Can This Language be Saved?

Words are fascinating things. With meanings that expand and contract, they can be popularized, bought and sold in a linguistic marketplace, or, if denied access, they can be forced off the conversational road, never to be heard from again. Atapaka, for instance, was on someone’s lips one hundred years ago, as were Wyandot, Galice, Nootsack, Salinan, Twana, and Lumbee.

Can This Language be Saved?
June 2001
Eileen Moore

Words are fascinating things. With meanings that expand and contract, they can be popularized, bought and sold in a linguistic marketplace, or, if denied access, they can be forced off the conversational road, never to be heard from again. Atapaka, for instance, was on someone’s lips one hundred years ago, as were Wyandot, Galice, Nootsack, Salinan, Twana, and Lumbee. At the time, linguists documenting Native American languages noted that people spoke Chumash and Tonkawa with the same healthy conviction that we use Spanish, French, or English. Today, however, like Tilamook and Chitimacha, these languages have fallen by the wayside. Others, like Comanche and Apache, are stalled into near extinction or death. Hundreds of others, their speakers reduced to elderly members unable to transmit linguistic heritage to offspring, face similar obstacles. Of the 3,200 Utes in Utah and Colorado, fewer than 500 are fluent in their native tongue. A similar number of monolingual inhabitants of Brazilian Amazonia speak a language which is crucial to their survival yet instrumentally worthless to all but a few traders and administrators. If their language, Waimiri-Atroari, dies, they will have been forced to acculturate linguistically to survive.

These situations are replicated in many places around the globe. The European languages Polabian, Dalmatian, and Mozarabic have been relegated to the linguistic junkyard, as have Norn and Gothic. Canada’s 53 native tongues are rapidly disappearing. The former Soviet Union, with its policy of “Russification,” all but wiped out many of its indigenous languages.

Natalia Sangama, a Peruvian elder who lives in Pampa Hermosa, northeast of Lima, Peru, reveals: “I dream in Chamicuro, but I cannot tell my dreams to anyone. Some things cannot be said in Spanish. It’s lonely being the last one.” (Koop, 1999) Although family, friends, and neighbors know a few words, Sangama is the sole fluent speaker of Chamicuro; when she dies, the language will be gone. Sangama recalls, “In the missionary school, they used to make us kneel on corn if we spoke Chamicuro.”

Natalia Sangama’s narrative provides a firsthand, experiential lens by which to understand some of the factors that contribute to language spread on the one hand and language loss on the other. Sentiments like hers were echoed by Lola Kipja, the last survivor of the Selk’nam Indians of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and by traditional healer Pela Lilo of Western Samoa, who died last october after revealing to researchers a healing tree bark which was discovered to double the life of T-cells. Native American Marie Smith expressed her painful recognition that she was the “last” Eyak of Cordova, Alaska (see article by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, this issue). In California, the third most linguistically diverse area in the world, where 25 percent of North America’s roughly 250 Native American languages are spoken, Professor Leanne Hinton detailed how she witnessed the extinction of Northern Pomo when the last of its speakers died in 1995.

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” so the expression goes, and in the history of nation/language-building, military expansion and long-term imperial or colonial rule have figured predominantly. When an imperial language is introduced into an existing multilingual environment, a proclivity on the part of the dominant group for monolingualism prevails. Even though political and socioeconomic benefits may accrue to those who use international languages (Brosnahan, 1963), their spread usually precedes the death of indigenous tongues. Other factors responsible for linguistic attenuation include government policies, educational systems, urbanization, economic development, religious composition, and political affiliation. Student exchange programs contribute to language shift (of 1.6 million college students who traveled abroad to study in 1996, 47 percent went to core English-speaking nations). So, too, do international tourists; traveling with new technologies, bringing in popular culture, consuming products and entertainment services, and expecting their hosts to learn their language, they collect a heavy linguistic toll.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the single largest linguistic market in the world speaks English; in 1997 alone, the world spent $378 billion dollars on tourism — 27 percent came from core English-speaking countries. English is roughly four times as geographically dispersed as Arabic or Spanish, and at least nine times as dispersed as any of the other major world languages (those with more than 100 million native and non-native speakers). In short, most theorists agree that a power differential between regions sets the stage for language attenuation.

To make matters worse, an “ideology of contempt” (Grillo, 1989) for minority languages often accompanies religious conversion, military expansion, and extended colonial rule. The far-flung British Empire, with its long-lived imperial power, valued geopolitical and monolingual standardization; Australia, France, Russia, and the United States followed suit. Similar ideological forces operate in the present, as evidenced by challenges to linguistic diversity posed by television, radio, the Internet, and modern appliances. Indeed, linguists have traced the ebbing of some American Indian languages to the air-conditioner. Its introduction brought about the disappearance of the tradition of gathering under trees to tell stories in the old tongue during hot weather months.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have also wreaked havoc. Media giant Ruport Murdoch asserted that the learning of Hindi as a lingua franca will terminate disunity and disorder in India. He went on to suggest that with the spread of Mandarin in China via broadcasting, “it will not only be prosperity that we catch in our networks, but also order…and peace.” (Murdoch, 1994)

Under the rubric of social transformation and ideological unity (Dorian, 1998), similar simplistic and unenlightened policies compel Tibetans to learn Mandarin; North American immigrants, English; and Central and South American indigenous populations, Spanish. Contrary to received wisdom that multiple linguistic codes are threatening, the truth is that most people around the globe speak more than one language. “It’s odd to be monolingual,” notes Stephen Wurm of Australian National University.

The process of language extinction begins when intergenerational transmission stops, and when mother tongues are undermined to such an extent that parents and grandparents feel ashamed to speak. “It’s ultimately the children who save a language,” comments Cefin Campbell of Trinity College, Carmarthen. (Raymond, 1998) Yet, of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages, between 20-30 percent are no longer spoken by children. Linguists predict that at least 50 percent of the world’s languages — some estimates run as high as 95 percent — will disappear within the next century, pushed into oblivion by the spread of the “big languages.” Comparing linguistic “crash” to loss of biological differentiation and ecological diversity, some scholars argue that, just as animal and plant species are threatened, so too is the cultural and intellectual “logosphere” (Stover, 1997) that influences perceptions. (Wilson, 1992; Hale, 1992) Viewing languages as more than merely instrumental, they argue that each contains a Weltanschauung, or worldview, uniquely capturing ideas and potentially shaping experience. When such cognitive variation is lost, these theorists suggest, so are the thoughts that nourish it.

Andrew Woodfield, director of the Center for Theories of Language and Learning, takes this global depreciation argument a step further:

A language is not just a medium, a symbol-system or a code. It is also the repository of a cultural tradition, a way of living and of expressing which helps to convey a sense of identity upon its native-speakers.

Woodfield points out the difference between saving a language personally, for those whose survival systems depend on it, and impersonally, for cognition experts, descriptive linguists, and grammarians. Ken Hale suggests that “we would miss an enormous amount” if English were “the only language available as a basis for the study of general human grammatical competence.” Woodfield, on the other hand, sees this preservation-by-documentation argument as both political and economic:

Massive affirmative action — the establishment of government ministries, radio and TV stations, newspapers and books, cultural events, employment, bribes — might encourage a small tribe in America, Australia or Africa to carry on using its native language. This raises difficult ethical questions not only about the interests of the native people, but about the allocation of resources available for carrying out such actions.

Another argument addresses the question of language death from the “suicide or genocide” perspective. Crawford takes the middle ground, arguing that if “there must be complicity on the part of [the] speech community itself” to precipitate language shift, one cannot deny that “[d]estruction of lands and livelihoods, the spread of consumerism, individualism and other Western values, pressures for assimilation…and conscious policies of repression directed at indigenous groups” are salient factors with which to reckon.

Notwithstanding the fact that painful preservation decisions determining which languages are more potentially “interesting” (and therefore “worthy” of financial and economic support) lie ahead, the rush is on to get the linguistic traffic flowing. The United Nations’ Article 14 of its Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states:

Indigenous people have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

The Article adds an important mandate for states’ responsibility in this matter:

States shall take effective measures, whenever any right of indigenous people may be threatened, to ensure this right is protected and also to ensure that they can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary and through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.

Crawford sees this as the third, “human justice” approach to language preservation. Acknowledging broader questions of cultural survival, he notes that language death “does not happen in privileged communities. It happens to the dispossessed and disempowered who deserve preservation of not only their language, but of their self worth.” In other words, language survival dovetails with a people’s rights to its land, its intellectual property, and its maintenance of political sovereignty.

Although there is still no full-fledged theory of language maintenance and shift, in this issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly, contributors develop conceptual frameworks and provide fine-tuned ethnographic analysis based on fieldwork. They explore a variety of perspectives surrounding the nature of linguistic endangerment, and indicate ways by which revitalization efforts become compromised in the throes of “development” jargon. Their subjects range from debates surrounding language engineering and questions of comparison and modeling to the diverse nature of linguistic revival. Predictions on global language loss are invigorated by specific case studies that offer state-of-the-art information essential to further enquiry and research. Covering language planning and policy, certain authors call for more suppliers of translation, more documentation in the public and private sector, more indigenous accessibility to representation so that minority language rights will be state-protected. Boundaries of language and culture, problems of identity and separateness, policies regarding bilingual education, and the intersection of language and politics are all addressed.

One aspect deserving more theoretical attention has to do with consumer motivation. In light of the fact that the director of the Native Language Center at the University of Alaska predicted at least 20 language deaths per year during the next century, perhaps it is time to think radically, if not drastically. At a recent conference on language loss at the Centre for Language and Learning at the University of Bristol, Allan Wynne-Jones, recognizing the need for linguistic interaction, offered a management solution for saving Welsh. His four-step model contains idealism and protest, legitimacy and institutionalization, parallelism and equity, and finally, normalization, or shared aspiration to full bilingualism. Task initiatives like these, he suggested, could provide the necessary marketable “public face” for Welsh; in turn, they could secure linguistic respectability.

Although they may not translate to all threatened languages and groups, aspects of this platform deserve closer scrutiny. The first, activism (or idealism and protest), manifests in well-documented and frequently-considered cases, and it is not surprising that CTL seminar members reached a consensus that motivation, be it religious, idealistic, or ideological, is necessary at the outset of any language revitalization movement. (Woodfield, 1995)

A few examples prove enlightening. Irish-Gaelic, one of the six Celtic languages in the Indo-European family, was the majority language until the early 17(th) century. (...'Siad-hail, 1983) It has been argued that a common linguistic tradition spread from the southern-most tip of Ireland to the highlands of Scotland; bards transmitted linguistic heritage through narrative and music. With the arrival of the colonizing English, such transmission was disrupted; dialect distinctions arose, and English became the language of prestige — of government, politics, schooling, and material advancement. Irish retreated, eventually becoming “the almost exclusive property of the rural poor” (O’Siadhail, 1983), who, because of the Great Famine (1845-1850), either died or emigrated in numbers as high as three million. Despite repression at home and abroad, however, the language was able to survive one of the world’s great linguistic diasporas. In Australian and American dictionaries and on the tongues of hyphenated descendants, anglicized Irish words such as galore (go leor, plenty), smithereens (smideríní, bits), colleen (cailín, girl), whiskey (uisce beatha, lit. water of life), so long (slán, farewell, health), and smashing (is maith sin, that’s good) appeared.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a movement to restore Irish was popularized by Douglas Hyde, founder of The Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge). His hope “to keep alive our once great national tongue” (Hyde, 1892 [1986]) eventually played a significant role in the struggle for Irish independence. After the founding of the Republic, official government policy attempted to make Irish the vernacular of the majority and to preserve Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking areas) on the fringes of the island. Some scholars have suggested that Hyde’s movement was an example of too much, too little, or too late. In 1925, 257,000 Irish speakers were estimated to reside in the Gaeltacht, 12,000 of whom were monoglots. Today, fewer than 30,000 speak Irish, and none is monoglot. In the Galltacht (areas outside Gaeltachtaí), Irish declined due to the fact that the educational system was entrusted with responsibility for revival. Teachers had neither the proper training nor the motivation, and to this day, many Irish confess that they hated having to study Irish in school. Of primary importance, of course, was the issue of negative prestige; few positive linguistic ideologies were utilized to serve as models or to offset persistent colonialist devaluation.

On the other hand, Hyde’s charismatic influence reverberates still. In the last ten years, social and political transformations have occurred, suggesting a reversal of earlier dire predictions, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and recent United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, introduced Irish into her public persona, refusing to reserve it for stately occasions and governmental rituals. Ireland’s socio-economic situation has altered to such an extent that it is now called “the Celtic Tiger,” having gone from the status of“beggar of Europe” to become the European country with the fastest growing economy and the youngest population. At Oideas Gael, a language learning program for adults in Southwest Donegal, Hyde’s legacy is renewed in a holistic learning experience which attempts to reproduce the natural linguistic learning environment through dance, folklore, poetry, song, and instrument-playing.

In addition, efforts continue to make Irish stand on an equal par with the languages of Europe, and Irish women and men traveling abroad find themselves speaking their native tongue with pride instead of shame. Moreover, the movement has grown to international proportions; ever greater numbers meet via an Irish “virtual community” on the Internet.

In the North of Ireland, an activist by the name of Bobby Sands was jailed for political protest in the early 1980s. He began to speak Irish in his cell as a means of calling attention to his political status. Fellow prisoners followed suit; soon the language movement leaped the prison walls, finding kin spirits in homes and neighborhoods. Eventually, demands for parity of esteem brought bilingual signs to Belfast streets and Irish language learning to Queens University. Before the ink was dry on the Northern Ireland Peace Accords, a plethora of Irish language classes had sprung up all across the six Northern counties; ironically, linguistic contagion then spread southward. Now, with “80 [percent of the population] express[ing] a positive attitude towards Irish” (O’Connor, 2000), upwardly-mobile parents in the Republic, who once eschewed their own Irish education, are sending their children to highly-prestigious Gaelscoileanna (all-Irish schools), where all subjects are taught through the medium of Irish. When siblings return home speaking a “mother tongue” not spoken — or in some cases not even understood — by parents, the latter seek night schooling, as one parent confessed, to “keep up with our children.” Currently, there are over 150 officially-recognized primary and secondary Gaelscoileanna, and double that number of all-Irish preschools. In these and other quarters, Irish can boast esteem and privilege, respectable qualities it lacked in the past.

The revival of Hebrew as a key to membership in Jewish nationhood is another case in point. Shortly after activist Ben Yehuda inspired Jerusalem families and Zionist youth to use only Hebrew, the language began to be heard, not only in classrooms, but in streets, on roadways, and in homes. Inspired by Yehuda’s belief in the ideology of cultural nationalism, which purported an intrinsic link between language and nation, parents, children, and educators brought about what seemed to be a spontaneous “leap” to Hebrew. (Nahir, 1988)

Charismatic efforts like those of Douglas Hyde, Ben Yehuda, and Bobby Sands cannot in and of themselves preserve and maintain a language. As many scholars in this collection of essays affirm, multi-pronged efforts must be undertaken: language activists must be willing to share effective methodologies; they must be willing to fail and to try again. They must be willing to acknowledge that their activism, their protests, and their idealism may not contain enough overall sustenance to keep incipient language movements alive.

On the other hand, they must also be sensitive to the fact that individual charismatic efforts have been instrumental in reviving Hebrew in Israel. In the Irish case, Douglas Hyde was effective in keeping language death at bay, giving Irish enough of an impetus at the turn of the last century to preserve it for current revitalization in this one. In addition to the methodologies described so eloquently in these pages, it is important to keep in mind that more case studies might enable us to proffer a motivational theory of language revitalization. Specifically, further scholarship might inquire into how initial endeavors of charismatic motivation are sustained and routinized in institutional forms, how they have produced reversals of what once seemed to be inevitable outcomes, and how they have provided a glimmer of hope for others hoping to undo “doom” rhetoric. After all, Irish and Hebrew were supposed to die. Both are beyond first gear, sustained by those who believe, like Irish-language enthusiasts around the world, that “Is fiú agus is féidir”: It’s worthwhile and it’s possible.


I wish to acknowledge the contributors to this issue, all of whom worked most diligently over the past few months to bring it to fruition. Appreciation is extended to Kenneth Hale; Judith T. Irvine; Jean Jackson; Richard Parmentier, and Séamus Pender. Special thanks to Liam O’Cuinneagáin, Director of Oideas Gael, Gleann Cholmcille, County Donegal, Ireland. A great debt of gratitude is owed to Deidre d’Entremont, general Editor of the Cultural Survival Quarterly, for her sustained patience and support.

References and further reading

Brosnahan, L. (1963). Some Historical Cases of Language Imposition. In Language in Africa. Spencer, J., Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp 20.

Crawford, J. (1994). Endangered Native American Languages: What Is to Be Done, and Why? Dorian, N.C. (1998). Western Language

Ideologies and Small Language Prospects. In Endangered Languages: Current Issues and Future Prospects. Grenoble, L. & Whaley, L.J., Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp 3-21.

Grillo, R.D. (1989). Dominant Languages: Language and Hierarchy in Britain and France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hale, K. (1992). Language Endangerment and the Human Value of Linguistic Diversity. Language 68, pp 4-10.

Hyde, D. (1892 [1986]). The Necessity for de-Anglicizing Ireland. In Douglas Hyde: Language, Lore and Lyrics. ... Conaire, B., Ed. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. Pp 153-170.

Koop, D. (1999). Languages Dying Out as Planet Globalizes. News From Indian Country 13:10.

Murdoch, R. (1994, October 21). Lecture 11(th) Annual John Boynton Lecture delivered in Melbourne, Australia. Cited in The Australian. Pp 11.

Nahir, M. (1988). Language Planning and Language Acquisition: The Great Leap in the Hebrew Revival. In International Handbook of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Paulson, C.B., Ed. New York: Greenwood Press. Pp 275-295.

O’Connor, B. (2000). The Fall and Rise of the Irish Language. World of Hibernia 6:2, pp 92.

...'Siadhail, M. (1983). Learning Irish. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Raymond, J. (1998, September 14). Say What? Preserving Endangered Languages. Newsweek.

Stover, D. (1997). Endangered Speech. Popular Science 25:1.

Woodfield, A. (1995, May 2). Center for Theories of Language and Learning (CTL) Seminar Report: The Conservation of Endangered Languages. BristolU.K.

Wurm, S. (1991). Language Death and Disappearance: Causes and Circumstances. In Endangered Languages. Robins, R.H. & Uhlenbeck, E., Eds. Oxford: Berg. Pp 1-18.

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