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[ from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS

3rd January 2011

Today marks the 20th anniversary of a symposium on "Endangered Languages and their Preservation" that was held on the 3rd January 1991 at the 65th annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Chicago. The symposium was organised by the late Ken Hale and featured presentations by him, Michael Krauss, Lucille J. Watahomigie, Akira Y. Yamamoto, Colette Craig (now Grinevald), and La Verne Masayesva Jeanne -- they were published, together with a contribution from Nora C. England, in revised form as a collection of "essays" in the journal Language in March 1992 (see Hale et al. reference below).

This was the first time that endangered languages was the topic of a symposium at a major professional association meeting, and it served as a clarion call to the discipline of linguistics to pay attention to the widespread loss of languages. Parallels were mentioned with biological species endangerment and after presenting a statistical overview Michael Krauss gave his dire prediction that "at the rate things are going the coming century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind's languages". He asked:

"What are we linguists doing to prepare for this or to prevent this catastrophic destruction of the linguistic world? It behooves us as scientists and as human beings to work responsibly both for the future of our science and for the future of our languages, not so much for reward according to the fashion of the day, but for the sake of posterity. If we do not act, we should be cursed by future generations for Neronically fiddling while Rome burned."

Krauss called for documentation of the most highly threatened tongues and support and promotion of stronger endangered languages. Hale concluded the collection of essays by arguing that linguistic diversity is important to human intellectual life ‚ not only in the context of scientific linguistic inquiry, but also in relation to the class of human activities belonging to the realms of culture and art. He presented the ritual register of Lardil from Australia with its unusual phonology and lexicon (showing abstract semantic principles at work) as an example of this loss of human creativity.

How things have changed in the past 20 years. A quick glance at the programme for this year's LSA annual meeting shows that the study of endangered languages (and related topics such as language documentation and revitalisation) is now front and centre in mainstream linguistics. Here is a sample listing of sessions from the preliminary meeting programme:

Friday 7th January
08:00-09:00 Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation
09:00-10:30 Tutorial: Metadata in Language Documentation and Description
10:30-12:00 Symposium: Documenting Endangered Languages: NSF-NEH Del Projects in Honor of the 20th Anniversary of the LSA Panel on Endangered Languages
14:00-17:00 Symposium: Developing Orthographies for Unwritten Languages

Saturday 10th January
09:00-10:30 Symposium: Maps and Map Making in Linguistic Research
14:00-17:00 Symposium: Minority Language Contact

Sunday 9th January
09:00-12:00 Poster sessions on Metadata in Language Documentation and Description, Documenting Endangered Languages and Maps and Map Making in Linguistic Research

The Friday 9am session on Metadata in Language Documentation and Description, organised by Jeff Good and myself, will include presentations by linguists, archivists, cultural anthropologists and an archaeologist about how metadata is thought of and used across their various disciplines. It is probably the first time in a long time that specialists from anthropology and archaeology will be presenting at an LSA meeting, and hopefully opens the door for further collaboration in the future.

The LSA annual meeting is just the first of a whole series of endangered languages events that will be happening this year. In February there will be the second International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation in Hawaii on the theme of "Strategies for Moving Forward", and March will see the first Cambridge International Conference on Language Endangerment with the theme of "Language Endangerment: Documentation, Pedagogy, and Revitalization". In May we will be holding our annual Endangered Languages Week at SOAS that will include a workshop on "Applied Language Documentation in sub-Saharan Africa". And that's only the first four and a half months of the year!

So, happy anniversary endangered languages! May the field continue to grow and prosper as it has done in the past 20 years.

Reference Hale, Ken, Michael Krauss, Lucille J. Watahomigie, Akira Y. Yamamoto, Colette Craig, La Verne Masayesva Jeanne and Nora C. England. 1992. Endangered Languages. Language 68(1): 1-42.

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