“Science without conscience is but ruin of the soul”, wrote Franois Rabelais.
This visionary quote, having brilliantly crossed the last five centuries, is all too easy to transpose onto the theme of this book : ict without ethics is but the ruin of man.
ric Poncet MAIK GIBSON PRESERVING THE HERITAGE OF EXTINCT OR ENDANGERED LANGUAGES This article aims to show how cyberspace can support the preservation of extinct and endangered languages. Various case studies illustrate how cyberspace could fill this role and why the languages concerned are worth preserving. We do not favor a singular approach to the question, since multiple factors as diverse as the purpose of the preservation, attitudes toward the language in the user-communities, the existence of a diaspora and the accessibility of digital technologies all have a role to play.
Original article in English.
MAIK GIBSON is the head of the Department of Translation Studies at Africa International University, Nairobi, Kenya, and a Senior Consultant in Sociolinguistics for SIL International.
He is also a teacher of sociolinguistics at the Institute for the Development of Languages and Translation in Africa (i-DELTA). His research interests include language shift, language policy and expanding the domains of lesser-used languages.
he twenty-first century is witnessing two very different trends, both of which reflect the changing world in which we live. The first is the Tspread of the internet and communication technology in general ;
the second is a rapid decline both in the number of languages spoken, and of those which have a viable future. This chapter is concerned with how the internet may be used effectively as a tool for the prevention and mitigation of the effects of widespread language extinction and endangerment.
There are various estimates for the numbers of languages which are threatened by extinction, with up to 50 % often being quoted as being at risk. For example Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger [MOSELEY 2010] gives the estimate of “some 3,000” – but whatever the precise figure, it is clear that language extinction during the twenty-first century will most probably be a major trend, especially in the Americas and Australia. When languages die, local knowledge may also be lost ;
furthermore, the community may lose one of the main symbols of their ethnic identity, leading to possible social instability. It does seem certain that many languages will not serve as mother tongues for the next generation of children. However, documentation of these varieties can help the community with the maintenance of traditional knowledge, through at the very least the use of their language for heritage purposes, which can also assist with issues of identity. The availability of the internet can make this documentation a less arduous task, and also make such documentation more easily accessible – for both the community, where there is some internet access, and for interested others. It is the aim of this chapter to give the necessary background and consider various factors which may influence the usefulness of the internet in appropriate documentation of extinct and endangered languages.
Maik Gibson EXTINCT AND ENDANGERED LANGUAGES Extinct (sometimes referred to as dead) and endangered languages lie at the bottom of the range of language vitality, which can be evaluated by tools such as Unesco’s methodology for assessing language vitality and endangerment [BRENZINGER 2003], Fishman’s [FISHMAN 1991] Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (gids), or the Extended gids proposed by Lewis and Simons [LEWIS, SIMONS 2010]. Measures of linguistic vitality are principally concerned with the current or likely future of a language as the vehicle of children’s primary socialisation. In the extreme case, that of extinction, we are faced with a situation where the language is not used by any people for matters of day-to-day communication, so that the opportunities for children to learn it as their first language are limited to cases of deliberate revitalisation. Often extinction implies complete loss of any knowledge of the language, but this is not always the case – it may be that the children and grandchildren of the last fluent speakers have some passive knowledge of the language from having overheard it when younger, or may even know how to say some words and phrases. And in some cases the language may have been lost as a vehicle of everyday communication, but still has some uses in ritual or religious practices.
This is the case of some liturgical languages such as Ge’ez, Latin and Old Church Slavonic, where the extinct languages have been written down, but the scenario is also possible without a developed written form (eg for Lucumi in Cuba, according to Courlander [COURLANDER 1996 : 20]). So the term extinct (like the other common term dead) does not necessarily mean that the language is totally lost, or that it has no functionality in the community, but refers to the lack of speakers for whom the language is one of their primary means of communication. Evidently an extinct language of which all knowledge has been lost cannot be preserved – some level of knowledge, whether from within the community, or consisting of documentation, is a prerequisite.
While the designation of a language as extinct should, in theory, be simply a matter of establishing the lack of first-language speakers, defining endangerment can be more complicated. Generally a language which is not being passed on to children will automatically be deemed as being endangered, as extinction is the most likely outcome after a couple of generations have passed on. There are however some exceptional cases where the community language is not the first one taught to children, Maik Gibson but it is still fully acquired at a later stage. For example, concerning Digo in Kenya, Nicolle [NICOLLE 2012 : 4,5] writes : “Most young children were addressed in Swahili by their parents and other adults… However, by the age of ten or eleven, most children had become proficient speakers of Digo and were habitually addressed in Digo by their elders”. In addition, cases where only a certain percentage of children are learning the language may also be scenarios of endangerment – generally, the category can be applied if there is some risk of extinction. This risk can be quite difficult to quantify in individual cases, as language shift may sometimes be slowed, halted or even reversed. In addition, Moseley [MOSELEY 2010] classifies languages which are not used in all domains (eg Welsh) as vulnerable.
This is however the norm in multilingual societies, where different languages tend to be assigned different functions, whether language shift is prevalent or not.
THE WIDESPREAD LOSS OF LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY While we accept that language extinction has most probably accelerated due to rapid social changes accompanying globalisation over the last hundred years, it is by no means exclusively a modern phenomenon.
Even languages committed to writing such as Sumerian, Old Prussian and Massachusett have died without leaving modern-day descendants.
However countless other languages of which either very little or nothing was written down have disappeared, leaving only on occasion some now opaque place names. To accurately compare the twentieth-century loss of linguistic diversity with that of previous centuries is almost impossible because of the lack of documentation.
Despite this, it seems that the predictions of up to half the world’s 6,000+ languages being lost over the next 50-100 years would be an unprecedented reduction of linguistic diversity. The impact of this loss is multi-faceted.
Often shift to another language goes along with a change of lifestyle, and thus much traditional knowledge and vocabulary may be lost, for example in the field of ethnobotany, where languages may distinguish between plants unknown to modern science. In cases where the lifestyle change is minimal, traditional vocabulary is sometimes passed on. Brenzinger [BRENZINGER 1992] gives two Kenyan cases of this – Yaaku and Elmolo, Maik Gibson whose speakers shifted the communal language to dialects of Maa. Both however maintained aspects of distinct lifestyles for which Maa has a limited vocabulary (beekeeping and hunting in the first case, and fishing in the other), and kept the relevant vocabulary for these areas. Now the former Yaaku are assimilating their lifestyle to pastoralist Maasai culture, and hence losing beekeeping and hunting vocabulary. Even in cases where lifestyles are maintained, an understanding of the meaning and origin of specialist terms can disappear, as the language from which they stem is forgotten. For further coverage of the types of knowledge and world-views that can disappear, see Harrison’s [HARRISON 2007] When Languages Die.
An additional consequence of extinction of an indigenous language is cultural disruption as evidenced in much higher suicide rates in communities where the language has been or is being lost [HALLETT 2007]. The authors find that in British Columbia, loss of the communal language was the most significant correlate with high suicide rates found among Aboriginal communities, while other “cultural continuity factors” also showed weaker correlation with lower suicide rates. Whether all cases of communal language loss lead to equivalent patterns of cultural disruption has not been established, but this study shows that the loss of a language does not occur in a social vacuum, and can have serious consequences for the community involved.
The wide diversity of languages which are spoken today demonstrate an amazing array of strategies of expressing thought and categorising the world around us. So from a scientific point of view, the extinction of one language means that there is less data concerning the workings of the human mind, not only concerning linguistic facts and theories, but also about more general capacities of the human mind, for example in cognition and perception. And each individual language is equally important for the advancement of knowledge in these areas ; basing a universal theory of language or cognition on only a handful of languages is obviously flawed. Each extinguished language represents a lost opportunity to understand ourselves better.
EXAMPLES OF INTERNET-BASED INTERVENTIONS The type of preservation activity, whether in cyberspace or not, will depend on its goals. Should the purpose be merely to preserve the language Maik Gibson for posterity, some texts, vocabulary and recordings published on the internet could be adequate. If it is decided that the language is to be learned as a second language by current and future generations, then having enough of a base to develop accurate teaching materials will be necessary, and an interactive online course could be developed for those interested in learning the language. If the language still has a desired role within the community, such as may be the case for certain rituals, developing relevant materials may be appropriate, if the society does not view the language of ritual as something secret whose knowledge is not be shared outside a prescribed group of people.
Preservation activities with the goal of language revitalisation will require a wider range of efforts, but some quite simple online interventions, such as the setting up of websites and forums where people are encouraged to use the language, can be quite effective, depending on the social profile of the speakers of the language.
The usefulness of the internet as a tool for protecting endangered languages is nicely demonstrated in an online document by Mensching [MENSCHING 2000] for Sardinian, a Romance language with a high level of difference between dialects. In fact Moseley [MOSELEY 2010] lists four varieties separately as endangered languages, while the Ethnologue [LEWIS 2009] lists these four as varieties within the Sardinian macrolanguage, with a combined population of over one million. In some ways the criteria for potential success in this case are almost ideal, given the large number of speakers using the language today, and the context of a highly developed society with comparatively high levels of income, internet access and education. The main negative indicator is the high level of difference between dialects, but Mensching argues that the written medium helps minimise this, as people converge on a common Sardinian writing system. He mentions many advantages of the internet, and in particular the Sardinian language and culture website 1, in that it :
• “reinforces[s] the linguistic consciousness of speakers”, partially because Sardinian is not just the subject of the dedicated website, but also its medium, thus giving users practice in using the written form ;
1 http://www.lingrom.fu-berlin.de/SardischEngl.html Maik Gibson • helps speakers by giving the users information about how to write the language, helping the written form become less divergent, and therefore more accessible, with practice, to the community ;
• acts as a “central node for accessing online information about the Sardinian language and the culture of the island” ;
• serves as a space for discussion, documentation and evaluation, as well as enabling all this to happen without the mediation of dominant languages (as is common in academic activities) ;
• takes advantage of the internet-specific “orality effect”, whereby “E-mail communication is more similar to spoken language than to written language”. This observation can be made concerning other minority languages and non-standard dialects, which have a significant presence in online writing, even more so in today’s Web 2.contexts such as social networking sites, e.g. Facebook 2. The normal categorisation of writing as a formal domain, where the dominant language predominates, does not seem to apply in some online writing, which bears some similarity to the language of text messages on mobile phones.
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