Archive for Endangered languages

Sibe and the revival of Manchu

A little over a week ago, someone out of the blue called to my attention a discussion on a major social media platform about Sibe language and its alleged three writing systems:  "Old Uyghur alphabet, Latin alphabet, and Japanese-style system".  Apparently, parts of the original post were removed by the moderators because they were thought to be politically or otherwise controversial. Colleagues who are knowledgeable about such matters advised me that the thread in question represents a potential computer security risk, so I am not referring to it directly.

In any event, Sibe — with a population of less than two hundred thousand — is back in the news, and has considerable significance in various dimensions out of all proportion to its numbers.  Consequently, especially since not too long ago we had a lively discussion about Sibe here on Language Log, I thought it might be worthwhile to review some of the basic facts about this enigmatic language.

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Indigenous languages and medicinal knowledge

New article in Mongabay (the critter in the banner at the top of the page who serves as their logo reminds me of our little friend, the gecko):

"Extinction of Indigenous languages leads to loss of exclusive knowledge about medicinal plants", by Sibélia Zanon on 20 September 2021 | Translated by Maya Johnson

Key points:

  • A study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland shows that a large proportion of existing medicinal plant knowledge is linked to threatened Indigenous languages. In a regional study on the Amazon, New Guinea and North America, researchers concluded that 75% of medicinal plant uses are known in only one language.
  • The study evaluated 645 plant species in the northwestern Amazon and their medicinal uses, according to the oral tradition of 37 languages. It found that 91% of this knowledge exists in a single language, and that the extinction of that language implies the loss of the medicinal knowledge as well.
  • In Brazil, Indigenous schools hold an important role in preserving languages alongside cataloguing and revitalization projects like those held by the Karitiana people in Rondônia and the Pataxó in Bahia and Minas Gerais.

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Dungan, a Sinitic language of Central Asia written in the Cyrillic Alphabet

The linguistic importance of Dungan is greatly disproportionate to the number of its speakers, approximately 150,000, who live in seven different countries that are widely spread across Eurasia:   Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.  The main reason why Dungan has been the focus of so much interest during the half-century since I began studying this fascinating language is that it puts the lie to the fallacy that Sinitic languages can only be written with the Sinographic script (i.e., Chinese characters).  The only Sinitic language that needs to be written with morphosyllabic characters is Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, a language that, in terms of its sayability, has been dead for millennia.  The recent academic study of Dungan has played a key role in enabling language specialists and the lay public finally to come to this realization.

Because the Dungan people are so highly scattered across vast distances and live among dominant populations with completely different languages that they need to speak for daily survival, their own language — and consequently also its alphabetic script — is threatened with extinction.  Furthermore, in recent decades the Dungans have been buffetted by ethnopolitical winds that make it even harder to maintain their unique identity.  That is why I have long felt a sense of urgency about the need to document and research Dungan language and script in all of their dimensions (morphology, phonology, lexicography, grammar, syntax, script, literature, sociolinguistics…).

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Tightening the noose on Mongolian in Southern Mongolia

From the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC):

"Massive civil disobedience breaks out, tension rises" (8/29/20)

After the Chinese Central Government’s secret plan to replace Mongolian with Chinese as language of instruction in all schools across Southern Mongolia starting this September in the name of the “Second Type of Bilingual Education” was revealed in documents leaked from local educational authorities, a region-wide civil disobedience resistance movement has broken out in Southern Mongolia.

From kindergarteners to top intellectuals, from middle schoolers to college students, from ordinary herders to rural villagers, and from businessmen even to some government officials, people from all walks of life of Southern Mongolia are standing up in an unprecedented level of solidarity and coordination against the new policy, which many see as a new round of “cultural genocide.”

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The many varieties of Japanese regional speech

Anyone who learns Standard Japanese and then travels around outside of the Tokyo area will quickly come to realize how distinctive and numerous are the local forms of language once one leaves the metropolitan region of the capital.

Some interesting aspects of this phenomenon are presented in a new article in nippon.com, "Linguistic Treasures: The Value of Dialects", by Kobayashi Takashi, professor at the Center for the Study of Dialectology, Tōhoku University, who specializes in dialects and the history of Japanese.

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Scripts at risk

Andrea Valentino has an intriguing article in BBC Future (1/21/20):  "The alphabets at risk of extinction:   It isn’t just languages that are endangered: dozens of alphabets around the world are at risk. And they could have even more to tell us."

Usually, when we worry about languages going extinct, we are thinking about their spoken forms, but we are less often concerned about their written manifestations.  As Valentino puts it,

This might have something to do with the artificiality of alphabets. Language is innate to all humans, but scripts have to be invented and actively learned. This has happened rarely. Even by the middle of the 19th Century, only 10% of adults knew how to write, and there are only about 140 scripts in use today.

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Seke, an endangered language of Nepal, in Flatbush, Brooklyn

As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal (1965-67), I have a particular interest in all things Nepalese, especially language.  Now comes report of a spectacular linguistic phenomenon related to Nepal, and it is situated less than a hundred miles from where I'm sitting in Philadelphia.

"Just 700 Speak This Language (50 in the Same Brooklyn Building):  Seke, one of the world’s rarest languages, is spoken by about 100 people in New York", by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, NYT (1/7/20):

The apartment building, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, is a hive of nationalities. A Pakistani woman entered the elevator on a recent afternoon with a big bag of groceries, flicking a dupatta over her shoulder as a Nepalese nurse and the janitor, a man from Jamaica there to mop up a spill, followed her in.

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Language revival in the news

BBC Future has a very nice article by Alex Rawlings about the work of Ghil'ad Zuckermann on language revival in Australia and the larger context of such efforts. One new thing I learned about Zuckermann from this article was that before he moved from Israel to Australia, he was a specialist on language revival in Israel. (That's what we generally think of as the revival of Hebrew, but he insists that the modern language is different enough from Biblical Hebrew, because of the influence of all the first languages of those who participated in its revival, to need a different name – he calls it Israeli.) Anyway, it's a nice article. Thanks to Victor Mair for sharing it around the Language Log water cooler.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190320-the-man-bringing-dead-languages-back-to-life

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Study the linguistics of Game of Thrones

At the instant of posting this, there are only 18 places remaining out of the 40 maximum in Linguistics 183 001, David Peterson's summer session course at UC Berkeley on "The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention." 3 to 5 p.m., Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu, May 22 to June 30.

It's not a 'Structure of Dothraki' course; it's about how you go about inventing languages (Peterson has done this for film and TV several times, and has been paid money for it).

Hurry to sign up. And don't ever let me hear you saying that linguistics doesn't provide fun things to do.

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Manchu film

Xinhua claims "Yīnggē lǐng chuánqí 莺歌岭传奇" ("Legend of Yingge Ridge") to be the first film in the Manchu language. I could only find this trailer for it on Tudou (Manchu speaking appears to start around 2 minutes in).

The Tudou link doesn't work well, has too many intrusive ads, and requires Flash.  Use this YouTube version which is much, much better.  But what sort of resurrected Manchu is this?  It sounds oddly like Korean to me, and at least one Korean friend says that — more so than Mongol — it makes him feel as though he should be able to understand it, but of course he cannot.

There are, however, some fundamental problems with this film.

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Treasure language

A talk at Charles Darwin University by Steven Bird:

With thousands of languages in danger of disappearing, should we redouble our efforts to "save" them? Or could we open ourselves to the stories, lives, and world views of the people who speak the smaller languages around us? Steven Bird, computer scientist and linguist, draws on unconventional sources of wisdom to suggest concrete actions for us to take, and inspires us to believe we can alter the future course of language evolution.

Steven has journeyed to some of the remotest places in Africa, Melanesia, Central Asia, and Amazonia to record speakers of the world’s treasure languages. He is visiting Darwin, a hot spot of linguistic diversity and language endangerment, to explore new ways to keep languages strong. Steven has held academic positions at the universities of Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, Melbourne, and Berkeley. He is currently a visiting professor at Charles Darwin University.

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Crowdsourcing Language Revitalization

We often hear of projects for revitalizing or documenting endangered languages obtaining grants, but the Tahltan Language Conservation Initiative folks have a new approach: crowdsourcing. Here is their appeal at Indiegogo, better known as a way of funding technology projects. The rewards that contributors can obtain are materials produced by the project.

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Treasure Language

Steven Bird writes:

After researching some alternatives, I'm trying to get "treasure language" adopted as a way of talking about disappearing or threatened or dying languages. I'm creating a new kind of storytelling event that brings immigrant/diaspora and indigenous communities together.

The first event is scheduled in less than two weeks in Oakland, and features storytelling and word games in Tigrigna, lu Mien, and other small languages spoken in Oakland.

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