Things move fast

Things move fast in the endangered languages world. Five years is a long time, especially the past five years when so much has happened. Last speakers of languages have passed away, such as the late Marie Smith Jones who was the last speaker of Eyak and who died on 21st January 2008 (her death garnered much publicity as signalling the first native Alaskan language to become extinct — a Google search of “last speaker of Eyak”, for example, returns 537 hits, led by such big names as the BBC, the Economist and so on). Other less publicised losses have occurred, such as Jawoyn from the Northern Territory, whose last fluent speaker died in July 2007.
But really good stuff has happened in the last five years too: millions of dollars of research funds have been made available for work with endangered languages through the Volkswagen Foundation’s DoBeS project, the NSF-NEH DEL scheme, and the ELDP grants administered by SOAS. There have been lots of grass roots activities to document, archive and support endangered languages, and a whole new group of committed students have entered the field via training programmes at ELAP at SOAS and University of Hawaii, among others. There have been summer schools, like the 2004 DoBeS summer school in Frankfurt, with more on the way including the 3L summer school and InField summer institute starting in June this year. If you add in the conferences, workshops, training courses, books, articles, media coverage, blogs and so on it is pretty clear that endangered languages has become a really hot issue, especially since 2003 or so.
Courtesy of the KITLV Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies I have just received a copy of Encyclopedia of the world’s endangered languages edited by Christopher Moseley and started dipping into it. I am writing a proper review of the book for the BKI Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, but thought I would share some initial impressions here.


Firstly, at 668 pages hardbound it is an impressive and weighty tome, and at £175 (that’s $US 350 or $A 360 at current exchange rates, folks!) it is well beyond the reach of ordinary individuals to buy. It also suffers seriously from the fact that “things move fast in the endangered languages world” but a lot slower in the academic publishing world. The book is dated 2007 on the copyright page but internal evidence suggests that it was completed well before that, and some of the individual chapters must have been written way before the 5 year time frame I mentioned above. For example, Christopher Moseley’s General Introduction on page xii says:

“At the time of writing these lines, one of the worst natural calamities in recorded history is still a fresh memory: the tsunami wave which struck the shorelines of the Indian Ocean, decimating populations in numbers which may never be known. Who knows what the effect on the world’s language stocks will be?”

This is a reference to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster of 26th December 2004, so Moseley was probably writing in early 2005. early 2005. (Fortunately, the world’s language stocks don’t seem to have been too badly affected in fact, eg. the Andaman islanders mentioned later by Moseley fled to the forests and climbed trees to escape). Strangely, however, there are odd gaps in coverage which even this time lag can’t explain. Thus on page x in highlighting the fact that “[i]n the past decade leading up to the publication of this encyclopedia there have been various initiatives” no mention is made of DoBeS, or DEL or any of the other developments noted above (our project at SOAS is briefly, but inaccurately, noted). Worse still, although Moseley says “[p]erhaps new disciplines within linguistics and in cross-fertilisation with other scientific disciplines will arise in the near future as a result of the academic interest in endangered languages” no mention is made of documentary linguistics or language documentation which has grown in leaps and bounds since the seminal works of Nikolaus Himmelmann dating back to 1998, already 10 years ago.
The chapter that will perhaps be of most immediate interest to readers of this blog is Australasia and the Pacific written by the late Stephen A. Wurm. Now Wurm died on 24th October 2001, so unless someone ghost wrote the chapter (and there is no indication in the book that anyone did), the contents had to be at least six years old by the time the book was published (none of the references to this chapter on pages 464-466 is later than 2001). The massive amount of activity that has occurred during this time on languages of South-east Asia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Pacific means that this chapter in particular falls foul of the maxim that there has been rapid change in endangered languages work in the past half decade. Even so, there are amazing gaps: the work of the late Terry Crowley[.pdf obituary], fieldworker and grammar writer extraordinaire, who did so much research in Vanuatu is not even mentioned in “Current work in languages of Australasia and the Pacific” (pages 456-459)! Nor is the indefatigable Mark Donohue who has recorded dozens of languages from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. And the list goes on.
It is difficult to prepare encyclopedic materials that are both accurate and timely, and unfortunately this book shows that doing so for a field like endangered languages which is undergoing such rapid change is especially challenging.

1 thought on “Things move fast”

  1. I wonder how much this kind of encyclopaedia gets used these days. I suppose the marketing people can justify their production otherwise they wouldn’t keep getting produced, but can anyone point to a user or impact study? How many get distributed, and to whom — is it mostly to libraries? And how much use do they get in libraries these days? Perhaps the books are justified even if it is primarily reference librarians who consult them. These days I would expect an online version would be more use. And I suspect that the parts of the world with poor online access won’t be buying the paper version. But this speculation of mine needs dousing with some evidence.

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