Get stuffed endangered languages!

I thought a low point of journalistic reporting about endangered languages was reached yesterday when the Australian press ran a story entitled “Cyber zoo to preserve endangered languages” that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Brisbane Times (and apparently also the Brisbane Sunday Mail, hat tip Felicity Meakins), the Melbourne Age, the Canberra Times and a string of rural papers, including the Wyndham Weekly, the Forbes Advocate and the Whyalla News.

Well it seems I was wrong — a new low was surely reached by the Spanish daily Publico on Saturday last week with its publication of a feature article on the ‘technology saves dying languages’ story (the one that I blogged about yesterday), highlighting the work of David Harrison and his colleagues at the Living Tongues Institute. In the Publico article the researchers at Living Tongues are described as “los principales taxidermistas de idiomas” which I translate as: the main taxidermists of the (spoken) languages! (Yep, I didn’t quite believe it too, so I checked my translation with a Colombian friend today, and it seems to be more-or-less correct).

So, Linguists = Taxidermists — it reminds me of the comment I heard from Michael Silverstein years ago about endangered languages and “tongues in aspic”, But it seems to me that we may well bring at least some of this on ourselves by our own rhetoric. I don’t know what the press release contained that Harrison and National Geographic released which led to this article, but I do know we bandy about terms like preservation/conservation/saving more than we should. After all, the responsible committee of the Linguistic Society of America is CELP, the Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation — come on LSA, do we really need the “preservation” bit? (Committee on Endangered Languages has a nice ring to it.) And one of the key journals in the field is Language Documentation and Conservation — jams and conserves to go with the tongues in aspic?

At SOAS many years ago we started using less loaded terms like “language support” (eg. one of our MA pathways is called “Language Support and Revitalisation”) to cover the theoretical and applied work that we do with language communities.

Maybe a bit of verbal hygiene on the part of linguists might reduce the chances of descriptions like “zoo” and “taxidermists” appearing in press coverage? It’s worth a try.

Note: I couldn’t resist the title — twice a day on my bus to and from work I pass a taxidermy shop in Islington, London, called Get Stuffed.

5 thoughts on “Get stuffed endangered languages!”

  1. I’ve heard this argument about ‘language conservation’ before, and maybe it could hold water in Britain but it’s a leaky argument in North America. Here the term ‘conserves’ for preserved fruit spreads is uncommon. The term ‘conservation’ instead immediately brings to mind environmental conservation, and that is exactly what the metaphor for LD&C’s title is based on. Although some political conservatives might react badly to ‘conservation’ because of the association with environmentalism, I think most people in North America see in it a fairly positive connotation. The term ‘language conservation’ therefore leverages this attitude and provides a better footing for the discussion of endangered languages in the public sphere.

    The press will *always* screw things up because flippancy is valued in journalism, especially in headlines, since it is both humorous and encourages the reader to view the journalist as an outside observer who has a supposedly more “realistic” viewpoint. Changing terminology just to suit journalistic misbehaviour is a fool’s errand. Journalists will always find a way to twist things in one direction or another, regardless of expert intentions. Expecting journalism to be unbiased is naïve in this day and age.

    Your push for ‘verbal hygiene’ is particularly misguided and authoritarian to boot. This position is in fact hypocritical since there can be no perfect terminology that cannot be misconstrued or manipulated. Your favoured term ‘language support’ could itself be construed as insulting, since it could be taken to imply that the people of the language community somehow can’t support their language themselves and consequently need privileged Europeans to support them. I could be particularly incendiary and say that this term promotes neocolonialism, but I won’t accuse you of that because I know you don’t intend it. I personally think that ‘language support’ is too vague, it immediately calls up questions like “support for what purpose?” and “support by whom?”. If that works for you, fine, but I think you’re being quite rude by snidely denigrating the other terms in use. In any case, my real point is that no matter what sort of terminology you try to adopt, there’s bound to be some kind of problem with it. Terminological arguments always devolve to reductio ad absurdum.

    I agree that ‘preservation’ does sound a bit museumish. It might be appropriate for work in restoration of old media and in archival of new media, but probably shouldn’t be used for active, present-day use of language. That’s exactly the situation that ‘conservation’ is meant to cover, and I think so far it has been rather successful.

  2. In the planning stages for the Consortium on Training in Language Documentation and Conservation (, we also had extensive discussions about the name and the use of terms such as ‘conservation’, ‘preservation’, etc. A particularly lively discussion took place at a planning group meeting in Tokyo in November 2010 (see Indigenous representatives at that meeting spoke strongly in favour of using ‘conservation’ because of the parallels with environmental conservation and the commitment of those working within that movement. As supporters of linguistic diversity, I hope we can also afford support for a diversity of ways of describing the powerful work being widely undertaken by language activists within communities, Indigenous organisations, non-profit organisations, educational organisations, and so forth.

  3. A Google search of “language conservation” returns 664 results, including this site of an organisation called Conservation International that tells us: “The colorful Malagasy language is said to be a blend of Indonesian, African dialects and Arabic. When British missionaries brought the Roman alphabet to Madagascar, they also codified the local language. The Malagasy alphabet is missing the letters C, Q, U, W, and X.”

    There is also a 1987 article entitled “Language Conservation” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science by Russell Campbell and Susan Schnell which is about how:

    “Competencies in a large number of languages brought to our schools by representatives of linguistic minority groups are, through an unspoken policy of subtractive language education, irrevocably lost as national foreign language resources. This occurs in spite of repeated declarations of national leaders in commerce, defense, education, and international affairs that our foreign language resources are in a “scandalous” state. There are promising ways in which our schools can conserve the extraordinarily valuable language resources that are currently being squandered.”

    So, there is a diversity of ways that the term “language conservation” does get used as well, not all of them “describing the powerful work being widely undertaken by language activists”.

  4. Thanks David — looks like the writer at Australian Geographic did some homework, at least.

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