[ from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS]
5th January 2011
Alongside all the talk about Last Speakers and loss of particular endangered languages, it is important to remember that not all the world's minority languages are endangered. Languages can be small (having relatively few speakers) and yet be strong, in the sense that they are spoken by everyone in the community and show no signs of language shift or replacement by some other language.
"Can anyone suggest the names of languages having small speaker populations that still have a good level of intergenerational transfer and good survival prospects?"
This elicited a number of responses that identified small and strong languages in Africa, Brazil, and the Australia-Pacific region (probably reflecting more the readership of the RNLD list rather than anything particular about these regions). The full details are here (scroll down to topic 13), but I thought a short summary might be of interest to readers of this blog.
Mawng (Maung) with 300-500 speakers, is still being acquired by children, even many who have one parent who does not speak Mawng.
Bininj Gun-wok has around 2000 speakers and is vital.
Among the Yolngu language group, Dhuwal has about 5000 speakers and is healthy. Ganalbingu has many fewer but is also reasonably healthy; Dhuwala and Rirratjingu are similar, but there is convergence to Dhuwal (Djambarrpuyngu).
Gurr-goni has about 60 speakers and has done for several generations; it is still being learnt by children.
Burarra has a couple of thousand speakers.
2. Daly River and Kimberley
Murriny Patha has 2500 speakers and is learnt as a first language by children.
Walmajarri is strong with about 1000 speakers.
3. Western Desert
Varieties of the Western Desert language are strong, with total speaker numbers around 3000.
4. Cape York Peninsula
Kuuk Thaayorre, Wik Mungkan and Kuku Yalanji are being learnt by children.
Papua New Guinea
Nick Evans reports that:
"Nen (Morehead District, PNG) is spoken in just one village by a little under 300 people. It is being transmitted completely to young people. People from 12-45, especially men, speak excellent English as well (not Tok Pisin), and most people speak at least one language from a neighbouring village (typically Nambu or Idi), usually because their mother comes from there. People marrying in to the village generally learn Nen. So my impression is that this is a stable situation of small language vitality, embedded in a culture of traditional multilingualism.
It seems that the situation is much less good in other parts of Papua New Guinea, including the Sepik and Sandaun Provinces, with rapid language shift being the norm.
Alex Francois notes that most of the languages of northern Vanuatu and southeast Solomon Islands are small but strong. There are 13 languages spoken in the Torres and Banks island groups of Northern Vanuatu with speaker numbers of at least 200 that are still healthy because inter-generational transmission is still maintained. They are still the first language acquired by children who grow up in their home village.
Kay Johnson reports that Ske, spoken on Pentacost Island, has 300 speakers and remains strong. Other Pentacost languages are larger and remain healthy.
1. Upper Xingu
Sebastian Drude writes: "a good candidate for the absolute minimum of speakers of a language which managed to maintain itself vital is Aweti", spoken by just 30 people following a measles epidemic in the upper Xingu in 1954 and now with 170 speakers, almost all of whom are children. For the time being the language is vital, although the socio-economic setting is changing very quickly now.
Waurá and Mehinaku (together now around 600, below 120 in the 1950's)
Kalapalo, Kuikuro, Matipu, Nahukwá (together now around 1100, were below 300 in the 1950's)
Kamayurá is also reported to have come way below 100 speakers around 1960, is around 400 souls now, and is a strong language (all children learn Kamayurá as their first language).
There are a number of small but still vital Amazonian languages that have survived catastrophic demographic declines in the first decades after contact. This article [.pdf] by Denny Moore, Ana Vilacy Galucio, and Nilson Gabas Junior gives speaker numbers and transmission rates.
Jeff Good reports that:
"A region at the northwestern edge of the Cameroonian Grassfields known as Lower Fungom that I am working in now has a number of small but vital languages all packed into an area of around 100 square kilometers. Mbu' has perhaps around 200-300 speakers in the village, with an unknown number working outside (probably not more than 100). Mundabli, spoken in the village of Buu has, perhaps, 100-200 speakers and Abar, with perhaps around 400 speakers, is also a good candidate for a distinct language. These both appear to be vital varieties."
Note that this listing is far from comprehensive but does show that languages around the world can be relatively small in terms of speaker numbers but remain strong and vital.