Unesco has just published the latest version on its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger edited by Christopher Moseley (the original 1996 and 2001 editions were edited by the late Stephen A. Wurm). The on-line interactive version of the Atlas is now available and the book version is due out soon. There is also a downloadable map in .pdf format (warning, it’s 20 Mbytes in size and unless you have access to a very large monitor or printer it is not terribly usable).
The editorial group who assisted Moseley is a veritable who’s who of specialists in endangered languages, including 27 experts from 13 named regions, supplemented by 6 specialists who provided “complementary information on specific areas”. Having spoken to several of the contributors personally (including one colleague I met in Tokyo last week), it appears that preparation of the database underlying the Atlas was not all harmony and light and resulted in some disagreements among contributors. Not so unusual in endangered languages research, I guess.
I had a little cruise around the interactive presentation, which uses a Google Maps interface and noticed quite a few oddities in regions where I have a little knowledge. Perhaps readers of this blog will notice more. There is a “Contribute your comments” link to the website but it appears to be broken because all it does is display the same page. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere one could point out apparent errors to Unesco and the editor, however it is possible to comment on individual listed languages by clicking on their “pin” on the Google Map and going to the “Comments” tab in the information that pops up. The comment then disappears and where it goes is not at all clear.
Here are a few other things I noticed:
- not a single signed language appears in the listing of endangered languages for any area of the world (type “sign” into the search box and you’ll get “0 language(s) correspond to your search”)
- the focus of the Atlas seems to be on cataloguing dying languages and essentialising all the listed languages into one of five categories. There is nothing in the FAQ page about language revival and reclamation. In fact, to take a local UK example, according to the FAQ, Manx (Isle of Man) became “extinct in 1974, with the death of Ned Maddrell”. This has been picked up and promoted on at least one well-known blog however looking carefully at the UK map listing one can discover in the pop-up box that this refers to “Traditional Manx”, which is to be distinguished from “Revived Manx”, of which it is said “revived Manx cannot be regarded as endangered as the number of users seems to be constantly growing” (interested readers can watch a video on language shift from Manx and visit Ynsee Gaelg for lessons on Manx). Note that the Isle of Man government has a Manx Language Officer, Adrian Cain, and there are children currently learning Manx at immersion preschool. It’s unfortunate that the headline Unesco presents is “death” rather than “life” for Manx
- the same is true for Manx’s cousin Cornish. As the BBC reports, “the Cornish language has been branded “extinct” by linguistic experts, sparking protests from speakers” — the Cornish Language Partnership points out that “Unesco’s study doesn’t take into account languages which have growing numbers of speakers and in the past 20 years the revival of Cornish has really gathered momentum”
- for Australia 108 languages are mentioned but only six are listed as “extinct” and all these are in coastal locations in the north. No languages at all are located throughout a vast swathe of southern Western Australia and South Australia, or in central Queensland and eastern Northern Territory from Cairns to Alice Springs. No language revival is mentioned for any language in Australia (eg. Kaurna is listed as “critically endangered” with nothing on the revival movement in Adelaide that, as Jane recently pointed out, means that “Kaurna language and Kaurna people are now part of everyday life”)
- Hawaiian is listed as “critically endangered” with 1,000 speakers — nothing again on language revival in Hawaii which has been in operation for 20 years
- Ske from Vanuatu is listed as “severely endangered” with 30 speakers — one of my PhD students returned from Pentacost Island last week after having done first-hand fieldwork on the language and she reports it is vibrant, with 300 speakers of all ages
and so on.
Some final gripes. In the section on websites and online resources there is no mention of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies AUSTLANG project which is a comprehensive database of Australia’s indigenous languages with details of speaker numbers, status and documentation materials for 1136 named languages and dialects. The Australian government’s Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records program doesn’t get a guernsey either. Also missing from this same section is the Documenting Endangered Languages initiative of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities which has sponsored research grants and workshops since 2005 (and since last year has been a permanent part of NSF’s operations providing millions of dollars annually for endangered languages research). Finally, our project at SOAS is listed as “a programme of grants to support the documentation of endangered languages, initiated by the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund”. I suspect that Arcadia Trust (to give our funders the correct name, current since 2007) will be disappointed to see that the teaching, training, publishing, archiving and awareness raising functions that the HRELP Academic Programme and Endangered Languages Archive have worked hard to develop over the past six years don’t rate a mention. Maybe Chris Moseley or the Unesco folks will come by during Endangered Languages Week next week to get a better idea of what we do here in London.
All in all, I reckon this Unesco Atlas is a bit of a mess.
PS Thanks to David Nash and Julia Sallabank for helpful comments on an earlier version of this posting — neither can be blamed for opinions expressed here.