'Sleeping' languages may be lost forever

Prof Ghil'ad Zuckermann argues that the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land.

Of the 7000 languages in the world today, it is predicted that up to 90% will become extinct within 100 years.

In Australia, where I live, out of 250 Indigenous languages, only 15 - just 6% - are alive and kicking, by which I mean their children are native speakers.

The rest are what I like to call "sleeping beauties" - and if we do not take action they could be lost forever. With globalisation, homogenisation and Coca-colonisation there will be more and more groups all over the world added to the forlorn club of the lost-heritage peoples.

Does it matter?

I think it does.

Most people understand the importance of saving the Tasmanian devil or Sumatran tiger, so surely it is equally important to reclaim the languages of the indigenous people of these same areas. The benefits include social justice, diversity, wellbeing and employability among others.

There are precedents for reviving languages. The Hebrew revival movement turned a historical sacred language into the national language of Israel with millions of native speakers, including myself.

Language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve their mental health.

In fact, I would argue that the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land. While the land remains, when a language is lost so too is cultural autonomy.

Governments are likely to come under increasing pressure to compensate indigenous peoples for this loss.

Take Australia, for example.

Linguistically, Australia has been turned into the "unlucky country" through the historical processes of linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating), starting from the early colonial period.

In 1843, South Australian colonist Anthony Forster said: "The natives would be sooner civilised if their language was extinct."

South Australian governor George Grey noted in 1841: "The ruder languages disappear successively, and the tongue of England alone is heard around."

Australia can learn a lot from Aotearoa New Zealand when it comes to what I call "Native Tongue Title", and linguistic human rights.

Te reo Maori has the advantage that it never died, despite linguicide efforts of the colonial government. Today, te reo, a repository of endangered outlooks, is a relative success story. It is one of the country's two official languages alongside the New Zealand Sign Language (English is only a de facto language). Te reo is supported by the Maori Language Commission and the Wai 262 claim, which lays out explicit steps to protect the language.

But we cannot be complacent.

The percentage of native Maori speakers is extremely low, particularly among children, and Maori remains a seriously endangered language.

For these reasons, it would be rectifying historical justice to turn Oceania into the world's centre for language revitalisation and for the new field that I am at present establishing at the University of Adelaide: Revival Linguistics.

There is an urgent need to produce linguistic and socio-linguistic insights relevant to language reclamation. An awareness of the universal linguistic constraints applicable to all revival attempts, regardless of social circumstances, would help revivalists and indigenous community leaders to work more efficiently; for example, to focus more on basic vocabulary and verbal conjugations than on sounds and word order.

Revival linguistics would assist language revivalists in understanding that the process is as important as the end goal from the point of view of indigenous empowerment and wellbeing.

All languages evolve, and it is a myth to assume there is a pure and authentic tongue.

Experience shows that any successful attempt to reclaim a hibernating language will result in a hybrid that combines components from the revivalists' and documenters' mother tongues as well as the target language.

Some communities might want only to change the "linguistic landscape" of their town (for example, erecting bilingual signs); others may want to conduct cultural rituals in their language; yet others may want to aim for an all-encompassing native-speaking community that converses in the revived language in all semantic domains. In all cases it is for the indigenous people, not for the linguist, to decide.

These are among the basic principles that the revival linguist encourages in indigenous communities:

1. If your language is endangered: do not allow it to fall asleep.

2. If your language falls asleep: stop, revive, survive.

3. If you revive a language, embrace the hybridity of the emerging tongue;

4. If your language is healthy, assist others in linguistic need.

Better a dirty, injured butterfly that is alive than a perfectly beautiful butterfly stuck on the wall!

Prof Ghil'ad Zuckermann is the chairman of linguistics and endangered languages at the University of Adelaide and the founder of Revival Linguistics. He will deliver a free public lecture at the University of Otago tomorrow at 2pm.


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