Specks on the world map – making endangered languages visible

by Chris Moseley, UCL, FAVOR project tutor

I’ve been involved with small and vanishing languages for a couple of decades now, ever since I wrote a Master’s thesis on Livonian, a language of Latvia that has disappeared from the ranks of the world’s mother-tongues now but is still spoken by a band of second-language enthusiasts of Livonian heritage. For most of that time I’ve been involved with the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a small international charity based here in Britain, and currently I edit its newsletter Ogmios. Since I became the editor of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger in 2009, I’ve been introducing the Atlas at various international venues – and it’s a chastening experience always, because no matter how much you think you know about threatened languages, there is always so much more to learn. Mostly from Western-educated scholars, but every now and then I come face to face with the native speakers of tiny languages that seem to be on the point of oblivion. It’s a subject that never allows you to be complacent or feel that your knowledge is complete. The Atlas presents each endangered language as a coloured speck on its maps, coloured according to the degree of threat to it.

In June this year I was invited to a workshop in Cambridge run by the World Oral Literature Project (WOLP), an organisation that exists to archive and preserve recordings and artefacts of the world’s unwritten linguistic cultures. It was founded and is still run by Mark Turin, a passionate enthusiast for preserving oral cultural traditions who used to run the Digital Himalaya project in Nepal. This workshop was one of several that the WOLP has run, and they have been very receptive and supportive of the idea of the UNESCO Atlas. I had an opportunity to present the Atlas along with Anahit Minasyan, the project leader from the Endangered Languages section of UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. (You can find out more about the Atlas directly from the source, www.unesco.org/culture, or by reading the Occasional Paper on the subject that the WOLP has just published, or my account of it in the LanguageBox on-line as part of the FAVOR project.)

But what was fascinating for me was the company I kept there. I won’t easily forget the eagerness of a Sudanese woman in the audience, for instance, to make me aware of yet another threatened language that UNESCO seems to have neglected so far, Bedawi (or Beja), and how my conversation with her after the talk was mingled with one with a Hungarian scholar with similar concerns for the nomadic Evenki people of Siberia and their vanishing language. A generation or so ago, both of these peoples and their languages seemed to have a future that was reasonably secure, but they are threatened with disappearing before our eyes – in the case of Bedawi, because of the decimating effect of the war in Sudan on their livelihood, and in the Evenki case because the Russian hunger for exploiting natural resources is destroying their way of life. It might only take a generation to snuff out a language.

My own paper was an attempt to find out whether there is a link between being unwritten and being endangered. But the other papers given at the workshop were concerned with so many other aspects of language preservation: practical aspects of mapping and geospatial tools; publishing records of oral cultures; making the world’s scripts accessible; and the ever increasing sophistication of oral language archiving methods. At the University of Hawaii, a vast new Endangered Language Catalog is getting under way as a valuable information resource about the languages under threat around the world.

It’s gratifying to see that awareness of the fragility of the world’s smaller languages seems to be growing. Just in the same week as the Cambridge workshop, Google launched its Endangered Language Project, showing videos of speakers of many little-spoken languages around the world, and giving useful information about endangered languages and their plight on the home page to the average Google user. And now, the July 2012 issue of the National Geographic has published a sumptuously illustrated feature article about language endangerment, with snapshots of several languages on the point of extinction and the lives of their speakers. All this is a sign of healthy curiosity and concern about this threat to diversity in the world.

Basically there are two kinds of practitioner in the scholarly world of endangered languages. There are the active campaigners, who prepare reading and teaching materials to make sure the languages are passed on to the next generation; and there are the documenters, who see their task as to record as much of a language for posterity as possible before it dies. The future users of those records might be the descendants of the last speakers themselves, rather than merely foreign scholars. Both of these groups are very important. Look at the state of Cornish today, for instance – it seems to be dormant, but it does have a loyal band of enthusiast heritage speakers, who can rely on the carefully preserved written records of their language to learn it and keep it alive, even with artificial resuscitation. In the Atlas that I edit, UNESCO has a system of colour-coding to indicate five degrees of endangerment, from Vulnerable to Extinct, and when it was first published in 2009, this edition caused an uproar among those Cornish activists by labelling the language Extinct, with a black mark. We were forced to think again, and create a new category – Revived. How nice it would be to use that category in many more cases.