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From: Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
4 June 2009

This week's Chronicle of Higher Education has two articles by Peter Monaghan on endangered languages issues. The first is entitled Languages on Life Support: Linguists debate their role in saving the world's endangered tongues (viewable free on line, and includes material from interviews with Nick Evans, Michael Krauss, Richard Rhodes, Noam Chomsky, and myself. Some of the topics covered will be familiar to readers of this blog, like what Monaghan calls "a 'commando style' of recording trip" (something Jane wrote about as Fifo (fly in fly out) fieldwork).

A few of the quotes struck me as remarkable, like Noam Chomsky saying that the loss of a language:

"is much more of a tragedy for linguists whose interests are mostly theoretical, like me, than for descriptive linguists who focus on specific languages, since it means the permanent loss of the most relevant data for general theoretical work."

Nick Evans is also quoted as putting a price on documentation of the world's linguistic diversity.

"He has done the math: It costs about half a million dollars to train one qualified graduate student to glean and record enough of a language that it might be recoverable. That $500,000 covers a doctorate and two or three years of postdoctoral work. 'Multiply that by, say, 4,000 languages,' says Evans. 'That's two billion dollars. That's almost just a cut off the edge of a budget, in a lot of places. "

Interestingly, the first newsletter of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, dated 1 May 1995, set a figure of £35,000 (A$ 70,000) for two years work on a language to produce a basic grammar and dictionary, while Chapter 4 of David Crystal's 2000 book Language Death provides a figure of $/£200,000 per year for a full documentation project. Looks like Nick's estimate is somewhere in the middle.

The second article, entitled Another Kind of Language Expert: Speakers, is a bit shorter and discusses training courses and revitalisation programmes involving native speakers, including mention of the summer school in Ghana that SOAS staff and students were involved in last year (along with scholars from other institutions), and Ken Hale's work on recovery of Wampanoag with local linguists and activists (such as Jessie Little Doe, who isn't mentioned by name, however).

It is good to see that these issues are getting an airing in a general academic journal such as this.


Concerning the need to protect endangered languages.

Although there are at least 7,000 languages throughout the World, and an increasing number are endangered through the linguistic imperialism of both Mandarin Chinese and English.

The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related or http://www.lernu.net

The major cause for disinterest in preserving language that has only few users is not simply economic but due to the lack of linguists to identify the primary use or purpose of language is "social bonding" rather than communication. Idea transmission is only one and frequently less important aspect of language function. Ideas provided by simple grammer language are remarkable for providing understanding of experiences not witnessed or without involvement. This sematic logical presentation exends beyond signally such as used by all animals. Linguists understandably largely diminish or ignore signaling that is univerally transmitted with any message. Many readers have already picked up many signals in this comment that are not written but understood from the order of presention, choice of vocabulary, typographical and grammatic errors and so on indefinitely. The complexity of signally is also culturally bound and almost but not totally of uncertain meaning. A listener often gets the wrong idea from misunderstood signals but sometimes understands attempts to misinform better than the speaker intended. An anthropological theory has been proposed that the primary motivation for language is to deceive.
Language is often analysed as a thing unto itself without any regard to the motivation for its expression. Motivation is rarely identified by the speaker and when it is, the stated motivation become suspect. And yet, language makes no sense unless motivation is somehow sensed by acompanying signals that are ignored by most linguistic theories. Because the primary motivation is social bonding,[ the essential aspect of being human that takes piority over survival (sorry Darwin, you also ignored the obvious - survival is necessary but not sufficient - )], language needs to be understood first of all by mother-infant relationship and family and clan support of mothering. For example, in societies where mother is always in emtional and physical contact (engaged not just proximal as Bowlby described using orphaned geese of Lorenze for a model) words are not separated into abstracted mental concepts with no inherit meaning (i.e. English words have no meaning out of context) but words represent a complete event (like a sentence) since only events exist. Words are devised as an emotional defense for infants who fear remoteness of mother. The defense provide a belief in control when the child makes mother into a mental toy-icon under the direction of the infant's thougts or wishes. Belief in control is more important than survival (sorry Darwin, wrong again) and humans willingly give up life to protect control. The most common cause of suicide in children is their wish to have parental approval and control social connection. Without recognition of this powerful motivation for language as a social bonding necessity, the need to preserve culturally derived langusage is not understood. The need is a thousand times more important than academic interest that ignores the motivational aspect of language to exist. If motivation is not acknowledged as primary, then language is a disconnected lifeless skeleton with only grammer and without associated signals that have existed millions of years before words of langauge. These comments are more than mental gynastics and represent years of critical clinical examination of exceptions and details more than a probability curve. For exampe, the closer ones appearance approaches average, the greater and rarer is their beauty.
Since my comments are not common, I don't consider them pretty but I hope they are not outrightly dismissed and capture someones interest.

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