The DoGs on Winter Circuit: Endangered Languages
It’s snowing in Martinsburg, and the Dragons of Grammar have started pestering RT, making a racket as they clamber all over the modest duplex he inhabits, blowing plumes of smoke at his sealed windows, and generally trying to cause an uproar in the neighborhood, which would be worse, except that nothing much is getting done in Martinsburg today (except last-minute preparations for Thanksgiving). People are paying the polite, if fiery and colorful, creatures no mind.
Now, RT is well aware that the DoGs love winter–it’s their favorite season, in fact–and at first he thought he also knew the subject that they wanted him to post on–Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Now CAS are certainly a worthwhile topic of exploration, but it turns out that that is not the DoGs’ primary concern on the day before Thanksgiving. Rather, they have a weighty matter they want RT to ponder: the definition and ways of helping endangered languages around the world.
Well, RT already knew that there are a lot of endangered languages out there, and a quick browsing of the net suggests that half of all languages, which numbered 6,900 in 2005, are in danger of going extinct (i.e., losing their last native speaker) within the next generation. About half of all languages spoken, moreover, are located either in Asia or Africa, but please take note, Oklahoma also constitutes a hot spot.
RT recollects that on occasion he has posted on endangered languages in these pages, but he thinks that a new post, especially one that contains a listing of items that help reflect the vitality of a language, would be quite useful.
Here is RT’s list:
1) Official Status. Does a language receive political or cultural support, and, in particular, is it taught in schools?
2) Writing System. Does a language have a writing system that was either created or evolved for its use? If so, is there a standardized orthography for the language? How easy is the language’s script to learn?
3) Child speakers. Are children learning the language?
4) Everyday transactions. Do people use the language in their daily routine?
5) Number of speakers. Last, and maybe least, how many people speak the language worldwide, whether as a first or second tongue? To which RT appends perhaps the most vital question: Is the number of speakers growing?
Now we come to subtler considerations.
6) Prestige. Do members of the cultural elite speak the language? Does everyone else in a society regard knowing the language as worthwhile or even as a cultural attainment?
7) National or Personal Identity. Is the language strongly linked to historical or national identity? A good example of this are the Gaelic languages in western Europe.
8) Variant of a Regional Language. Is the language a member of a widespread language family? Can a speaker travel to other areas where his or her native language is to some degree intelligible to others?
9. Global Status. Has a language become a lingua franca? Is it in danger of corruption through overuse? English immediately comes to mind as the lingua franca currently used by the largest number of speakers. How many people would speak English if it weren’t so closely tied to the current power elite?
10. Written and Audio/Video Materials. Here is a vital concern: to what extent is the language recorded in writing? In particular, do any of these materials include native legends and mythology? And do recordings of native speakers exist? Not only do these help preserve the language in the most direct way possible, but they also put a face on the language, another intangible but vital concern.
Now RT will try to sort out various languages by their vitality:
1) English, Spanish, French: the current global lingua francas.
3) Basque (720,000 ns, north-central Spain) and Mapundugan (250,000 ns, Chile and Argentina): language isolates (i.e., not related to any known language). Neither language is listed as endangered; both have been officially recognized. To give some idea of how different a language isolate can be, the Basque word for “father” is “aita,” and the word for “welcome” is “ongi.”
4) Insular Celtic: spoken in the British Islands (Welsh (580,000 speakers in Wales), Irish (130,000 ns), and Scottish Gaelic (57,000 ns)) and Brittany (Breton, 210,000 ns): protected minority languages; full to limited instruction in schools; the number of speakers is relatively small but growing. And here, to give some idea of the music of these languages, RT offers a link to a YouTube video on Scottish Gaelic, the IC language with the fewest native speakers:
5) Cree: limited official recognition within Canada; written in a system constructed for the language; limited instruction in school; 170,000 native speakers. Here is a brief sample of the language via YouTube:
6) Sioux: No official recognition in the U.S.; school instruction, including immersion classes; 44,000 native speakers.
Meanwhile, the snow has stopped and the DoGs have flown off elsewhere to spread their warmth in icy climes… More on all this later. RT