Endangered Languages

Oliver Mayeux

Articles about endangered languages attempt to contextualise the phenomenon through numbers, not words. The number of languages in the world and how many we risk losing. By now, such statistics may be painfully familiar to those who feel beauty in diversity. Rather than emphasise this aspect of this crisis, I would like here to offer a window into its more human side from the perspective of a linguist working in the field. There is an inspiring response to language endangerment from dedicated communities and individuals who are fighting to have their voices heard after decades of those voices—and the languages they speak—being silenced. This silence has two dimensions: the first quite obvious, the second less so.

First, it is a loss for words in the most literal sense: as a language fades, so do particular (even, unique) pairings between sound and meaning and the grammatical blueprint by which they come together. For linguists, this aspect of language endangerment is exciting because it is exploratory. The diversity of grammars found in thousands of undocumented languages is to linguists what the Marianas Trench is to oceanographers. These languages may contain hitherto unattested phonological, syntactic or semantic phenomena without knowledge of which our theories of human language remain incomplete at best, and inadequate at worst. This is without mentioning the wealth of culture-specific knowledge that often (though not always) fades alongside the language in which it has traditionally been encoded.

Second, it is a loss for words which implies the loss of a voice. It is not just the language itself that falls silent, but the community that speaks it. Though linguists’ metaphors might sometimes suggest the opposite, a language is not a living, breathing organism which dies of old age. Nor is a language lost accidentally, and only very rarely by choice. Rather, a community shifts to a from their own minority language to a majority language that is socially and politically dominant, often reflective of a process by which the community itself is disempowered by a dominant group. This kind of linguistic assimilation (for some, linguistic genocide) can be forced on a community with overt violence, or through a more insidious, covert means. Residential schools in the USA, Canada and Australia—where children from indigenous communities were taken from their homes, sent to boarding schools and forced to abandon their ancestral language and culture—constitute one example from recent history whose effects are still keenly felt today by thousands of families. Meanwhile, all over the world, social, economic and political pressures lead millions of people to perceive their language as lacking in some kind of worth. In this sense, working on endangered languages is worthwhile because it necessitates a very human involvement with the research. Work is done with and for communities, with understanding that linguists act as consultants and activists, rather than experts. Many linguists would feel uncomfortable with the subjective agency this implies, and would rather imagine themselves as uninvolved, objective, expert observers. But, there is no neutral or apolitical position on language endangerment: ignoring linguistic oppression is a choice against assisting with its dismantlement. Linguists may be well-placed to help with technical tasks (developing writing systems, dictionaries, writing grammars), and contributing our sometime obscure skillset to such efforts offers us the chance to make a real impact.

The last word here must be given to the endangered-language communities fighting for the survival of their way of speaking, and so their way of life. It would do no justice to these efforts for me to pick and choose a few to paraphrase clumsily in this short article. Instead, please take this as an invitation to investigate for yourself the creative and inspirational ways in which languages are being revitalised all over the world: from reggaetón in Cocama to ‘Star Wars’ in Navajo, to the Māori kōhanga reo (‘language nests’) model now being used in Siberia. The results of such efforts can be moving. In the case of the critically endangered Louisiana Creole (also my own research topic and heritage language), most language revitalization happens on social media, but with a very tangible real-world impact. There are now a number of children who have learned the language as a result, and there is even demand for children’s books and toys in the language. To achieve such results, linguists, community members and others all need to help each other; as we say in Creole: shyin pa manjé shyin (‘Dog does not eat dog’).