Why document endangered languages? A LIPIL discussion

Martha Tsutsui recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL), a monthly informal gathering of linguists to discuss topical areas in our field.

The second Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL) event was held on October 6th at The Perseverance and was attended by students and faculty from SOAS and other nearby universities. The discussion topic of the evening was “Why Document Endangered Languages?” Everyone present agreed that documenting languages was generally a good idea, but had different reasons for supporting this activity.

Throughout the discussion, common misconceptions about language loss and language documentation were brought up. Group members report finding that the general public can often be short-sighted in regards to the issue and often react with remarks and sentiments of “why bother?” In part, it is this public lack of understanding that hinders the fight for endangered languages.

There are several reasons to document endangered languages that were discussed, both ethical and research-oriented. For speakers, languages represent more than just a means of communication. Languages are an integral part of culture and identity, worthy of being preserved at the very least. Endangered languages can be important to their speakers in the areas such as traditional arts, ceremonies, religion, oral traditions, and recounting of ancestral knowledge.

People tend to have a utilitarian perspective on language loss, believing that language loss only affects a small population, but in actuality the effects of language loss are far-reaching. One member brought up how in linguistically-diverse China, the government is working with endangered language speakers to advance their interests, because language loss for even a small group can cause instability and civil unrest across a larger area. Loss of language can also lead to an increase in social and health issues. What is good for endangered language speakers is good for everyone.

Besides speakers, several fields of research are affected by language loss. Language death marks missed opportunities for discoveries and research in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, biology, psychology, archaeology, history, and others.

As linguists doing language documentation and description, we are in a position to work with speakers to assist them to preserve their culture and their voices, in a world where they may not normally have much autonomy. Contrary to the notion that languages die because no one wants to speak them, the reality is that speakers of endangered languages often feel they have no other option but to abandon their languages and adopt the majority language in order to gain a better life via economic opportunities, escape from social stigma and integration, or other means. Though speakers may have some regrets about their native languages falling out of use, often the desire for their children to have opportunities is stronger (at least initially) than the preservation of their language.

Government policy and persecution has played a crippling blow to endangered languages and the people who speak them in many places. One member brought up how Cajun French speaking students were once physically punished at school for using their native language. This scenario is historically quite common, Native American students in the late 1800s were infamously banned from speaking their languages at school, and as recently as 2014 a student in Kansas, U.S.A. was suspended for speaking Spanish at school. While Spanish is not an endangered language per se, this incident highlights negative attitudes towards minority languages and how government policy can work against minority languages by stigmatizing them and by eliminating platforms and contexts to use them in. Language documentation work can help normalise ideas of multilingualism in society, and linguists can help affect policy changes.

By documenting languages and working with speakers, we as linguists have an opportunity to create social change. LIPIL members discussed what working with endangered languages can lead to, and several ideas were discussed. One person commented how linguists documenting an endangered language can bring the resources and attention to a minority group that would normally not have the means to document their language. Many groups and individuals care about losing their languages, but lack the resources or training to properly document and describe them. Another thing linguists can do is raise awareness for the general public, and in the political domain, to change government policies. Many endangered languages are underrepresented and unacknowledged by governing bodies.

One last resonating point made was that, in the end, the study of endangered languages is the pursuit to better understand others, a worthy pursuit and a reason in its own right to want to be involved in documenting languages.

PARADISEC activity update

During September we negotiated with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre to assist in digitising their reel-to-reel tape collection. We now have 70 of their tapes in the queue, representing work done in Malakula and in Efate since the 1960s.

Zygmunt Frajzyngier deposited his collection of various African language recordings and they will be accessioned in the near future.

Hidden treasure in the collection

In this item, Tom Dutton is talking with Ken Pike who first coined the notion of ‘etic’ and ’emic’ analysis and who was the first President of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). This recording was made in 1962 about working with Australian languages. You can hear it here (once you are signed in to the catalog).

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A fruitful day in Copenhagen

No one likes the term ‘entomophogy’, and perhaps even fewer people know what it means. The title of the journal ‘Insects as food & feed’ is a deliberate move away from it, but even the term ‘edible insect’ is not unproblematic. According to GREEiNSECT researcher Afton Halloran, in many cultures the question ‘Do you eat insects?’ can get a negative response, whereas asking about a particularly species more often yields ‘yes’. Some Kaytetye speakers prefer the word ‘witchetty’ to ‘grub’; coining terms such as ‘whitewood witchetty’ and ‘river red gum witchetty’ as translations of the various edible larvae, a semantic extension also found in Kaytetye.

The pejorative overtones of English ‘grub’ and ‘insect’ reflects a preference in English to use a culinary name for animals as food. Consider ‘meat/animal’, ‘venison/deer’ etc. When the Kangaroo Industry sought a culinary term for skippy, they may have done better had they adopted marlu (Warlpiri) instead of the neologism ‘australus’. For ‘edible insects’ a similarly palatable set of sounds for English speakers might be tjapa (Western Arrarnta).

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Fieldwork in multilingual communities: A LIPIL discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL), a monthly informal gathering of linguists to discuss topical areas in our field.

Our first LIPIL was well attended, with participants from the African Multilingualism conference and ELDP training joining London locals. In keeping with the theme of the conference, we discussed language documentation in multilingual contexts. The conversation involved a number of researchers who focus on documenting language use in multilingual communities. Members of the Crossroads project at SOAS and Pierpaolo Di Carlo from SUNY Buffalo shared their experiences in an African context, and Ruth Singer from Melbourne University shared her experience in Australia.

Many of those present at LIPIL who now work with multilingualism started out documenting a particular variety of a language of the area, often the ‘ancestral code’. The move to thinking about multiple languages often came about in an attempt to better capture the daily communicative realities of individuals. This is a major research transition if the attempt is to be done well.

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Every hill got a story oral history just out

Every hill got a story: we grew up in country w51TVk4uaX0L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_as launched this afternoon at Alice Springs Telegraph Station. A companion multimedia site is hosted by SBS Books. The substantial volume is sold by SBS Books and is also available on Kindle.

The volume by ‘men and women of central Australia and the Central Land Council’ is compiled and edited by Marg Bowman, carrying on from the late Jane Hodson, long term anchor of the CLC media section.

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Introducing LIPIL: Linguistics in the Pub in London

Linguistics in the Pub (LIP) expands beyond Australia, with Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL). Our first LIPIL will be:

Fieldwork in multilingual communities (Guest participant Dr. Ruth Singer)

Date:             Monday 7th September 2015
Time:             6:00 – 8:00 pm
Venue:           Upstairs room, The Lamb (94 Lambs Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 3LZ)
Food and drinks available at the venue.

Contact Lauren Gawne with any questions: lg21@soas.ac.uk
You can receive future LIPIL announcements by signing up to the RNLD mailing list: http://www.rnld.org/node/5

UPDATE: We now have a LIPIL Facebook page for updates, and you can RSVP

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Orana : how did naming books welcome a Polynesian word as Australian?

Many of us who remember the 1960s in Australia know the chorus ‘Orana! Orana! Orana to Christmas Day’ (listen via iTunes, track 13) in one of the popular Australianised seasonal songs of the period. The lyricist, ABC staff writer John Wheeler (fl. 1940–70, with composer William Garnet ‘Billy’ James 1892–1977), likely found the word Orana in one of the notorious naming booklets: Orana ‘welcome’ has been listed in many of them as an Aboriginal word of NSW, beginning with Thorpe (1921:5) (and see table below). Update: ‘Carol of the birds’ was in the first set of Five Australian Christmas carols, released for Christmas 1948 (Catholic Weekly 23 Dec 1948, page 2, Magazine Section), which implies Wheeler’s source was one of the Thorpe or Tyrrell booklets published before WWII.

In the 1970s Orana got another boost in New South Wales, from official naming: Continue reading ‘Orana : how did naming books welcome a Polynesian word as Australian?’ »

PARADISEC activity update

It has been a busy time for Paradisec over the last couple of months.  We now have more than 5,100 hours of recorded material in the catalog and in 2 months alone have added 250GB of data, all of it representing digitised versions of analog tapes.

Recent work on the collection of 200 tapes from the Solomon Islands Museum is nearing completion but, as some tapes have required careful conservation work before being playable, the project has taken longer than expected. The collection was in urgent need of digitisation, not only because of the condition of the tapes, but also because little is known about the contents of the tapes. At least some contain material in Ririo – a language that has only a very small number of living speakers. The availability of digital files will allow the Museum to identify the contents of the recordings. We have also just finished digitising Nancy Carter’s 1960s recordings from the Solomon Islands and Bougainville that came to us two years ago. These three inch tapes were initially unplayable and needed special attention. They are now available online.

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MLIP recap July 2015: Language in education in multilingual contexts: beyond ‘mother tongue’ education

A recap of last night’s Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub, by Kellen Parker van Dam (La Trobe University).

The topic of MLIP was ‘Language in education in multilingual contexts: beyond ‘mother tongue’ education’ and the discussion was led by Felix Ameka (Leiden University).

Topic and description as posed by Felix Ameka in the original MLIP announcement:

Linguists promote the benefits of “mother-tongue” education, especially in the first years of primary education. Linguistic human rights advocates argue that if a child is not taught in their first language, then the child’s basic linguistic human rights are violated (e.g. Babaci-Wilhite 2014). However the notion of the ‘mother tongue’ is inappropriate in highly multilingual contexts (see e.g. Lüpke and Storch 2013). In these contexts, children can be disadvantaged by ‘mother tongue’ policies in education that favour the use of a single standardised language in education. I will discuss the case of Ewe-speaking children in Sokode, Ghana who use a colloquial Central Ewe variety at home and struggle with the standard Ewe used in the school. I advocate a multi-lectal, multilingual, multi-modal approach to language in education that eschews an opposition between so called exoglossic national languages and local indigenous languages.
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Songs of the Empty Place

Jimmy Weiner and Don Niles have published Songs of the Empty Place: The Memorial Poetry of the Foi of the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. This new book contains songs recorded by Weiner between 1979 and 1995 and can be downloaded from ANU E-Press here. All audio was digitised by PARADISEC and is available in the collection JW1. The songs are organised under three main categories: 7 Women’s Sago Songs (Obedobora), 44 Men’s Songs (Sorohabora), and 7 Women’s Songs (Sorohabora) and accompanied by some 40 photographs.
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