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[from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
25th October 2010

Back in 2003 David Crystal published a paper entitled "Endangered Languages: what should we do now", in the first volume of Language Documentation and Description in which he suggested that it was time that the Arts got interested in endangered languages and he wondered when we would be seeing TV programmes, novels, plays, paintings, symphonies, sculptures etc. about the general issues of language endangerment and loss. He says (page 27):

"the genre which puzzles me the most, because it is the genre most applicable to expound our subject, is theatre. Where are the plays? ... there have been works which deal with the problems of a particular linguistic/cultural situation ... But what plays deal with the problems of language endangerment in general?"

He then tells the story of his own play Living On and the difficulties he had with getting it staged in the UK. Since that time David's play has had several readings (including one at SOAS during our innaugural Endangered Languages Week in 2007) but it has yet to see a full performance.

Well suddenly, this year, there are two new plays dealing with endangered languages issues. Julia Cho's The Language Archive was staged in Costa Mesa, California earlier this year and is currently on stage in New York City. The play deals with George:

"a brilliant linguist whose obsession is cataloguing the world's dying languages. He estimates that every two months, one of the world's existing 6,500 languages dies, either from its last speakers perishing or from their dropping it in favor of a more culturally dominant tongue.

George's name for this project is The Language Archive, which he works on with his devoted assistant, Emma ... It consists of finding the last speakers of an endangered language and recording them in simple conversation in order to fully capture the human dimension of their tongue, rather than merely writing down what certain words mean.

Into George's office step Alta ... and Resten, the last speakers of Ellowan, a vaguely Eastern European-sounding language. The problem is that Alta and Resten are no longer speaking to each other: Decades of married life have apparently caused them to loathe one another."

And so it goes on (the OCR Weekly has a detailed positive review of the California production -- the New York Daily News review is rather less keen on it).

The latest news from the RNLD mailing list is that another new play called Mother's Tongue written by Kamarra Bell Wykes (see her brief biography[.pdf]; she is also the daughter of linguist Jeanie Bell) is to be staged for a month by the Yirra Yakin Aboriginal Corporation in Perth starting on 29th October. It is described as follows:

"Mother's Tongue is a contemporary Indigenous story about David and Ngala, a brother and sister trying to find their way in life after the death of their grandmother, the keeper of secrets and last custodian of the knowledge of a whole language group. After her death, David is the only person left alive that can speak his mother's tongue."

So perhaps David Crystal was just seven years ahead of his time.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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