Top Ten Endangered Languages

Peter Austin recently asked for top 10 endangered language lists. Here’s mine, done just about completely off the top of my head, but with some justificatory comments.

  1. Navajo: important for linguistic theory, important in the Indigenous civil rights movement, the resources for Navajo are a model for others, and native-speaker-linguists from the Navajo Nation have been important role models (and kick-ass linguists)
  2. Mapuche Mapudungún: important for the recognition of Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights, since they took Microsoft to court over an unauthorised software translation.
  3. Jarawara [Andamans]: Their self-enforced isolation is an extreme form of anti-assimilation which should be respected (and conversely the ‘reserve’ that the Indian government has set aside is a reminder that the rhetoric of endangered languages and endangered species are never far apart, and each has strong and weak points).
  4. Ganalbiŋu: Because they didn’t compromise in translating the movie Ten Canoes but instead presented it with subtitles. (For this reason, the Bunuba people who worked on the Jandamarra film would also qualify, as would several other language groups, but I only get to pick 10)
  5. Miami: because of their successful revitalisation program and the determination of its participants. From what I’ve heard, what they did was basically find all the field notes and publications they could, and they studied them, puzzled it all out, and has a hard-core program where they spoke nothing else, no matter how it was, all the time, and especially to Miami kids.
  6. Ingush: because there are far more speakers of Ingush in exile than in Ingushetia; a reminder of the linguistic consequence of political turmoil.
  7. !Kung
  8. Bangani: These two languages (and their families) are important for historical linguistics. !Kung as a representative of one of the languages spoken in southern Africa before the Bantu expansion, and Bangani because of the intrigue surrounding possible centum reflexes in this group. Endangered languages, historical linguistics, academic skull-duggery and mystery…
  9. Pirahã: because of claims about universality. Of course, all languages bring up these questions but Pirahã has been probably the most high profile and the most hotly argued, and has brought up questions not only of linguistic universals but also cultural and cognitive constraints on language.
  10. Bardi: It’s my list and Bardi has been very important for me as a linguist, not only in what I work on but how I approach linguistics, fieldwork and theory.

6 responses to “Top Ten Endangered Languages

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden

    I was shocked by this:

    Mapuche: important for the recognition of Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights, since they took Microsoft to court over an unauthorised software translation.

    Are you seriously supporting the idea that a small unelected group have the right to “authorise” or not the translation of a work whose copyright they do not own into a particular language? Would you support the Real Academía Española if it used its authority, respected throughout the Spanish-speaking world, to assert that they had the right to decide what could or could not be translated into Spanish?

    There are many reasons to attack Microsoft, but this is not one of them. There is no doubt whatever that they hold all the publication rights on their operating system.

    In any case this was not a dispute about translation but about orthography. After interminable wrangling between different Mapuche factions about the orthography to be used for writing Mapudungún, Microsoft got tired of waiting and decided to use the system that seemed to have the greatest number of supporters.

    Which party do you think was doing the most to endanger the continued existence of Mapudungún, a large and in many ways obnoxious international company that spent time, effort and money on releasing their operating system in a language spoken by a small minority of Chileans — an exercise very unlikely to represent increased profits for Microsoft, or the people who tried to prevent this?

    As it happens I was in Valdivia (outside the principal region where Mapudungún is a living language, but close to it) on the day this story broke, and I had the opportunity to read about it in El Diario Austral de Valdivia. Although one must of course be cautious about taking Spanish-speaking reporters’ word for the general view of Mapuches, they did try to get some Mapuche opinions, and found them to be the commonsense views one would expect: people were surprised that Microsoft should go to so much trouble, but pleased that they thought it worth their while to do it; they saw it as welcome recognition of Mapudungún, not as an attack on it.

    Finally, although it is quite normal in non-linguistic contexts to refer to Mapudungún (the language of the earth) as Mapuche (the people of the earth), it’s seems inappropriate for a linguist.

  2. As a general rule, no, I’m not a big fan of prescriptivism, nor of limiting access to knowledge. But I am a fan of self-determination and I’m all in favour of recognising that cultural differences extend to the management of cultural knowledge, including language.

    As a linguist, of course I believe that linguistic diversity is good, that it’s encouraged by efforts such as the production of accessible software and other language resources. But I also know that most of the world doesn’t have the same view of languages as linguists do, and that as a professional I can advise on what activities might promote or inhibit language use and transmission, but language and culture decisions rest with the speech community. If the speech community is large, these questions resolve themselves rather differently from if the community is very small, just because of the level of accessibility of the information to start off with.

    The reason Mapudungún is on the list is not ultimately for the specifics of that case. Same for Jarawara and several of the other languages. It’s because they have brought a specific aspect of language, culture, or minority rights to more general attention. In particular, it got people talking (however briefly) about individual intellectual property rights and the treatment of ownership rights on language vs material culture. It made it clear that these issues are not at all straightforward. Is that really so very shocking?

    (Thank you for the information on Mapuche vs Mapudungún (and its myriad spellings). I have seen them used interchangeably in the linguistics literature too, fwiw.)

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden

    Thank you for your reply: “shocked” was perhaps too strong a world. I didn’t really think you were advocating prescriptivism but rather that you had fallen too easily into a spot of Microsoft-bashing (something I’ve done myself on occasion). When I first knew of this dispute my first reaction was the same as yours, but on reading about it in El Diario Austral de Valdivia I realized that it was not a simple matter of a big international company trampling on the rights of indigenous people.

    Lots of people in Chile use Mapuche as the name of the language. I don’t think its speakers do, however, and the only non-Mapuche I’ve met who was making a serious (but not very successful) effort to learn it didn’t either.

  4. I think you mean Jarawa. Jarawara is an Amazonian language.

  5. David Marjanović

    What that lawsuit was really about, or so I hear, is that Microsoft picked one of the competing orthographies and thus took a side in a more or less political battle, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a rather bad idea.

  6. Pingback: Endangered Languages and Cultures » Blog Archive » Top 10 Endangered Languages

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