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Review of  Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity

Reviewer: Jessica Marie Boynton
Book Title: Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity
Book Author: Joshua A Fishman Ofelia Garcia
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.1102

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EDITORS: Joshua Fishman and Ofelia García
TITLE: Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity
SUBTITLE: The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts
(vol. 2)
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

Jessica Boynton, English Department, Gillette Community College; Linguistics
Department, University of Western Australia

The Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The Success-Failure Continuum in
Language and Ethnic Identity aims to understand why some language and ethnic
identity efforts succeed and others fail. It is intended for a general audience,
but also aims to be of use to expert readers. The majority of the content is
divided into four regional sections, while an additional section supplies expert
commentary on the volume as a whole and on the implications of its contents.

African and the Middle East
The book begins with contributions covering six ethnolinguistic situations
across African and the Middle East. Neville Alexander examines Afrikaans as a
racialized standard for which a loss of power is regarded by speakers as
inevitably connected to the Afrikaner’s loss of political power since the end of
apartheid. Peter Unseth compares the invention of West Africa indigenous scripts
to identify traits that lead to success, such as careful corpus and domain
planning, while also highlighting the importance of symbolic success even in the
face of technical failure. Fatima Sadiqi discusses Amazigh, an indigenous
language of Morocco, which enjoys increasingly positive status in part due to
its simultaneous connections to an ancestral past and modern (non-Islamic)
secularism. Moha Ennaji identifies the successes and failures of Moroccan Arabic
in its polydiglossic environment with languages that have more power at the
formal level but do not index cultural authenticity as successfully as it does.
Mohamed Daoud describes the changing roles of and attitudes about French in
Tunisia, where a formerly colonized people embrace the language as a benefit of
colonization and a symbol of modernity. Finally, Ghil’ad Zuckermann discusses
the state of modern Hebrew, analyzing the linguistic and social impact of the
revival of Hebrew from a largely frozen liturgical language to a vital (albeit
very much changed) spoken one.

The Americas
The volume then shifts to the Americas, with five contributions. Django Paris
and Arnetha Ball analyze African American Language in the United States, a fully
vital linguistic variety with an enduring stigma that has come to the forefront
during attempts to accommodate AAL speakers in schools. Miriam Eisenstein
Ebsworth and Timothy John Ebsworth discuss the curious and precarious position
of English in Puerto Rico, where high status and global appeal do not result in
a strong speaker base. David F. Marshall traces the history of English spelling
reform, finding that reform efforts only even marginally succeed when popular
opinion agrees with the reform’s goals. Serafín M. Coronel-Molina shares the
history of Quechua status in Peru to help explain how the former colonial lingua
franca has come to endure a strong social stigma despite growing official
support. Finally, Aurolyn Luykx describes the ‘Reversing Language Shift’ efforts
for Quechua in Bolivia, highlighting the unintended conditions and consequences
of recent efforts to ‘acknowledge and preserve’ the culture and language of an
ethnic group that suffered massive disruption during colonization.

The volume features ten contributions regarding Asia. Robert B. Kaplan and
Richard B. Baldauf Jr. treat the unforeseen consequences of ad hoc language
planning in North Korea, which adhered to socialist principles as part of an
attempt to validate North Korea as a socialist state. Shouhui Zhao and Richard
B. Baldauf Jr. analyze the successes and failures of multiple attempts to
simplify Chinese characters, finding that success depended largely upon how well
the reform’s goals reflected the social environment of its time. David Bradley
compares the context and outcomes of three reformed orthographies for the Yi in
China, where language planning must take into account the existence of varied
dialects, previously existing systems and even a lack of a tradition of
literacy. M. Obaidul Hamid analyzes the successes and failures of English
language policy in Bangladesh, a country in which the national language (Bangla)
is perceived as a cornerstone to national identity. Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew
describes the changing status of Malay in Singapore, which surged in use when
Singapore joined with Malaysia, and then declined as social environment changed.

Madhav M. Deshpande traces the history of Sanskrit in India to explain the
difference between its vitality and ideological acceptability as a classical
language and as an altered vernacular. E. Annamalai discusses the rise and fall
of Tamil as a symbol of a unified non-Brahmin identity during the Dravidian
movement in southern India. Sipra Mukherjee examines the case of Asamiya, a
language traditionally associated with Assam that has over time prevailed
against the imposition of Bengali language and culture through British
colonization. Maryam Borjian and Habib Borjian discuss Persian in Iran, focusing
on the modern struggle between innovation to meet the demands of modern times
and purification of the language to more authentically index ancient Persian
identity. Finally Jala Garibova discusses the efforts to unify Turks under a
single Turkic language despite the multinational residence and identities of
Turkic people.

Europe receives the most attention in the volume with twelve contributions.
Sabine Ehrhart and Fernand Fehlen discuss the status of Luxembourgish within the
plurilingual and pluricultural country of Luxembourg, where written
Luxembourgish struggles while spoken Luxembourgish flourishes. Anthony R. Rowley
examines Bavarian, finding that efforts to standardize Bavarian or fight for its
official recognition are ‘not so much failed as nonexistent’ in an environment
where minority (Bavarian) identity is not seen as antithetical to majority
(German) identity. Michael Hornsby and J. Shaun Nolan present the cases of
Breton and Gallo -- two regional languages of Brittany that are in competition
with French and, in many ways, with one another. Maria-Jose Azuermendi and Iñaki
Martinez de Luna investigate the failures and successes of the Euskara (Basque)
language movement in Spain and France, finding that success varies according to
the level of political tumult in the different regions where it is spoken.
Miguel Ángel Lledó describes Valencian in its position alongside Spanish and
closely-related Catalan in Spain, focusing on the competing approaches inspired
by linguistic proximity to Catalan. Joshua A. Fishman overviews the history and
status of Yiddish in relation to the Holocaust and the revival of Hebrew.

Marc L. Greenberg explains the history of the Illyrian movement that aimed to
unite South Slavic nations under a single identity, which has been successful as
a political movement for Croatia but was unsuccessful in its stated goals.
Marián Sloboda presents the case of Belarusian, a Slavic language that has seen
wide fluctuation in support through beneficial and detrimental symbolic and
linguistic associations. Anna Veronika Wendland shares some of the history of
language politics and planning in Austrian Galicia to explain the success of
vernacular-based Standard Ukrainian over liturgical Ruthenian, global languages,
and even modern vernacular variants. Erling Wande focuses on Meänkieli, the
language of Tornedalians on Sweden’s border with Finland that was developed to
assert their uniqueness against both Sweden and Finland. Tove Bull discusses the
successes and failures of Samnorsk efforts in Norway, where two versions of
Norwegian have been in use since Denmark’s rule over Norway. Giedrius Subačius
tracks efforts to promote a standard Low Lithuanian to take the place of the
three written varieties that had regional associations.

Concluding Thoughts
Nancy Dorian discusses difficulties that language maintenance and revitalization
efforts face and problems associated with diagnosing the success or failure of
language efforts. She begins by highlighting the fact that speakers worldwide
recognize the utility of the handful of extremely powerful world languages -- a
recognition that often results in language shift. However, she also notes,
speakers of minority languages have maintained their traditional tongues the
world over, and efforts abound to revive those that have fallen out of use.
Those efforts face practical difficulties, including bridging generation gaps,
but at the very least demonstrate the value of the traditional language. Dorian
wonders who precisely benefits from language support efforts, citing Matras’
claim that some speech communities exhibit no regret over losing their language,
possibly because use of the language opened them to such strong social stigma.
However, Dorian argues, even individuals from those speech communities have
benefitted from the validity and recognition that language support efforts have
garnered for their identity. Dorian concludes that language maintenance efforts
will no doubt continue, and their success and failure is never absolute in part
because strategies that work for one group will not work for another, and won’t
even work for that group indefinitely as the social environment changes.

Ofelia García summarizes the three major themes that emerge in the volume:
positionality, dynamism, and interrelationships & different meanings. Drawing
from the contributions, she argues that one must never forget the importance of
the varied positions of language and identity efforts (L&I efs) and their
proponents: the variation on the success -- failure continuum can be partially
explained by the varied influences of people from different positions, focusing
on different domains, living in different regions and under different
ideologies. García also reminds us that the direction of L&I efs is not only
top-down versus bottom-up, but can be both simultaneously. Likewise, ideologies
concerning languages don’t necessarily battle one extreme versus another, but
often encompass both (for example, tradition and modernism). Finally, the
historical evolution of language movements is not constant across the globe --
different movements follow different paths, and rarely take things one step at a
time. Lastly, García notes that power does not necessarily guarantee a
language’s success because that power is interpreted and responded to by people.
Furthermore, language use and the value of language are interpreted with
different meanings by different people, and identity itself means different
things to different people. García concludes that the volume provides rich
descriptions of L&I efs and questions the ability of authorities to completely
control such efforts.

Joshua Fishman discusses the attempt to quantify the placement of contributions
on the success -- failure continuum, even tabulating the data to demonstrate
that no strong relationship seems to have been demonstrated between particular
sociofunctional categories and degrees of success-failure. Therefore, after all
the volume’s contributions, one cannot conclude that classic revival tends to be
successful while those treating narrower language planning focused on linguistic
conventions (such as orthography reform) are less likely to be. Instead, one is
faced with a provocative lack of conclusion as a conclusion: no single type of
effort is overwhelmingly likely to either succeed or fail, and this is part of
the reason that individuals and groups are willing to take on language
maintenance and revitalization efforts that may seem doomed to fail. Since no
quantifiable tipping point has yet been determined, individuals who undertake
these efforts can ‘hug the middle’ and ‘never say die’ after years of moderately
productive language work, looking forward to the time when their efforts will
tip the scales to success. The contribution of the volume then is, according to
Fishman, not the identification of quantifiable categories or scalar qualities,
but rather further explanation as to why human beings behave as they do in
regard to language and ethnic identity.

This book is readily accessible to a general academic audience, but can also be
useful to linguists. Most special terms, such as einbau and ausbau, are defined,
and each chapter can be understood independently of others. However, some
individual chapters fail to provide clear summaries of their content and
implications, leaving (novice) readers to formulate connections and conclusions
unaided. The contributions at the end of the book, however, make up for this by
providing ample coverage of the implications of the volume as a whole.

This volume balances comparability across contributions against allowing salient
elements of each situation covered to emerge, favoring the latter. Each
contribution has the same basic aim: to describe important aspects of a specific
language and ethnicity effort and evaluate its successes and failures. The
regional organization is problematic for topical coherence, and it omits rather
large sections of the globe. (Australia, for example, is absent, and its absence
is not acknowledged.) Furthermore, quantitative ratings are attempted to enhance
the cross-comparability between contributions, but they are not consistently
applied and seem fairly arbitrary. However, the expert commentary at the end of
the book brings all the contributions together and even evaluates the rating
‘problem’ as a phenomenon is its own right.

Salient and overarching themes do emerge:

Opposition is essential to language movements.
Efforts to revitalize or maintain a language almost always form part of a
political movement against a perceived threat to unique identity. In some cases,
this opposition lacks power because there is no clear political enemy. There may
be multiple culprits but no agreed-upon force to align against -- for example,
various languages and governments have been blamed for the decay of Persian in
Iran (Borjian and Borjian).

Otherwise, speakers may consider themselves and their identities as constituent
parts of the majority group. Bavarians, for example, consider themselves
simultaneously Bavarian and German, and have not yet fought for recognition of
Bavarian as a language rather than a dialect of German, partly because they see
a comfortable distinction between language as it is spoken (Bavarian) and as it
is written (German) (Rowley). Euskara (Basque), spread across three regions in
Spain and France, shows the importance of perceived distinctiveness: French and
Basque identity have been effectively reconciled, but Basque and Spanish
identity are perceived as oppositional. This, among other factors, explains why
Basque is most successful in Spain (and in the Basque Autonomous Community in
particular), and least successful in France (Azurmendi and de Luna).

In other cases, this opposition lacks power because the languages of the opposed
populations are considered dialects of the same language. In these cases, the
first step for language movements is often to gain recognition as a language.
The Asamiya language movement’s great success, for example, was in asserting
Asamiya as a language rather than a dialect of politically overpowering Bengali,
and that success extends to the political realm (Mukherjee). Likewise, Meänkieli
in Sweden was fashioned as a distinctive linguistic entity against Finnish and
linguistically similar Swedish to assert the cultural uniqueness of Tornedalians
(Wande). Breton and Gallo in Brittany demonstrate how languages in two different
positions in this regard fair in the same environment: Breton is more successful
largely because, being a Celtic language, its distinction from majority French
is obvious; Gallo, a Romance language, struggles to distinguish itself from
linguistically similar French and is even villainized by some as part of the
oppressive dominant language (Hornsby and Nolan).

Languages are symbolically associated with extralinguistic factors.
In most cases where language movements form part of a political movement, the
language itself becomes symbolically associated with the ideologies and members
of that movement. As a result, some language movements lose ground because the
political turmoil in which they were conceived fades (either actually or
perceptively). For example, the Illyrian movement, conceived in opposition
against Hungarian dominance in South Slavic affairs, has fallen away as the
Hungarian threat has receded (Greenberg). Likewise, Tamil’s power as the
unifying Dravidian language faded as India’s non-Brahmin movement itself lost
political traction (Annamalai). Sometimes, language movements suffer because the
movement they were initially associated with loses popularity or becomes
associated with an enemy. Belarusian, for example, began with strong nationalist
associations, but lost popularity when those associations became equated with
fascism during Nazi occupation (Sloboda).

Languages also often become associated with a particular time, whether it be an
unspecified ancestral epoch or simply the time before detrimental contact with
another population. This nostalgic power often inspires language purism, which
can often hinder language maintenance and revitalization efforts. Many language
efforts struggle to maintain the purity of the language while still allowing
enough innovation to empower the language to address modern concepts. Persian,
for example, lends itself well to purist notions because of its long literary
tradition, and modern efforts to innovate are constantly hindered by efforts to
prevent borrowings (Borjian and Borjian). Likewise, in India a schism between
Vedic language and daily speech has been observed since Panini’s famous work,
and the form, domains and status of modern Sanskrit have changed drastically as
its use has spread to a wider population (Deshpande). Amazigh proves to be a
special case where a language is simultaneously symbolic of ancient tradition
and (secular) modernism against the backdrop of Arabic (Islamic) dominance

The power of majority languages is recognized.
Majority languages can either succeed or fail because of their association with
power. French, for example, enjoys high prestige in Tunisia despite its
association with French colonialism because it is seen as a benefit of
colonization, not an imposition (Daoud). Afrikaans, on the other hand, has
failed to be adopted across ethnic boundaries in part because it is strongly
associated with Afrikaner power and apartheid (Alexander).

Majority languages provide greater access to global identity and resources. In
some cases, this means access to the global economy. For example, Moroccan
Arabic struggles because the other languages of Morocco, French and Standard
Arabic, are more widely used in global affairs (Ennaji). In other cases, this
means access to the resources of a neighboring, better-supported group. Malay,
for example, was adopted as the national language of Singapore to improve access
to the manufacturing and political power of Malaysia and Indonesia (Chew). With
a more linguistic focus, one approach to Valencian language standardization
calls for a common standard between Catalan and Valencian so that each would
benefit from combining resources and power (Lledó).

Yiddish seems to be an exception that proves the rule: during the Holocaust era,
even though German was the language of power in areas where Yiddish was spoken,
Jews were denied access to that power for non-linguistic reasons (Fishman).
Therefore, many benefits normally associated with adopting a majority language
were not available to speakers.

Success and failure can vary depending on the domain considered.
Some languages achieve high status, but still aren’t actually used, in part
because strictly top-down approaches often fail. Korean language mandates passed
down from Kim Il Sung were largely successful because they were given massive
official and financial support, but the revisions passed down are at odds with
the will of the people, who were not in any way included in the planning process
(Kaplan and Baldauf). Even when the target population is on-board with official
goals, the top-down approach is not sufficient: Quechua in Peru enjoys official
status and inclusion in schools, but still suffers in vitality because it is
stigmatized among Peruvians (Coronel-Molina). Sometimes symbolic associations
prevent adoption. The value of English, for example, is recognized worldwide,
but use of English in Puerto Rico is viewed with contempt to a degree that
actually hinders its adoption in the country (Eisenstein Ebsworth and Ebsworth).

Other languages are partly revived or maintained and hold strong symbolic value,
but would be considered failures from purist perspectives. Modern Hebrew, for
example, has changed enough through its revival that Zuckermann prefers to call
by a different name -- ‘Israeli’ -- but it has strong symbolic value as the
language of Israel and the Jewish faith. Likewise, some West African indigenous
scripts have failed to be adopted widely, but their development has symbolic
value in differentiating the language from either Arabic or French influence and
giving the language higher perceived validity (Unseth).

Some efforts may more or less fail on linguistic grounds, where the work
undertaken for language maintenance or revitalization has still achieved
political gains. Attempts to unify the two versions of Norwegian into Samnorsk,
for example, have not succeeded in their stated goal, but the unification
ideology itself has been adopted by many (Bull). Similarly, attempts to unify
Turks under a single Turkic language have at least increased awareness of and
activity towards cultural unification among Turks (Garibova).

A split in domains isn’t always between formal and informal. Luxembourgish
succeeds in some formal domains, but not others: spoken Luxembourgish is the
language of administration and government sectors, but written Luxembourgish has
limited (albeit undeniable) use in the labor market, and students gradually
shift away from Luxembourgish in schools (Ehrhart and Fehlen).

Language efforts of any kind must be carefully planned.
Appropriateness to social environment is key. Many attempts to simplify Chinese
characters failed because their implementation was insensitive to social
environment: one, for example, posed radical changes shortly after the political
tumult of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to a population that craved
stability for rebuilding, not change (Zhao and Baldauf). On the other hand, the
most successful attempt to reform English spelling aligned with a strong
ideological movement, differentiating American English from British English amid
strong nationalist and independence sentiments nationwide (Marshall).

Competing goals, ideologies and even identities can hinder maintenance and
reform. The Ukrainian language movement in Austrian Galicia, for example,
spawned from four competing models, only one of which proved at all successful
(Wendland). Of the three reformed orthographies for the Yi in China, the least
successful was attempted in the most linguistically heterogeneous population,
which varied in their proposed approaches to creating a single standard amongst
wide variation in (spoken and written) practice (Bradley).

Education is a frequent stumbling block because changes are mandated but
infrastructure such as teacher training isn’t supported. In Bangladesh, for
example, English study is compulsory in schools, but expensive private schools
offer much higher quality English education than under-funded public programs --
as a result, English can only be adequately acquired by the wealthy (Hamid).
Other cases demonstrate that school alone isn’t enough. Attempts to include
Quechua in Bolivian schools have lost official support, and a focus on schooling
has left important domains of use (or attrition) unattended (Luykx). Language
reformers must plan how to make the language available to their public as well.
For example, efforts to create a standard Low Lithuanian failed in part because
the economic troubles of the population prevented wide dissemination of
resources, and the majority of the population was illiterate anyway (Subačius).

Finally, language attitudes must be addressed. The vast majority of cases
involve languages that have some sort of negative association. Perhaps the most
provocative example is African American Language: there is no immediate threat
to its vitality across its speech community, but extremely negative attitudes
about it prevent educational reform that would benefit its speakers (Paris and

Overall, the volume provides a diverse set of accounts that are cross-comparable
enough to serve as a miniature dataset in their own right, but unique enough
that each contribution can focus on the factors that matter most for the case
being studied. Themes emerge, as discussed here and in the concluding thoughts
of the volume, but critical individual circumstances prevail in the full text.

Jessica Boynton is completing her Master’s in Linguistics through the University of Western Australia while teaching writing at Gillette Community College in Wyoming. She received her Bachelor’s in Linguistics from Eastern Michigan University and worked at LINGUIST List. She has conducted fieldwork in Indigenous Argentina under the mentorship of Veronica Grondona and Lyle Campbell with funding through a HRELP grant, and in Aboriginal Australia under John Henderson with Fulbright support. Her research interests include language ideologies, language endangerment and the ethnography of language documentation.

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