SAVING KIM.

The NY Times has a nice article (“Linguist’s Preservation Kit Has New Digital Tools,” by Chris Nicholson) about Tucker Childs and his work in Sierra Leone trying to understand and record the Kim language (which I presume is what Ethnologue calls Krim, “alternate names Kim, Kimi, Kirim, Kittim”—the Kim languages of Chad are entirely different).

For centuries, social and economic incentives have been working against Kim and in favor of Mende, a language used widely in the region, until finally, Dr. Childs speculates, the Kim language has been pushed to the verge of extinction.
It used to be that field linguists like Dr. Childs, a scattered corps working against time to salvage the world’s endangered tongues — more than 3,000 at last count — scribbled data in smeared notebooks and stored sounds on cassette tapes, destined to rot in boxes. But linguistics has gone digital. Dr. Childs now uses a solid-state recorder, and he has applications that will analyze the elements of a vowel in seconds or compare sounds across languages.
Using Geographic Information Systems, software that translates data into maps, he and his research assistants, Hannah Sarvasy and Ali Turay, pinpoint villages that are not to be found on any official map. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons linguists want these languages preserved,” Dr. Childs said, “but for me it’s more an emotional thing. It’s not noblesse oblige, it’s capitalist oblige. These people are totally peripheralized.”
In its new digital form, this kind of research is more accessible. It allows larger projects to share the world’s linguistic heritage with a wider public of teachers and learners, including, when possible, the original speakers.
The aim is not just to salvage, but to revive. Financed by the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Childs’s recordings will find their way, once his study ends and he returns to his post as a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, to a huge data bank in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Let’s have no muttering about how useless it is to try to save languages. If people want to let their languages die, they will, no matter what linguists do, but if they want to save them and linguists can help, it’s noble work, and I deeply respect Dr. Childs and his fellow field linguists. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. mdonley says:

    Language preservation is indeed a noble goal, but one wonders how people without the economic and political tools to preserve it – instruction in schools, a written literature, that sort of thing – will be able to do so. A language like, say, Irish, has the full backing and support of a wealthy, interested state, but how many languages do not? A difficult problem.
    And not to derail, but I learned a new word here: peripheralize.

  2. tlajous says:

    It’s a tough call. In Mexico, language-preservation has led to bilingual schooling and textbooks. Given the appaulling level of instruction here, the rural-poor kids (bilingual or non-Spanish speaking communities are usually such) have a much tougher time learning… And a much tougher time learning Spanish and math and things that will help them better integrate into a Spanish-speaking country/society. Language-preservation has indeed helped keep Tzotzil, Otomí, and tens (if not hundreds) of languages and dialects alive—but has many times rendered poor bilingual kids (and adults in adult education groups) functionally illiterate.

  3. Yeah, that’s a problem, and it will take time and effort to figure out some ways to avoid it as much as possible. I think a large part of the answer lies with giving people the tools (as cheaply as possible, of course) to keep their language alive without the intervention of the state (in part because that can be withdrawn at any time), but each community will have to work out the details for itself.

  4. Preservation of language has led to bilingual schooling especially textbooks. That’s a big dilemma, because language preservation takes an effort concerning on how to keep it. Maybe affordable materials such as language books supplies, and culture enhancement will a great assistance in language preservation.

  5. mollymooly says:

    A language like, say, Irish, has the full backing and support of a wealthy, interested state

    Actually, now that Ireland is poor again, we’re cutting back on frivolities.

  6. Bill Walderman says:

    Speaking about endangered languages, where is Marie-Lucie? I haven’t seen a post by her here or on Language Log for several weeks. I hope she’s all right and on vacation.

  7. I hope so too. Come back, m-l, we miss you!

  8. “that will help them better integrate into a Spanish-speaking country/society. ”
    Increasingly these children and their parents are integrating ionto an English-speaking society, andnit is havng predictable efects. For one thing, having English as an alternative breaks the back of Spanish cultural dominance just on the psychological level. For another, being in an English-speaking setting is giving theee peole the financial means to set up and run their own schools (in a few cases), but more importantly, it is removing the stigma of poverty that attaches to being an Indian, and to holding onto indigenous langauges and other aspects of those cultures. It is not at all unusual to hear all kinds of languages from Guerrero and Oaxaca spoken, right out in public, here on the West Coast. There’s even a Mixtec radio station somewhere in the Central Valley, Fresno probably. Chew on that, Univision.
    Marie-Lucie, come back!

  9. A language like, say, Icelandic, has the full backing and support of a(n until recently) wealthy, interested state.
    (I assume nobody’s seriously worried about the prospects for Icelandic yet?)
    A recent proposal to make Gronings a core part of primary school teaching in Groningen didn’t pass the provincial parliament, though. (Fries is probably secure for now, but Bottom Saxon in all its flavours is still on the critical list.)

  10. Etienne says:

    I am one hundred percent in favor of the preservation of linguistic diversity. But the way to Hell is paved with good intentions, and I frankly wonder whether some linguists might not be accelerating language extinction through their “language preservation” efforts. By claiming that a given minority language can be “saved”/”revived” by being taught (a few hours a week, typically) in the local schools, it seems to me that they are shifting the burden away from the older generation, who all too often would rather not use the language at home (not knowing what such use might entail), and for whom the foreign linguists’ claim offers a great “out”: they can stop using the language at home (guilt-free!), since the school will take care of the language now.
    Now, the notion that limited school instruction could serve as an adequate substitute for L1 acquisition in a natural setting is, to put it politely, preposterous. It seems to me that linguists who genuinely care about linguistic diversity should make a few things clear to the linguistc communities whose languages they are interested in seeing preserved: 1-There is no substitute for acquiring a language as an L1, 2-There is nothing inherently inferior about any given language, each of which is a unique and wonderful system, 3-There is no reason for the acquisition of one’s L1 to prevent the acquisition of (an)other language(s), 4-Once a language is gone, extinct is forever (the case of Israeli Hebrew being the single exception, in the face of thousands of languages which have died).
    If the older generation of a given community came to realize that using the community language at home was the only way to keep their language alive and that such use needn’t stand in the way of their children’s success later in life, that would do more for the viability of said community language than much of what passes for “revival efforts”.
    (And I too hope M.-L. will be back, I’m sure she’d have a great deal to contribute to this discussion).

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Bottom Saxon

    …Wow. If that’s an attempt to translate Plattdeutsch, it’s better than the original! 🙂

  12. “Bottom Saxon”
    David, not really a very good translation. I bet “Plattdeutsch” doesn’t have the salacious connotations of “Bottom Saxon”.
    “If the older generation of a given community came to realize that using the community language at home was the only way to keep their language alive and that such use needn’t stand in the way of their children’s success later in life, that would do more for the viability of said community language than much of what passes for “revival efforts”.”
    Very true, Etienne, and there are lots of layers to this. One layer is that the langauge can be associated with poverty and oppression in the minds of that older gneration, so they decline to pass it on. This is one reason that so few European immigrants passed on their languages to their children in America. It doesn’t even have to be in the setting of immigration – Miles na Gopaleen keeps referring to this mentality in the The Poor Mouth.
    Another layer is the prestige of the language, minority or not. There are people who learn MOdern greek in the US only because they need it at church. BTW, that is also the main reason people cite for wanting to learn Karok and bring it back to life.
    Then there is the issue of practicality. Maybe bilingualism is considered too much bother, maybe not. There will be Fujianese dialects that survive only as organized crime cryptolects whether anyone continues using them at home or not.

  13. Bottom Saxon as a translation for Niedersächsisch is much better than ‘low German’ is for Plattdeutsch. Also, it’s more scatological than salacious, having to do with farting.

  14. “Plattdeutsch” is a terrible translation of “Nedersaksisch” into English: firstly, it is not a translation into English at all, and secondly it is not considered endearing or helpful around these parts to classify a Dutch minority language (“streektaal”) as a dialect of German. (Notwithstanding the ontological issues of dialecthood, which surely need no withstanding at a blog as cultivated as this.)

  15. Yeah. What Des said.

  16. John Emerson says:

    But so-called “Dutch”, as its name implies, is itself but a degraded form of German. “Bottom Saxon” is just a less degraded form.

  17. Dutch is of course not called Dutch in Dutch. (Nobody expects the Engleesh to get anything right, so they can certainly go on calling Nederlands Dutch and Deutsch Cherman to their hearts’ contents.)

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    Whether or not an endangered and understudied language is “savable,” documenting its grammar and lexicon while there are still native speakers to provide the information is a useful scholarly endeavor, that may prove valuable to future generations of linguists working on typological questions etc etc etc long after there are no more native speakers to be inquired of. Of course, if it’s too obvious that the fieldworker is just trying to get everything documented before the inevitable doom, the native speakers may in some circumstances be less interested in cooperating . . .
    On the other hand, a fieldworker who gets too emotionally invested in preservation for its own sake may take an unduly negative view of the many realistic and/or benign reasons why members of a marginal language community might want themselves or their children to focus more on acquring or increasing proficiency in a more useful language. Two of the most powerful forces endangering marginal languages in the long run are: a) the desire not to be poor; and b) the desire, on the part of particular individuals, to marry cute other individuals who happen to belong to another neighboring ethnic/class group speaking the locally more dominant language. I don’t think either of these desires ought to be squelched in the interests of language preservation.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Hi everyone, thank you for your concern (relayed by LH), I am in Berkeley attending summer courses at the Linguistic Institute and having only a minuscule amount of time to access the Internet from the library (hours have been drastically cut for the next 12 months). I will be back at the end of August.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    is much better than ‘low German’ is for Plattdeutsch

    It’s for Niederdeutsch, of which Plattdeutsch (“spoken in places so low they’re flat as a plate”) is merely the “extreme” (that is, farthest from High German).
    (Yeah, I know. Some say platt means “simple” and is meant in a disparaging way. I don’t like that story. S’è vero, è mal trovato.)

    But so-called “Dutch”, as its name implies, is itself but a degraded form of German. “Bottom Saxon” is just a less degraded form.

    Phylogenetically speaking, Dutch (Low Frankish) is actually closer to Middle and High German than Bottom Saxon is. Or at least it holds the other way around: Bottom Saxon (…I almost abbreviated it…) is more closely related to Anglo-Saxon than Dutch is.

    Two of the most powerful forces endangering marginal languages in the long run are: a) the desire not to be poor; and b) the desire, on the part of particular individuals, to marry cute other individuals who happen to belong to another neighboring ethnic/class group speaking the locally more dominant language.

    These are reasons to learn the locally more dominant language; they’re not reasons to abandon the marginal language.

  21. Captain Marvell Bathrobe says:

    These are reasons to learn the locally more dominant language; they’re not reasons to abandon the marginal language
    “Had I but world enough, and time” (plus lashings of memory), I would learn every language known on earth. But there are severe practical restraints to keeping marginal languages alive in one’s life. Not all people want to spend the time and effort required to keep up their own marginal language just in order to be a walking museum….

  22. (Yeah, I know. Some say platt means “simple” and is meant in a disparaging way. I don’t like that story. S’è vero, è mal trovato.)

    It’s probably true, though. Lots of Middle German vernaculars are locally known as platt, too.

  23. it seems to me that they are shifting the burden away from the older generation, who all too often would rather not use the language at home
    You are making the assumption that everybody can read and write! The problem is the older generation usually cannot. As such, when the younger generation is taught to read/write, it is taught in Spanish, and then usually lets go of their original language—whether spoken at home or not (mostly it IS spoken at home as the older genration mostly speaks less Spanish). Thus, the conflict is whether to teach reading and writing in the original language too, which would be needed to keep it alive (as a purely-oral language tends to dissapear when a graphical language is available), and that’s when it gets complex…
    TL

  24. “Bottom Saxon as a translation for Niedersächsisch is much better than ‘low German’ is for Plattdeutsch. Also, it’s more scatological than salacious, having to do with farting.”
    “Bottom” is a reference to anal sex in my sub-culture, which sounds pretty salacious, though I suppose that can be scatalogical as well if you fail to prepare properly.
    “Dutch is of course not called Dutch in Dutch. (Nobody expects the Engleesh to get anything right, so they can certainly go on calling Nederlands Dutch and Deutsch Cherman to their hearts’ contents.)”
    By “get anything right” you mean that you insist the English make a distinction you find obvious but that they [used to] find trivial. Haven’t you heard of “The Rotterdam Dutch and the Potsdam Dutch and the goddam Dutch?
    “Not all people want to spend the time and effort required to keep up their own marginal language just in order to be a walking museum….”
    Indeed. They may have other reasosn, as do Mexican and Chicano gang members in the California prison system who are reviving and spreading modern Nahautl to get past the prison guards who generally all speak Spanish now.
    And learning English, Spanish and Nahautl is not quite on the order of “learn every language known on earth.”

  25. Which part of “they can certainly go on calling Nederlands Dutch and Deutsch Cherman to their hearts’ contents” implies an insistence that anyone should do anything? (We note, as uninsistently as possible, that they do in any case make a distinction these days. Also that I am myself an Engleesh, for better or worse.)

  26. SnowLeopard says:

    Jim, can you point me to a published source (or a few) discussing Fujianese as an organized crime cryptolect and the currency of Nahuatl among gang members in the California prison system, and other examples that fit this mold? I’d like to read more about this.

  27. Yes, that does sound like interesting stuff.

  28. “Which part of “they can certainly go on calling Nederlands Dutch and Deutsch Cherman to their hearts’ contents” implies an insistence that anyone should do anything? ”
    I was just taking the piss. There, did I get that one right?
    “Jim, can you point me to a published source (or a few) discussing Fujianese as an organized crime cryptolect and the currency of Nahuatl among gang members in the California prison system, and other examples that fit this mold? I’d like to read more about this.”
    No, sorry. I doubt anyone has published anything on it, or even knows about it to publish anything. It’s craft lore in certain narrow segments of the law enforcement community.
    Nahautl: I saw this discused about five years ago on a private gang-related user group. The consensus was that it was basically a pretty reliable intelligence indicator of gang afiliation(unlike Oaxacan languages for instance, which people speak wherever they are just because it’s standard practice). I did find things on the internet at the time, I think, that had word lists and the like. It was hard to tell how proficient people were getting based on what I saw – a person could very easily substitute Nahautl lexical items into Spanish or even English sentences and get the desired opacity, as far as an eaves-dropping guard would eb concerned. OTOH, it’s not like Nahautl is soem recondite little ethnic language with a million arbitrary exceptions to everything that would make it especially hard to learn to a fairly good level of function.
    Fujianese: Again, probably nothing published. Most of the material on that would be in China, in LE hands, and they would have absolutely no interest in publicizing what would essentially be “means and sources”. My experience was in working with alien smugglers, specifically “enforcers’ on smuggling loads. Part of this characterization of these dialects as criminal cryptolects is just stereotyping, or jumping t a conclusion, on my part – in China – mainland or overseas China – there is no formal difference between criminal activity and any other kind of business activity, either in the culture or in the organizations who carry it out. Banks in Hong Kong and Singapore happily and knowingly finance smuggling loads of all kinds. And given the reputation of the Fujianese in general, it’s just negligence to ignore the possiblity of criminal activity. One more thing; given the ethnic animosity between Cantonese and Fujianese, either northern or southern, if you found them working together, that was taken as an indicator of criminal involvement. It’s assumed there is no way people from any of those groups will be working together on any kind of decent business.

  29. Fascinating stuff—thanks for sharing your insider knowledge!

  30. “Fascinating stuff—thanks for sharing your insider knowledge!”
    Sorry it’s so unsubstantiated, but there it is.
    It does bear on something that I have wondered abot, and that is the effects different social settings have on language change – development of slangs (remember our flap over the influence of Irish on slangs in English?), on language shift and maybe even just general lexical changes. On language shift, Aleksandra Aikenvald has some very interesting observations.
    It’s not that I don’t think there are universal laws, it’s just that I think there are laws that disable or influence the workings of other universal laws.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    It’s probably true, though. Lots of Middle German vernaculars are locally known as platt, too.

    Could this practice have been imported from farther north?

  32. Jim: if you found them working together, that was taken as an indicator of criminal involvement. It’s assumed there is no way people from any of those groups will be working together on any kind of decent business.
    I think it’s very nice that crime can bring different groups of people together like this.

  33. “I think it’s very nice that crime can bring different groups of people together like this.”
    Indeed. In British Columbia the calming effect of a chance to make money has eased race relations between the Vietnamese pot growers and the Hell’s Angels for years now.
    Closer to home the Mara Salvatrucha (>MS13) has been inter-ethnic for some time now, even taking in Mexican members, which is utterly ironic given the original reason the Mara organized in East LA.

Speak Your Mind

*