Saturday, 23 May 2009

caring about dying languages

I attended an interesting book launch last Wednesday in the Alcaston Gallery, in Fitzroy. In the midst of beautiful artwork produced by indigenous women on Mornington island in Queensland, Professor Kate Burridge from Monash University introduced a new book, Dying Words,
by Nicholas Evans. The setting was chosen because much of Evans' work has dealt with indigenous languages of Australia.

Dying Words deals with a subject I am passionate about – the study and preservation of the many languages of humanity.

Professor Burridge said, amongst other things:
• The book is timely, due to the crisis in loss of languages. Of the six thousand extant languages, half will probably die in this century.
• It has much to say to experts in the field of linguistics.
• It is readable and enjoyable and is accessible to the general public.

Google book Search has a so-called 'preview' of the book, so it should be possible to read parts of it and decide whether you want to buy it. I bought it, because I'm interested in the way languages shape our view of the world. It seems a tragedy every time a language dies - that is, when the last speaker of the language dies. I remember, many years ago, meeting a young woman who said her language, Romansh, was nearly gone.

However, I read on a Swiss site that the language is still in use today.
Though Rumantsch has been an official language in canton Grisons for centuries, it has not been officially recognized as a national language of Switzerland until 1938. The sudden recognition was motivated by Switzerland's will to resist the ideology of incorporation of all ethnic Germans and Italians into Hitler's German Reich or Mussolini's fascist Italy. So the exotic fourth national language was very welcome to demonstrate that Switzerland is different from its neighbours ...

Until towards the end of the 20th century, there was no such thing as a standard Rumantsch language. If at all, people wrote in one of the five local dialects - which made it definitely unrealistic that anybody would translate anything into Romansh for a few readers (considering that a total of only 60,000 people are speaking one of the five Rumansch dialects). When it became clear that Rumantsch risks to become extinct the Lia Rumantscha [league for the preservation of the Rumantsch language] defined a common standard language called Rumantsch Grischun in 1982.

It seems a huge task to try to prevent small language groups being overwhelmed by larger ones, but all humanity loses out when a unique way of visualising the world is lost. I'm looking forward to reading Nicholas Evans' book, to see what he says about this distressing situation.


Brian Barker said...

Concerning the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign.

The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

If you have time please see Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

The argument for Esperanto can be seen at

parlance said...

Thanks. I will go over to the article about esperanto and have a look.