative and interdisciplinary; new approaches should be proposed and opportunities for language communities should be provided.

In Chapter 36, “Teaching linguists to document endangered languages”, Carol Genetti provides a list of student learning outcomes when training linguists in language documentation. Students need to familiarise themselves with project planning, grant writing, fieldwork, ethical issues, data recording, collection, management and archiving, transcription, glossing, translation, analysis, production of vocabularies, grammars, and text collections. They also need to learn how to collaborate with the language communities. They can participate in field methods classes, workshops and courses or in-situ.

In Chapter 37, “Training language activists to support endangered languages”, Nora C. England discusses her personal experience in training language activists while working on Mayan Languages. Opportunities were given to Mayas to study in secondary schools, universities, and Sunday classes. They now run language courses in their communities and establish webpages.

Chapter 38, “Designing mobile applications for endangered languages” by Steven Bird, discusses issues one should keep in mind when designing an application: the audience it is intended for and their needs, the stages of the application’s design. The co-design approach which can be applied to language software is described in detail.

In Chapter 29, “Indigenous language use impacts wellness”, Alice Taff, Melvatha Chee, Jaeci Hall, Millie Yéi Dulitseen Hall, Kawenniyóhstha Nicole Martin and Annie Johnston discuss how language affect health. They refer to speakers’ perceptions about the health benefits related to indigenous languages use: pleasure, joyful emotions, balance, healthy spirit, identity and direction. Finally, they show how language, land and culture are closely interrelated.

The book concludes with David Crystal’s Afterward. Concluding remarks about endangered languages and the book’s contribution are presented. A dictionary of the terminology of endangerment linguistics is now necessary.


The volume offers a complete guide to language endangerment and revitalisation. It makes reference to theoretical and practical issues, the history of the subdiscipline and current trends. It summarises various programmes which have been implemented worldwide. Some of the chapters identify areas for future research. They are well-organised and referenced. The discussion in all chapters is rich in exemplification. Only minor issues are noticed: p.109: helenist, p.275: 2.2.5 section heading should not have been in bold, p.375: “she recommendations paying attention to language ideologies”. The book will be of interest and a valuable guide to students and young researchers interested in pursuing research and implementing language documentation and revitalisation programmes. It is also a good source of reference for those who seek information about language endangerment and revitalisation worldwide. It promotes interdisciplinarity. The book appeals to non-linguists, scientists from other disciplines, members of endangered language communities and, generally-speaking, anyone who is interested in language preservation.


Catalogue of Endangered Languages.

Epps, P. (2010). “Linguistic typology and language documentation”. In J. J. Suong (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Hymes, D. H. (1972). “Models of the interaction of language and social life”. In J. J. Gumperz and D. H. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 35-71.

Krauss, M. (2007). “Classification and terminology for degrees of language endangerement”. In M. Brenzinger (Ed.), Language diversity endangered. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 1-8.

Lewis, M. P. and Simons, G. F. (2010). “Assessing endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS”. Revue Roumaine de linguistique 55: 103-120.

UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages. (2003). “Language vitality and endangerment”. Document submitted to the International Expert Meeting on UNESCO Programme Safeguarding on Endangered Languages, Paris, March 10-12.

Yamada, R. M. (2010). Speech community-based documentation, description and revitalisation: Kari’nja in Konomerume. Ph.D. thesis. University of Oregon, Eugene.


Alexandra Galani is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Primary Education at the University of Ioannina (Greece). Her main research interests are in morphology, its interfaces and language acquisition.

Page Updated: 05-Nov-2019