June 15th, 2011

Fishy Circumstances

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.