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From: Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
20th February 2009

Unesco has just published the latest version on its Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger edited by Christopher Moseley (the original 1996 and 2001 editions were edited by the late Stephen A. Wurm). The on-line interactive version of the Atlas is now available and the book version is due out soon. There is also a downloadable map in .pdf format (warning, it's 20 Mbytes in size and unless you have access to a very large monitor or printer it is not terribly usable).

The editorial group who assisted Moseley is a veritable who's who of specialists in endangered languages, including 27 experts from 13 named regions, supplemented by 6 specialists who provided "complementary information on specific areas". Having spoken to several of the contributors personally (including one colleague I met in Tokyo last week), it appears that preparation of the database underlying the Atlas was not all harmony and light and resulted in some disagreements among contributors. Not so unusual in endangered languages research, I guess.

I had a little cruise around the interactive presentation, which uses a Google Maps interface and noticed quite a few oddities in regions where I have a little knowledge. Perhaps readers of this blog will notice more. There is a "Contribute your comments" link to the website but it appears to be broken because all it does is display the same page. There doesn't seem to be anywhere one could point out apparent errors to Unesco and the editor, however it is possible to comment on individual listed languages by clicking on their "pin" on the Google Map and going to the "Comments" tab in the information that pops up. The comment then disappears and where it goes is not at all clear.

Here are a few other things I noticed:

  • not a single signed language appears in the listing of endangered languages for any area of the world (type "sign" into the search box and you'll get "0 language(s) correspond to your search")
  • the focus of the Atlas seems to be on cataloguing dying languages and essentialising all the listed languages into one of five categories. There is nothing in the FAQ page about language revival and reclamation. In fact, to take a local UK example, according to the FAQ, Manx (Isle of Man) became "extinct in 1974, with the death of Ned Maddrell". This has been picked up and promoted on at least one well-known blog however looking carefully at the UK map listing one can discover in the pop-up box that this refers to "Traditional Manx", which is to be distinguished from "Revived Manx", of which it is said "revived Manx cannot be regarded as endangered as the number of users seems to be constantly growing" (interested readers can watch a video on language shift from Manx and visit Ynsee Gaelg for lessons on Manx). Note that the Isle of Man government has a Manx Language Officer, Adrian Cain, and there are children currently learning Manx at immersion preschool. It's unfortunate that the headline Unesco presents is "death" rather than "life" for Manx
  • the same is true for Manx's cousin Cornish. As the BBC reports, "the Cornish language has been branded "extinct" by linguistic experts, sparking protests from speakers" -- the Cornish Language Partnership points out that "Unesco's study doesn't take into account languages which have growing numbers of speakers and in the past 20 years the revival of Cornish has really gathered momentum"
  • for Australia 108 languages are mentioned but only six are listed as "extinct" and all these are in coastal locations in the north. No languages at all are located throughout a vast swathe of southern Western Australia and South Australia, or in central Queensland and eastern Northern Territory from Cairns to Alice Springs. No language revival is mentioned for any language in Australia (eg. Kaurna is listed as "critically endangered" with nothing on the revival movement in Adelaide that, as Jane recently pointed out, means that "Kaurna language and Kaurna people are now part of everyday life")
  • Hawaiian is listed as "critically endangered" with 1,000 speakers -- nothing again on language revival in Hawaii which has been in operation for 20 years
  • Ske from Vanuatu is listed as "severely endangered" with 30 speakers -- one of my PhD students returned from Pentacost Island last week after having done first-hand fieldwork on the language and she reports it is vibrant, with 300 speakers of all ages

and so on.

Some final gripes. In the section on websites and online resources there is no mention of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies AUSTLANG project which is a comprehensive database of Australia's indigenous languages with details of speaker numbers, status and documentation materials for 1136 named languages and dialects. The Australian government's Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records program doesn't get a guernsey either. Also missing from this same section is the Documenting Endangered Languages initiative of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities which has sponsored research grants and workshops since 2005 (and since last year has been a permanent part of NSF's operations providing millions of dollars annually for endangered languages research). Finally, our project at SOAS is listed as "a programme of grants to support the documentation of endangered languages, initiated by the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund". I suspect that Arcadia Trust (to give our funders the correct name, current since 2007) will be disappointed to see that the teaching, training, publishing, archiving and awareness raising functions that the HRELP Academic Programme and Endangered Languages Archive have worked hard to develop over the past six years don't rate a mention. Maybe Chris Moseley or the Unesco folks will come by during Endangered Languages Week next week to get a better idea of what we do here in London.

All in all, I reckon this Unesco Atlas is a bit of a mess.

PS Thanks to David Nash and Julia Sallabank for helpful comments on an earlier version of this posting -- neither can be blamed for opinions expressed here.


Always easier to shoot from sidelines than to create something new.SOAS has not made such a map and database. Why not Linguist list? Why not DOBES? Maybe better for Peter Austin and the others to work with UNESCO to build this site cooperatively.

I agree with many of your points, Peter, (especially the oversight of not linking to AUSTLANG) and I mentioned them to ABC and SBS journalists who interviewed me about the launch of the atlas. None of these points have made it to the reports which have resulted from my interviews. Sigh.

Actually, Innocent Bystander, I think your comments are unfair for several reasons:

(1) we at SOAS ARE creating something new in this area -- the recently launched ELAR catalogue contains rich information about the deposits in our archive, and through the new depositor interface that is currently being built, researchers will be able to update the data on the languages they are working on. Currently we support over 150 projects and the recently announced new grants cycles will result in even more work being supported, and information made publicly available;

(2) DoBeS HAS built a database of information on its funded projects with a map interface -- go to www.mpi.nl/dobes to see;

(3) LinguistList IS contributing also -- it has a project called LL-Map which enables linguists to work together collaboratively to link data on languages to geographical locations;

(4) I tried to make it clear in my post that I think Unesco has NOT created a transparent collaborative environment where one can offer comments and corrections on the materials in the database and maps. The "Comments" link doesn't work, as I said, and comments on individual languages simply disappear into thin air -- if I make a comment I want to have it acknowledged and my IP recognised. Contrast this with AUSTLANG where you can become a registered user (a reasonable expectation), leave comments on the data and the site, and engage in a discussion forum.

In the era of Web 2.0 I find it disappointing that the Unesco site has none of the functionality which would promote an open and collaborative approach to cataloguing and locating the world's endangered languages.

The problem with the online version of the atlas is it doesn't provide essays which accompany the atlas. These essays presumably provide an overview of the language situation in each area and also a reference list. Without them, it is difficult to appreciate and understand the maps. The UNESCO Atlas project happened in a rush (I know that) and, having worked on AUSTLANG, I have to say that the kind of information the atlas is trying to provide is not something you could put together quickly (perhaps more work and time can put in between different editions of atlas?).

After just a cursory glance at three countries I'm familiar with, I can only agree with Peter's harsh judgement. To take Senegal, only two of the five Cangin languages are listed as endangered. Why only two (or all five) should be classified as endangered is unclear, since recent research points out that they are spoken in stable bilingual situations (Morgan 1996, Drolc 2003). Still in Senegal, only two of the at least three Bainouk (Nyuun) languages are listed as 'unsafe'. I am working on one of them, Bainouk Gunyaamolo, and would classify it as relatively safe compared to Bainouk Gubaher (not listed), whose environment has shrunk to one single village over the past 30 years. Other threatened Joola languages in the Casamance area of Senegal are completely missing. Moving to Guinea, the endangerd Jalonke variety of Yalunka (Luepke 2005), spoken in only a handful of villages in a situation of massive shift to Fula, is not listed. Overall it is noteworthy that the information in all cases does not come from published research or personal communication with people who actually worked on the languages in question or at least in the area. This is really worrying, given that I personally know the compiler of the corresponding sections. Why do we bother to do research and publish it if the results aren't quoted and people can't be bothered to ask us for our opinions?

There was vigorous discussion about the Unesco Atlas at the workshop on Beliefs and Ideology at SOAS last Saturday (28th February). Anahit Minasyan from Unesco, and Christopher Moseley, the chief editor, were both at the workshop and came in for stick from various quarters about the quality of the data in the on-line Atlas. Moseley told the audience that 150 comments had been received in the week after the Atlas was launched, most having to do with information on particular languages such as speaker numbers or supposed degree of endangerment.

Moseley said that these would be "taken into account when revising the Atlas", though how this might happen was unclear. It appears that a gatekeeper approach will be taken, rather than a more open community-based social-network approach (using, eg. a wiki).

Many commentators at the workshop pointed out that Unesco, because of its political position, has unique power and that its pronouncements will be taken at face-value by all kinds of users, ranging from governments to individuals. As one person noted "with power comes responsibility" so it is incumbent on Unesco to get the data behind the Atlas right, or at least a lot better than it is at present.

According to Agence Bretagne Presse the Celtic League has written to UNESCO’s Director-General, Koichiro Matsuura, to complain about the misrepresentation of Celtic languages in the Unesco Atlas. The letter from Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, the General Secretary of the Celtic League, is reproduced in full on the Agence Bretagne Presse site and says in part "for the United Nations to continually state in their publications that critically endangered languages (which is what the Cornish and Manx languages are) are 'extinct', is potentially damaging to these languages and can be detrimental to their efforts at reversing language shift. The Celtic League is now beginning to wonder how accurate the Atlas is, because if UNESCO has attributed 'extinct' status to the Cornish and Manx languages, then how many other languages have been misclassified in the same way. If UNESCO believes that the Cornish and Manx languages are 'extinct', because they are being revived, then perhaps a separate category for these kinds of languages should exist in the Atlas."

Over to you Unesco.

I would definitely vote for a 'being revived' type of classification for use by UNESCO.
Manx is certainly not extinct if there are children speaking it natively.

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