Speed dating to save minority languages

There’s an art collective in Belarus that is offering speed dating evenings on the condition that all participants speak Belarussian, that minority language in its own country and one not much loved by the authorities. This news footage (in Belarussian, but I think mainly intelligible to Russian and Polish speakers) offers some of the participants’ perspectives.

I suppose this would work well in a capital like Minsk, which draws people from the villages, and where people plan to stay put. I don’t think that such initiatives would do much good for most minority languages, which are facing not only a population that feels somewhat ashamed of the language, but which are affected by much larger demographic collapse. That native-language disco night in a small Mari town might draw a few young people who will listen to music in Mari for a few hours and maybe even speak the language, but they are still looking to move to the big city or even Moscow where there is zero chance they will be able to preserve their language.

The official position of Chuvash is a joke

At LiveJournal there’s a bold new blog called Пĕртанлăх ‘Equality’ consisting of photographs of signage in Chuvashia, which aims to show just how little the Chuvash language is visible in public spaces in spite of its recognition as an official language of the republic. Take, for example, the following photograph of a rubbish bin. The irony is that the park bench next to it has a Chuvash folk motif, showing some kind of ethnic consciousness, but both sides of the bin have For a clean city written only in Russian:Photograph of a monolingual (Russian) rubbish bin in Chuvashia, taken from the Pertanlah blog

This post compares a Cheboksary advertisement for 2014 as the Russian Federation Year of Culture, written only in Russian, with an analogous advertisement in Kazan’ which has a Tatar translation as well.

Not all of the photographs are dismal, though. There are a number of photographs of local businesses putting Chuvash words on their signage as at least ethnographic colour. I was extremely surprised to see that the Russian-wide bank Sberbank translated their timetable into Chuvash.

Tatar and Finno-Ugrian separatism real or supposed

The Mari news site MariUver has reposted an interesting article originally published at PolitRUS about a recent political conference in Russia, which I’ve translated from Russian below. There’s an element of conspiracy ravings here; the “expert in Islamic studies” Suleymanov has drawn criticism for his claims of Tatar extremism. The last paragraph reveals something of opinions held within Russia on the Mari, Mordvin and Udmurt emigrants who have been of such help to Finno-Ugrists at European universities.

The West is Evaluating the Possibility of Supporting Islamic Separatists in the Volga Region

The issue of drawing NATO countries’ attention to outbreaks of national separatism and Islamic terrorism in the Volga Region was one of the main themes of the Sixth All-Russian Conference of Applied Studies “Наука молодых” (Study of Youth) which was held on December 18 in Arzamas (Nizhny Novgorod oblast). The conference was organized by the A. P. Gajdar Arzamas State Pedagogical Institute and drew participation from scholars and experts from neighbouring oblasts and republics. Attendees were especially interested in talks by researchers from Tatarstan, where over the last year the situation of religious extremism and national separatism has been sharpened.

As Rais Suleymanov, the director of the Volga Centre for Regional and Ethnoreligious Research РИСИ explained, starting with the “Nurlat episode” (a special forces operation to liquidate a group of armed militants in the Nurlat region of Tatarstan on November 25, 2010), as of December 2012 Tatarstan has been visited by journalists and political analysts from France, the United States, Great Britain, Holland, Poland and other countries. There have even been visitors from Australia and Brazil.

In the opinion of Suleymanov, such visits are not coincidental: Arriving under the pretext of being reporters, scholars and analysts, our Western guests often come not because of an interest in journalism or research, but in order to gather information about how serious the problem of the Volga Region becoming a hotspot is.

At the same time, in the words of this specialist in Islamic studies, the Western experts that he has met with personally use a special “methodology of communication”. Besides, the very existence of greater interest in this subject and the overwhelming desire to meet with separatists and fundamentalists speaks to the fact that the West is evaluating the possibility of financing and providing informational support to the Islamist underground and nationalists in Tatarstan, Suleymanov stated. He added that in this context one should look to the activities of journalists from the Qatar television network Al Jazeera, which has a branch in Kazan.

In addition to Suleymanov’s talk, his colleague Vasily Ivanov noted that the international terrorist organization Muslim Brotherhood through its agents in Russia has also shown an interest in Finno-Ugrian nationalist movements.

Ivanov gave his own talk titled “Finno-Ugrian separatism in the Volga Region: its ideology, the extent of its spread and foreign influences”. Analysing outbreaks of Finno-Ugrian separatism in Russia at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the researcher pointed to the support that Mari, Mordvin and Udmurt nationalists receive today from Finland, Hungary and Estonia.

The situation is becoming more serious because anti-Russian propaganda is published on the internet by people studying in institutes of higher education in those countries — undergraduates, graduate students and PhD candidates from the Volga republics at universities in the European Union, Ivanov underlined.

The fate of Karelian

The major Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat recently featured an article on the state of the Finnic languages in Russia, and the English-language web edition offers a translation:

A battle. That is the word that Zinaida Dubinina is using.

Dubinina is fighting a battle in the bedroom of her home in the village of Kotkatjärvi in Russian Karelia.

At her desk she has committed her most important acts in order to save her native language: translated the entire Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, as well as parts of the Bible into Karelian.

Dubinina’s choice of words is dramatic, but her struggle is a real one. A defeat in the battle would mean a death-blow to the Karelian language and culture.

I do not honestly know what will happen to the Karelian language, she quitely contemplates.

It is not a very in-depth article and says little that many linguaphiles don’t already know, but it’s always good to have more coverage of these peoples in the mainstream press.

A reading list for language death

Since the turn of the millennium there have been a number of books dealing with language death and the problem of protecting the world’s diversity of languages from the forces of globalization. Some of these are meant for undergraduates, while others want to communicate the problem to the man on the street. Here I’ve compiled a list of the ones that I’ve read. I’ve reviewed them all at Amazon if you want to see my detailed impressions of each book.

  • David Crystal, Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2002) ISBN 0521012716. This is meant for an educated audience with some prior training in linguistics.
  • Daniel Nettle & Suzanne Romaine, Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages (Oxford University Press, 2000) ISBN 0195152468. This is meant for undergraduates with only a basic linguistics background.
  • Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (Mariner Books, 2005) ISBN 0618565833. This is written for a mass audience. Unfortunately, the author seems to have no formal training in linguistics and the book contains numerous errors and misunderstandings of the field.
  • K. David Harrison, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2008) ISBN 0195372069. Here the author describes the problem and his work for an educated readership with some passion for the subject, but no more than basic undergraduate linguistics. In writing this book, the author draws on his personal experience with Siberian Turkic languages.
  • K. David Harrison, The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages (National Geographic, 2010) ISBN 1426204612. This one is targeted towards the general public. It revisits many of the same topics as Harrison’s earlier book, but depicts the author and his peers as almost Indiana Jones-type figures in an attempt to get the layman’s attention.
  • Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) ISBN 0631233067. The author hoped to reach a mass audience with this book, but the jargon and transcription choices will probably scare off most people and it looks like another book most suitable for assigned reading for undergraduates. Examples are drawn mostly from the Australian indigenous languages.

There’s a couple of other books that I’m aware of but haven’t yet read:

So that’s eight books in the last 12 years, and I’m sure there’s more I’ve not discovered yet. Whether they are popular or academic, each of them has competition, and the same general background is repeated across them all. Therefore the readership must be larger than I imagine if publishers are willing to put out another such book.

Besides these grim discussions of the threat to language diversity, there are also a surprising amount of general introductions to the subject of language revitalization, which I may list in a future post.

The field of linguistics and non-linguistic heritage

The September 2009 (Volume 85, Number 3) issue of Language features a series of articles on the controversial relationship between the academy and the Christian missionary organization SIL International. The authors make some good points on the problems inherent in relying so much on an organization with an agenda beyond saving languages, and one that has shown shifting priorities, but they suggest that linguists must have an agenda of their own going beyond languages. In ‘Practical language development: Whose mission?’ Dobrin and Good write:

But academic linguists—especially those who encounter missionaries in the course of their fieldwork—at times contend that missionary activities are at odds with their professional goals of supporting cultural and linguistic diversity.

Linguistic diversity, sure, but cultural diversity? I’m troubled by this suggestion that linguists, specifically in their work as linguists, must be concerned with preserving aspects of culture separate from language. If linguists don’t even agree that it is worthwhile to save all endangered languages, as when Ladefoged suggested that the disappearance of Dahalo might be a good thing inasmuch as its speakers were choosing to abandon it, then linguists certainly cannot be expected to approve of aspects of culture beyond language. As a Christian (though not of the SIL variety), I don’t wish to lend support to the survival of indigenous religious beliefs. And I’m met more than one linguist who believes that Western common-practice tonality is the apex of music and indigenous musical traditions are just so much noise. And is it not obvious that many of us will not wish to preserve practices that contradict universal human rights, regardless of how deeply ingrained they are in a culture?

Certainly protection of minority languages leads many to support at least one extra-linguistic matter: political and perhaps financial empowerment, since the survival of a language in low-prestige conditions is unlikely. This empowerment may allow the survival of other aspects of culture, but that shouldn’t be the goal of specifically linguistic undertakings, and I reject the suggestion that linguists are obliged to celebrate practices and beliefs they don’t like.

The authors here warn against relying on SIL, as tempting as their help is, yet as Courtney Handman’s paper notes, linguists have widely supported UNESCO’s campaign to protect minority languages, even though this campaign imposes the obligation of celebrating a people’s entire ‘intangible cultural heritage’. If linguists accept the extra-linguistic goals of one organization while voicing concern about the extra-linguistic goals of another, then it seems Kenneth Olson is right when he writes, in his paper defending SIL, that often the controversy around SIL often revolves around dislike of its specific message.

The upside of language death?

Somehow I missed John McWhorter’s article ‘The Cosmopolitan Tongue: the universality of English’ in the World Affairs Journal last autumn. McWhorter’s contribution is a standard description of the increasing rate of language death and what exactly is being lost, but he tries to look on the bright side that at least peoples that are losing their language are gaining access to a higher quality of life.

Or are they? I take issue with McWhorter’s optimistic view of the circumstances.

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. … The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies

Language death does not always occur in situations where people are given better access to quality of life. The forced resettlement of Russia’s nomadic arctic people, such as the Nganasan, in miserable villages rife with alcoholism and unemployment hasn’t made things better for them, but instead it has diminished their ability to provide for themselves in spite of their new contact with Russian-speaking society, and the demographics speak for themselves. And can one seriously claim that the Cherokee, settled farmers living alongside European immigrants with the same standard of living, were gaining a better quality of life in the events that set their people towards extinction? Language death is just as often a consequence of things going horribly wrong as it is of warm international togetherness.

Minority language song contest

CNN featured yesterday an article about the Liet International song competition, where contestants sing in European minority languages.

Since being established in Friesland in 2002, Liet International has become a hub of the minority language music scene. If that sounds niche, it’s worth noting that there are estimated to be almost 50 million minority or regional language speakers in Europe. Liet International casts its net for contestants across the entire continent.

In purely musical terms, the event also offers a kaleidoscopic antidote to the Eurovision Song Contest, in which the lingua franca is cheesy English-language pop. This year, other finalists represented genres as diverse as Sami metal, Occitan electronica, Celtic power pop and cultures from Karelian in the Arctic north to Sardinian in the Mediterranean south.

Sammallahti in profile

The international edition of Helsingin Sanomat continues to offer material for people interested in the Uralic languages with a profile of Pekka Sammallahti, the foremost living scholar of the Sámi languages and the author of what is for many students the way into the field, The Saami Languages: An Introduction.

The bit on language preservation is interesting:

From the language perspective, however, the situation looks quite as grim as the future of our dwindling biodiversity.

It has been predicted that by the end of this century 95 per cent of the world’s languages will have died out.

Sammallahti is therefore annoyed by the fact that today’s researchers more and more concentrate on theoretical issues.

‘There are plenty of philologists in the world, but the majority of them study dominant languages, such as English and French. The main emphasis should be in documenting endangered languages.’

Sammallahti practices what he preaches: among other things he has edited the Northern Sámi–Finnish and Northern Sámi–German dictionaries.

The idea that Chomsky has led us to a kind of English-only navel-gazing is an old one, and I’ve read many reports that this 1970s-era order is being swept away. Certainly most of the linguists I encounter are passionate about insights gained from little-known languages.

K. David Harrison, When Languages Die

Harrison, David K. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-19-518192-0.

Every two weeks, a language dies. Over the past several years there have been several books written about this sad phenomenon, ranging from popular works such as Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages to more academic coverage like Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. K. David Harrison’s When Languages Die has a universal appeal. The author, a professor of linguistics at Swathmore College, writes in an approachable style that emphasizes the human element of language death, the last speakers of languages who feel great pain at their loss, while giving a rigorous argument for language preservation.

One common point in favor of language preservation is that certain possibilities of human language are found only in small indigenous languages, and were they not attested there, we would not know the human brain could accept such features. Urarina, a language spoken in the Amazon that has OVS word order, is the standard example and is present here. Harrison, however, gives some original arguments. His fieldwork has taken him to several smaller populations of Eastern Europe, Siberia, the Philippines and Mongolia. He has visited populations who maintain a traditional way of life with complex folk techniques. Harrison’s first argument for language preservation is that the switch from an indigenous language and its useful terminology for local industry to an outside language creates inefficiency. He observes that older reindeer herders among Siberian peoples speaking their own language are able to express themselves about their duties much more concisely than a younger generation speaking Russian, who must resort to circumlocution. I like this argument. It does not resort to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines what you can say, for the younger generation can still speak of the details of reindeer herding, but it sees value in a language that can encode such information more efficiently.

Harrison’s second argument for action against language death is that traditional languages pass down useful knowledge through the generations simply by being used, and this knowledge is lost through adopting an outside language. He gives exhaustive coverage of various calendar systems throughout the world, where names for months are tied to the agriculture or hunting cycle. Simply by growing up speaking such a language, a young person is endowed with knowledge of the plant cycle or the breeding habits of local wildlife. He gives examples of Siberian populations who no longer remember details of certain natural phenonmenon because they have lost their traditional calendar and use only the Russian one. While in many cases this is applicable, this argument doesn’t hold when local peoples simply cease caring about traditional views of the natural environment. The same forces which encourage language shift, industrialization and urbanization, are those which tend to replace traditional ways of life altogether. When people are living in large blocks of flats in the city, going to work in offices or factories, is the traditional calendar any more meaningful than the new one?

In fact, this ties into one major objection I have to pleas for language preservation as usually formulated. As linguists, we can agree that languages are interesting and worthy of preservation. We might agree that some of what indigenous populations do, such as their agricultural lore, should be preserved. However, I don’t see how we must all believe that all indigenous ways of life are worth maintaining. This is especially true with regards to religion. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, religion is usually an issue of what is right against what is falsehood, and it doesn’t make sense to call for relativism. Have some priorities here, people. While less critical of missionary efforts than other books on this subject, even Harrison succumbs to this, writing on page 153 ‘We should be sensitive to the impending loss of so many more religions and worldviews as languages die.’ I would like to make linguistics my life’s work, but there’s no way I buy that.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of the speakers of threatened languages and with various diagrams. The author even includes sign languages alongside spoken languages, which no other work on the subject to my knowledge has done. Of the books I’ve read on the general phenomenon of language death and the worthiness of language preservation, Harrison’s When Languages Die is, while by no means perfect, probably the best.