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Posted by wmmbb in Social Environment.

There are many ways of living in the world. There are particular problems for isolated languages with few speakers submerged within oceans of dominant languages. So why are indigineous languages important, and why should they be preserved? Randoph E Schmid of Associated Press quoting the American linguist K David Harrison suggests the following:

Losing languages means losing knowledge . . .”When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.That means, if the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind, he said.

Harrison is associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Ore. He and institute director Gregory D.S. Anderson analyzed the top regions for disappearing languages.

Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he explained, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more useful.

The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is getting a new generation of speakers. He said the institute worked with local communities and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the endangered language.

Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world’s population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world’s people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.

Naturally Australia features as one of the world’s hot spots for endangered languages:

• Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal Australia holds some of the world’s most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag.

• Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, very little documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.

• Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S., 54 languages. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.

• Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan — 23 languages. Government policies in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages and, as a result, some have only a few elderly speakers.

• Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico — 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent.

There is quite a pattern of integration through social dominance of very small groups, not supported by governments and with little access to media platforms, such as radio stations


David Tiley takes up the issue at Barista dealing specifically with the Australian cases and the politics of documentary film making. David makes reference to Dr Claire Bowern and her blog, Anggarrgoon.

Somewhere there should be a map showing the linguistic distributions of  the major Australian language groups.

UPDATE: 22 February 2009

ABC Online reported yesterday that 100 indigenous languages were in danger of extinction:

The latest edition of UNESCO’s atlas of world languages in danger was launched in Paris yesterday and shows almost half the 6,700 languages spoken worldwide could disappear.

Sarah Cutfield from the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies says the map is a great resource for those working to preserve traditional languages.

She says there is still hope for languages such as Dalabon – from south-western Arnhem Land – as long as it is passed on to the next generation.

“There’s only about five fluent speakers of Dalabon that are still remaining and they’re spread throughout the Territory,” she said.

“So there’s a lot that needs to be done to document this language before these elderly speakers pass away.”

It is interesting to observe that the atlas of indigenous language is a project of the UN, not the Australian Government.

Let me consider a generalization that might have some truth, or at minimum insight. It seems to me that political power and arrogance toward other peoples cultures, other peoples humanity, goes hand in hand. We start by destroying their communities, and their capacities to adapt to a new a new social, economic and cultural environment. We do not know, or have forgotten how difficult cultural change is so we adopt what is thought of the most efficient way of violence without considering what that does to the people involved. Once you establish a relationship of power, the possibility of mutual respect becomes less possible, if not impossible. (I am led to these thoughts by wondering why it is that minority ethnic groups are, as I believe to be the case, disproportionately represented in prison populations.)



1. lisa - September 20, 2007

Good post. According to Wade Davis (Feb 2003 TED talk) one language dies every 2 weeks. Really worth listening to his whole talk if you want to know more about this too!

2. wmmbb - September 20, 2007

Sometimes, just sometimes, the creative spirit of the blog(o)sphere works. Thank you Lisa.. That is a wonderful link.

3. wmmbb - September 20, 2007

. . . and thank you to Crikey for the reference. Here is me thinking that nobody would be interested!

4. aa - September 20, 2007

Untrue, untrue wmmbb. There are many of us out here who are interested and I for one will be picking up the link and probably putting in our Newsletter, though there was also a report about it on the ABC.

5. Peter Austin - September 23, 2007

If you are interested in this topic ave a look at http://www.hrelp.org or http://www.mpi.nl/dobes or http://www.neh.gov/grants/guidelines/del.html. At these websites you will see descriptions of hundreds of projects quietly doing similar work, many of them in much closer collaboration with communities and with much more focus on language revitalisation and support than the project recently reported on by Associated Press.

6. wmmbb - September 24, 2007

Thank you for the references Professor Austin. You references are now available here be taken up by others. I am a mere blogger. Thank you also for your further comment, because often as news consumers our information is limited to the news reports.

7. salon de thé paris - October 13, 2012

Hi there i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anywhere, when i read this piece of
writing i thought i could also make comment due to this good paragraph.

wmmbb - October 13, 2012

Thanks for the comment Kavin. As people often say here, “no worries” – if that makes sense.

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