Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Top 10 endangered languages

Peter Austin, a linguist at SOAS, presents a tantalizing list of strange and endangered wordbeasts. Excerpts:

"Jeru (or Great Andamanese) is spoken by fewer than 20 people on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.... The languages of the Andamans cannot be shown to be related to any other languages spoken on earth.

"... The Khoisan languages are remarkable for having click sounds – the | symbol is pronounced like the English interjection tsk! tsk! used to express pity or shame. The closest relative of N|u is !Xóõ (also called Ta'a and spoken by about 4,000 people) which has the most sounds of any language on earth: 74 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones (voice pitches)....

"Yuchi nouns have 10 genders, indicated by word endings: six for Yuchi people (depending on kinship relations to the person speaking), one for non-Yuchis and animals, and three for inanimate objects (horizontal, vertical, and round)....

"Oro Win is one of only five languages known to make regular use of a sound that linguists call "a voiceless dental bilabially trilled affricate"... similar... to the brrr sound we make in English to signal that the weather is cold."

In the discussion at Language Hat, responding to the following query:

"How do you save a language? It's not like breeding a few more pandas and giving them extra bamboo shoots. You can't keep the last two speakers of !Xóõ at the London Zoo."

Austin remarks:

"Outsiders, including linguists, can't "save" a language -- only the community where it is spoken can decide to do so by continuing to speak the language and passing it on to their children. Linguists can assist with the process of revitalisation by supporting communities in their desires and helping to produce materials (books, dictionaries, language lessons) and new contexts for language use (eg. radio, pop music). There are numerous examples where language shift has been reversed and endangered languages have grown in size and become less endangered, eg. Welsh, Maori, Hawaiian, and many examples where communities are struggling right now to make this happen, eg. Ainu, Gamilaraay (an Australian Aboriginal language). In many cases, dealing with pressing social and economic issues in minority communities like health, environmental degradation, and land ownership goes along with linguistic and cultural revitalisation, so the zoo is exactly the wrong analogy to bring up."

1 comment:

गिरिधर | giridhar said...

A backgrounder post by Austin on the Transient Languages & Cultures blog of the University of Sydney.

Meanwhile, Claire Bowern (Yale) has her own Top Ten on her blog Anggarrgoon.