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Each year the United Nations declares that the next year will be an International Year of X, for several Xs; 2008 is the UN Year of Sanitation, the Reef, Planet Earth, the Potato, and… Languages. Heidi Harley reported on Language Log, in May 2007, on the UN declaration of IYL, but we haven't taken up the question of what you might DO for the occasion. (Heidi's posting was mainly taken up with the split focus of the official statements about the occasion — lauding multilingualism and linguistic diversity; and also urging that endangered and minority languages be protected and preserved.*)

Now, in a letter in the most recent issue (June 2008) of Language, David Crystal exhorts members of the Linguistic Society of America to find ways to promote IYL (even though it's more than half over). (Crystal's letter is an abridged version of a paper available here.)

*[Digression: Heidi didn't take up the status of non-standard varieties — because, of course, there is scant international pressure to protect and preserve them. Until such varieties are judged to be minority languages, they are beneath the bureaucrats' contempt. No legislator or administrator is going to argue for the protection or preservation of African American Vernacular English, or Cockney, or Singlish, or… (supply hundreds or thousands of varieties here, even just sticking to varieties of English). A topic, perhaps, for some future posting. But not for this one.]

Crystal's five suggestions, in brief:

Celebratory days: we already have World Languages Day (September 26) and World Mother Language Day (February 21), but what might we do to actually celebrate them? Enlist the greeting card industry?

Locations to visit: there are a few language museums around, but not many, and hardly anyone knows about them (Crystal points us to some information here). This is a tough one: how to find things about languages that you can see or grasp? The potato is a snap, and reefs too. (Goodness knows what people do with sanitation, or planet Earth.)

Awards: Crystal emphasizes that what giving awards does is provide publicity, publicity, publicity. The LSA does have awards, but they are collegial recognitions — the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award, the Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award, named chairs at Linguistic Institutes, and so on — which attract no attention outside the field. (Linguists tend to shrink back from the idea of awards like the Pulitzers, not to mention the Nobels, possibly because the whole thing seems so crass, and possibly because they believe there is not enough work of high quality to justify such awards; see Geoff Pullum's piece "No Trips to Stockholm" in his Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.) The ADS gets significant publicity each year with its Words of the Year elections, of course, but they are (intentionally) rather frivolous. Can we do better, Crystal asks.

Artworks: "literature, film, painting, music, dance, and so forth" (from Crystal) on the theme of language. Well, languages, or maybe Language. Pretty much open territory.

There is, of course, no end of fiction, poetry, film, and so on in which particular bits of individual languages and particular customs of language use play central roles. (There is at least one book of poetry in English with the one-word title Language — by Jack Spicer, and it's wonderful. The cover art is, in fact, a reproduction of the cover page of an issue of the LSA's journal Language, an issue in which Spicer was one of the authors.)

But… artwork on languages is such an abstract idea. Even multilingualism and minority languages/varieties aren't easy to embody as Ideas — as matters of personal experience, yes, but not as abstractions.

Reliable data: documentation of languages, and updating of documentation. This strikes me as the hardest sell to the general public: who cares? If we think they should care, how to convince them?

Well, on some points lots of people care: they want to know who uses which words to mean what, for instance, so they want to hear (for American English, for example) what the linguistic atlases have to say, and what DARE has to say. If the press looks at such sources, it will report the "facts" in these sources, though some of the atlases report on the usage of people born over a hundred years ago and the DARE materials were collected around 40 years ago. I don't think  we can easily fix  this, and the language statistics in the Ethnologue (which Crystal specifically mentions, to point to some problems) can't easily be updated either. In any case, I'm afraid that most people won't appreciate the value of documenting minority languages or minority varieties (unless these people have some personal association with them).

Still, there are possibilities: celebratory days, maybe locations, certainly awards. But the year is more than half over: any proposals? any practicable proposals?

(Crystal's letter was followed by one from SIL linguist Wesley M. Collins, writing from Peru, where various events have been scheduled to celebrate IYL. These are modest, especially in comparison to the potato celebrations — the potato being "Peru's gift to the world" — but not insignificant.)

A final note: since I've invited people to make suggestions about how to celebrate IYL, I'm allowing comments. But if you want to talk about multilingualism, language diversity, minority languages, endangered languages, or non-standard varieties, please do that in some more appropriate place. On the other hand, if you want to talk about the usefulness of such very high-level initiatives as the IYL declaration, go for it. (I have mixed feelings. Crystal is an enthusiast, as is Language editor Brian Joseph. Others might just dismiss the idea out of hand. But maybe there's some middle ground that would be good for linguistics and also for society in general.)



  1. Nathan Myers said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

    I'm sorry, it's already the Year of the Frog. You all will have to get in line.

  2. S Onosson said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

    Planet Earth only gets one year??

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

    At this year's CELCNA conference, Erich Fox Tree suggested that schools/communities/etc. could pick a day on which people weren't going to speak their native language, the goal being to encourage people to speak in other languages and to some extent communicate outside their comfort zone. I thought that was a great idea, but I don't know how practicable it would be.

  4. Jahi Chappell said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

    This latter idea, "Speak Another Language Day" is a brilliant idea — it has the potential to be entertaining, informative, silly, and serious. I'd love to see this one come to pass — certainly, it could be done in small ways first, such as language schools having free classes for a day, or even week, and have high school and college language courses give extra credit, perhaps, for making a legitimate attempt to speak another language all day. I could see it being a fun activity in dorms as well for interested and diverse student bodies. Elementary school kids (at least the older ones) could watch a foreign-language film (likely with subtitles), and while it may be hard to keep everyone's interest, there are delightful foreign children's films and deeply insightful and moving foreign documentaries and dramas.

    I would take a while to catch on, but it's clever enough that if some schools started to do it, it would have a good chance of getting in the news and spreading a bit more from there.

    I love this idea!

  5. Albatross said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 12:38 am

    S Onosson: Planet Earth only gets one year??
    Oh, no. Planet Earth gets them all!

  6. Peter K. Austin said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 4:06 am

    There are plans afoot to celebrate IYL with an interactive exhibition at Stratford in the eastern part of London, encouraging members of the local community and visitors to record stories in their own languages, and to learn about language diversity across the world. For the past two years the Endangered Languages Project at the School of Oriental and African Studies has run an Endangered Languages Week where "through films, displays, discussions and workshops Endangered Languages Week presents what is being done to document, archive and support endangered languages around the world". This year we had over 500 people come along to participate. There are interested members of the public out there who appreciate interesting and reliable information about languages, and I believe it is not difficult to find ways to deliver it in digestible yet challenging forms. IYL provides an ideal focus for doing this in the remaining months of 2008.

  7. Malte said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 6:07 am

    What about a NaNoWriMo-style collective language learning initiative? Make (say) November International Learn-a-new-language month… lots of possibilities there.

  8. James Wimberley said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:14 am

    The UN doesn't decide that next year will be The Year of the Potato. It does so long in advance. The calendar is booked up to 2013. Should we try and get 2014 for Year of the Blog?

  9. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    James Wimberly: "The UN doesn't decide that next year will be The Year of the Potato. It does so long in advance."

    Yes, I should have said that the *declaration* is made a year in advance. That's what Heidi Harley reported on in her posting from May 2007.

  10. George said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    Regarding places to visit, there are the Museum of the Alphabet and Wycliffe Bible translating facility for LL readers travelling near Waxhaw, NC.

  11. Simon Musgrave said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

    The link to the full Crystal paper seems to be broken.

  12. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 4:56 am

    To Simon Musgrave: somehow two different addresses got telescoped into one. Now fixed.

    Well, actually, fixed twice. The address given in Language turns out to be no longer functional. But I've found the right address on Crystal's homepage.

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