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Endangered languages

Thanks to targaff and an effectively-random internet person with a spare ticket, I spent this afternoon at a symposium on "Rare and Endangered Languages" at Gresham College.

I am full of factoids and anecdotes now. 97% of the world's population speaks 4% of its languages. 50% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. 25% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 1000 people. No one knows how many languages are spoken in London, but it's at least 480. Papua New Guinea has 30 languages families found no where else on the globe (unless spoken by expats). I hadn't realized that one factor in the current travalis of Yiddish (which is not rare at all compared to most of what was discussed today) is that Israel is trying hard to be a monolingual country; this also affects the likely fate of various Sephardic languages.

To observe is to intervene. That is particularly true of rare and endangered languages where the mere act of bringing attention to them can help ensure greater longevity. One graduate student cited in one of the talks studied, for the first time, a spoken language from NW Nigeria. The speakers asked him to designed an orthography for the language. Not because they wanted to write it with pen and paper or print it into books. They had none of those things to aspire to them. They wanted to be able to SMS in their own language.

One distracting features of the afternoon was that all the panelists and hosts were male. This, in itself, might not have struck me quite so forcibly as it did had not the only other symposium I have been to there - on science fiction - also been entirely male. That, along with sweeping generalizations about "technology", were distracting sources of grumpiness for me.

On the whole, though, good speakers, well-presented, promoting lots of interesting programs and language charities and attention for a sampling of the world's endangered languages.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 15th, 2011 11:56 pm (UTC)
I only went in order to torment you.
Jun. 16th, 2011 03:17 am (UTC)
That's interesting. I remember when I was younger, they were mentioning that Gaelic was becoming a dying language. I wonder if perhaps that's become somewhat improved? Also when Romania was under USSR rule, it was believed that Romanian would become an extinct language as people were pushed to speak Russian, and Romanian wasn't to be taught in the schools. Then after the revolution, Romania did a complete turnaround, becoming (understandably) extrememly pan-Romanian, and re-immersing itself it it's native language and culture. I'm glad of that because I enjoyed learning Romanian and think it's super cool that it's the closest living language to latin!
Jun. 16th, 2011 03:44 am (UTC)
I did my field methods training on Maa (because you often learn on a language that's already studied, so that you have training wheels. I still have my notebooks somewhere, I think....)

The class was 3/5 women, but I think men tend to do more of the field work. Perhaps for safety, perhaps for inclination, perhaps because they're less likely to get icky, icky menstrual blood everywhere (or be subject to other fun sorts of female-only pollution, which might throw a wrench into things). I don't know.

The department faculty was, hm.... Maybe 60/40 male? Or maybe 60/40 female. Women had the department chair, and two men defected to prestigious programs, and the one new hire was male. I felt like the undergrad major was pretty female (as were all my non-engineering courses, it seemed--except for creative writing! That was pretty male as well, come to think of it).

But I did not feel particularly encouraged towards grad school by the fac, and so ended up with my Buddhism/Daoism/Shamanism/science/politics/history/international relations dissertation, so! I say I came out pretty even.
Jun. 16th, 2011 08:46 am (UTC)
I did wonder if words related to physical femaleness might not be more likely to be lost (in the case of languages with a speaker or two left)/left out in recording languages than any other subset of vocabulary, thanks to so many men working in the field.
Jun. 16th, 2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
I'm sure there are female field linguists out there... maybe? Did any show up in the docu The Linguists?

(They would be trained to try to get beyond their gender. You start with a standard set of vocab and grammar and then try to elicit the very fringes of the language. Leading to bizarre expressions when you start earnestly inquiring that if there's a verb specifically for going to school, and say, for instance, if a bunch of gourds were rolling towards a school, could you say that those gourds were in fact...?

Or at least, that was my experience.)
Jun. 16th, 2011 10:57 am (UTC)

"female-only pollution"
Jun. 16th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
I've worked a little on the Blood Bowl Sutra. Which, aside from having a lovely Hammer horror-film name, introduces the lovely concept of going to hell for the sin of introducing blood to the water supply, which then monks drink of. So you go to the Blood Pool Hell for menstruation and childbirth, and the hell of digging up things with lamp wicks if you don't give birth. (Forget the specific name of that one.)

In the face of that, I decided to revel in my inescapably polluting nature. I have cooties! Mwahahaha!
Jun. 17th, 2011 11:40 am (UTC)
Did you see the Susan Hiller installation on rare langueges at her Tate exhibition?
Jun. 18th, 2011 07:33 am (UTC)
I would have loved to be there! I grew up with a language spoken by about 5,000 people, in the south of Thailand. My grandfather did lots of analysy-linguisticy things for the language, and created an orthography based on the Thai alphabet, because that was the writing system taught in schools.

I understand some of it, and speak less, but it's kinda cool being in a very small group of people.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )