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[ 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.

A reminder of this came last month when Steven Bird sent a message to RNLD email discussion list asking:

"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.

Ruth Singer and Claire Bowern identified the following:

1. Arnhemland
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).

2. Elsewhere
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.

West Africa
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.


And yet these languages are (as I think they should be) of interest to those who are interested in "endangered" languages. For example, probably ELDP (and certainly NSF DEL) has funded work on languages named above, even though they are not "endangered" by this criterion. It's an issue I worry about too at Berkeley, where we have a largeish endowment, meant to turn into an ELF-style granting fund in a few years, that the donor specifically restricted for "endangered language documentation". I would be inclined to support Bininj Gun-wok documentation through this grant, but maybe that approach is misguided and money should be directed instead to larger but less vital languages ...

I see your point Andrew, but even if these languages aren't "endangered" by some criterion, the Australian ones at least are "fragile" in that the tipping point for whether kids learn them or not is finely balanced, and because they are so small, after the initial tip it doesn't take much to send them into the "formerly known" category. Some of these languages are also changing fast (Djambarrpuyngu has a really cool Young People's variety, for example, which is strong, but quite different from the older people's speech). Documentation can give some wider recognition to the language, too, which is important in leading to continued linguistic health. I think that the quality and originality of the science and the willingness of the speakers (and potential return to them) is more important than whether the language scores 5.4 or 6.2 on an endangerment scale.

Thanks for your comment, Andrew. Actually, Stuart McGill and I wrote about this very issue in a section called Prioritisation of Research in the introductory chapter to our forthcoming 4-volume collection Endangered Languages: Critical Concepts in Language Studies that is being published by Routledge later this year (blog post to come about it). It is something that I have seen both NSF (DEL) and ELDP grant selection panels grapple with over the past several years, but, as we point out, it is not a new problem and was already an issue 40 years ago in funding for research in Australia by the (then) Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Here is what we wrote:

"Although relatively large amounts of grant funding (at least compared to the past) are now available for endangered languages research, there is a tension that funding bodies have to confront between emphasising work on the most endangered languages (such as those with a handful of remaining speakers) which it may be possible to do now but not in the future, and work in communities where it is possible to document a fuller range of linguistic contexts and language functions with a wider array of participants, and for which prospects of revitalisation may be greater. That is, should money go to 'urgent salvage' or to 'potentially deeper and broader' research? (This debate is of course not new and took place in the 1970’s in Australia concerning funding for work on indigenous languages there: one scholar even ranked languages according to whether they were "worth a PhD, an MA, or just a few days fieldwork".) In addition, some researchers have highlighted the existence even within robust languages of endangered subsystems of knowledge (such as numeral systems – see Comrie 2005) or endangered genres and performance repertoires (Austin 2010b). Woodbury (Chapter 22) discusses the importance of documenting such phenomena, and shows how they do not get transferred as language shift takes place. Should funding be allocated to document and revitalise such things, even if the language is in no way endangered according to the usual criteria? How do we decide?"

We don't offer any answers but do point out that granters (and you'll be one of them in the future it seems) need to take some principled stance on prioritisation here.

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