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Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?: Reversing Language Shift, Revisited - A 21st Century Perspective / Edition 2

Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?: Reversing Language Shift, Revisited - A 21st Century Perspective / Edition 2

by Joshua A FishmanJoshua A Fishman


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Defenders of threatened languages all over the world, from advocates of biodiversity to dedicated defenders of their own cultural authenticity, are often humbled by the dimensity of the task that they are faced with when the weak and the few seek to find a safe-harbour against the ravages of the strong and the many. This book provides both practical case studies and theoretical directions from all five continents and advances thereby the collective pursuit of "reversing language shift" for the greater benefit of cultural democracy everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853594922
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 01/05/2001
Series: Multilingual Matters Series , #116
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 520
Product dimensions: 5.77(w) x 8.19(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Joshua A. Fishman, a leading sociolinguist, is Distinguished University Research Professor, Social Sciences, Emeritus, at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Yeshiva University, and Visiting Professor at Stanford University, New York University, City University of New York Graduate Center and Long Island University. He is the author/editor of 38 books including Reversing Language Shift (Multilingual Matters, 1991) and the General Editor (and founder) of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language and of the book series Contributions to the Sociology of Language.

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Why is it so Hard to Save a Threatened Language?

(A Perspective on the Cases that Follow)


The recent well-justified alarm that many thousands of languages (a very high proportion indeed of all those now in existence) are dying and that thousands more are destined to die out during the first half of this century, important though it is, is not the immediate issue which this book seeks to address. Prognostications foretelling disaster are not enough. What the smaller and weaker languages (and peoples and cultures) of the world need are not generalised predictions of dire and even terminal illnesses but, rather, the development of therapeutic undertandings and approaches that can be adjusted so as to tackle essentially the same illness in patient after patient. However, just as the illnesses that have infected so many of the world's languages constitute a very recognisable syndrome that yet varies in kind and in degree from one infected language to another, so the diagnoses and cures that are required, fundamentally related though they may well be, must also vary, depending on the facts in each case. Fortunately, a start was made in that very direction as the previous century drew to a close. Fittingly, that start did not call itself a 'theory of the life and death of languages,' nor an account of 'why all languages – even English itself – must die sooner or later.' Instead, it called itself Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages (Fishman, 1991).

The approach, which this volume attempts to re-examine, refine, and revise, considers language illnesses and even language death per se, as just examples of varying degrees of severity of hitherto uncontrolled (largely because misunderstood) changes in the number and kinds of social functions for which particular languages are utilised at particular historical junctures. Such functional changes come as a result of contacts with neighbouring languages (including the cultures and resources of the neighbours that utilise these languages and that advocate, foster and even require them for specific functions). Thus, any theory and practice of assistance to threatened languages – whether the threat be a threat to their very lives, on the one hand, or a much less serious functional threat, on the other hand – must begin with a model of the functional diversification of languages. If analysts can appropriately identify the functions that are endangered as a result of the impact of stronger languages and cultures on weaker ones, then it may become easier to recommend which therapeutic steps must be undertaken in order to counteract any injurious impact that occurs. The purpose of our analyses must be to understand, limit and rectify the societal loss of functionality in the weaker language when two languages interact and compete for the same functions within the same ethnocultural community and to differentiate between life-threatening and non-life-threatening losses. The study and practice of 'reversing language shift' (RLS) is thus not only descriptive but also prescriptive in functional terms. It does not merely use language-related adjectives ('prestigious', 'standardised', 'positively viewed'), which are of course, almost endless in number, in conjunction with the health of languages, but it uses substantive functional designations and seeks to determine whether the number or power of the community members discharging these functions in a particular language is rising or falling. The analysis of languages in competition, in terms of the societal functions that are involved, contested, lost or gained in such interlanguage competition and the degree of 'cruciality' of these functions for the future longevity of given languages, is what the study of 'reversing language shift' seeks to become, in both theoretical and practical terms.

A Specific Culturally Related Language is not the same as Language in General

The Western world has had a love affair with its own languages for over two centuries. Because of this love affair (the seeds of which the power and prestige of the West has also sown throughout much, if not most, of the world), it is easy to overstate the importance of language in human social and cultural affairs. Language is not the only important consideration in connection with the lives of peoples and nations, communities and regions. There are also demographic, economic, geographic and yet other essentially co-occurring sociolinguistic factors that must be considered in the study of the determinants and consequences of the sociocultural priorities, values and behaviours of human collectivities. But because language is such a central ingredient in most of the foregoing, and because of the love affair with language mentioned earlier, language (specifically, a society's perceived 'own' language) has been elevated to the stature of a prime consideration in the life of most human collectivities. In other words, we have made language into something even more important than it might otherwise have been in any case. Having done so, we are now doubly obliged to consider sympathetically what many human collectivities do when they perceive their own language to be threatened and why some protective and restorative actions are more successful than others. It does not help for doctors to tell depressed patients that they have no reason to be depressed. Similarly, it is not helpful for social scientists to tell a sociocultural collectivity that there are more important things to worry about than the maintenance of their own seemingly ailing language. The concern for certain ailments may appear to outsiders to be overblown, but they are usually by no means groundless or specious or inconsequential. This is so not only because social problems believed to be true tend to generate real social consequences, but because the true involvement of language in human culture and cultural identity is, when all is said and done, quite amazing. Collective worry about such an important factor in all human cultures and cultural identities must be taken seriously, because not to do so would have very serious and deleterious social consequences, both objectively and perspectively speaking.

Specific languages are related to specific cultures and to their attendant cultural identities at the level of doing, at the level of knowing and at the level of being.

Such a huge part of every ethnoculture is linguistically expressed that it is not wrong to say that most ethnocultural behaviours would be impossible without their expression via the particular language with which these behaviours have been traditionally associated. Education (in content and in practice), the legal system (its abstract prohibitions and concrete enforcements), the religious beliefs and observances, the self-governmental operations, the literature (spoken and/or written), the folklore, the philosophy of morals and ethics, the medical code of illnesses and diseases, not to mention the total round of interpersonal interactions (childhood socialisation, establishment of friendship and kinship ties, greetings, jokes, songs, benedictions, maladictions, etc.) are not only linguistically expressed but they are normally enacted, at any given time, via the specific language with which these activities grew up, have been identified and have been intergenerationally associated. It is the specificity of the linguistic bond of most cultural doings that makes the very notion of a 'translated culture' so inauthentic and even abhorrent to most ethnocultural aggregates. The fact that some few ethnocultures and cultural identities have been able to 'survive' translation is neither here nor there. In translation they are not the same as they were in their original (i.e. most of the associated features itemised above have changed and some have been literally 'lost in translation'). Every sociocultural collectivity interested in doing so has the right to strive for its own perceived authenticity via the language of its own preference. To claim that social meanings can remain the same when a different language, coming from a different ethnocultural point of origin, is employed, is to misinterpret the dynamics and symbols of 'insiders' to any culture. Translations may do for 'outsiders'. We all read translations of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, not to mention Sanskrit and other classical texts, but we cannot pretend, thereby, to be enacting the very same culture and cultural identity of the original authors and audiences of those texts. 'Insiders', in particular, may well want more than a translated culture and identity, particularly if what they conceive of as the 'real thing' can still be protected and intergenerationally transmitted.

But note how many of the overt 'doings' of ethnocultural membership are related to specific ethnocultural 'knowings'. Ethnocognitions go beyond the usual general association between language and cognition. The cultural colour system, the illness terminology, the kinship terminology, the body-part terminology, the very number system that is employed, the pronoun system (are there or aren't there formal and informal pronouns and if so, how many levels of different degrees of formality are required by the traditionally associated language?), whether verbs and adjectives recognise gender or whether such recognition can be avoided or obscured; these all represent specific ethnolinguistic interpretations of reality. As such, they are at any period in cultural time an indication of what particular cultures know only through their specific and traditionally associated languages. Through social change and social learning experiences these 'knowings' can be overridden or overturned, supplemented or modified, discarded or forgotten, but it is certainly not justified to say that the resulting 'remainder' is 'the same culture' as that which existed 'originally'. Cultural knowings constitute a huge portion of the sum total of cultural identity and human collectivities may well be justified in seeking to maintain and strengthen the very 'knowings' in terms of which they recognise themselves, the uniqueness of their culture and their intergenerational identification with one another.

Just as 'knowings' are somewhat more linguistically abstract than 'doings', so the 'being' aspect of the link between a specific language and ethnocultural identity/membership is more abstract (some might say 'mystic') than is the 'knowing' link thereto. 'Being' is the very intergenerational link itself, the corporeal link between generations via which a particular 'essence' is believed to be passed on. Ethnocultures consist, perspectivally, of genetically continuous human populations, and just as such populations are phenotypically defined (they often believe they can recognise each other on sight, even when others cannot do so), so, too, they often believe that their specific languages are part and parcel of this 'essential' bodily inheritance that one generation passes on to the next. Child development research has revealed that children begin to learn the phonology and the syntax of their prospective 'mother tongue' when they are still in the womb. Many ethnocultures have always supposed that this was so and since the culturally specific language issues forth from what is perceived as a culturally specific body-type and genetic pool, it is not uncommon to view the language as being yet another tangible contributor to authentic ethnocultural membership. To abandon the language may be viewed as an abandonment not only of the traditional doings and knowings, but as an abandonment of personal ancestral kin and cultural ancestral heroes per se. Similarly, guaranteeing or fostering the specific language's acquisition and use is often viewed as fostering one's own personal (in addition to the culture's) triumph over death and obliteration via living on in one's own children and grandchildren. Life and death imagery is pervasive in ethnolinguistic consciousness the world over (Fishman, 1997).

This is a mystic belief to which many are attracted on occasion. We all want to believe in life everlasting. The culturally specific language is often the vehicle and the beneficiary of such mystic beliefs. Wherever they are emphasised to the exclusion of the other two (more open-ended) dimensions mentioned above, they can come to be racist beliefs (and, therefore, harmful to those defined as 'outsiders'). However, more usually, the 'being' aspect involves nothing more than a further strong link between the culturally traditional specific language and personal responsibility (as well as personal reward) for the continuity of the language and ethnicity link. Ethnicity itself is a kinship-based myth (a myth because it is more important to believe it than that it be literally true) and the language of the intergenerational ethnolinguistic continuity experience is, therefore, likely to share in this kinship-based assumption (which is, fundamentally, a 'being' assumption).

From all of the above, it should be clear that a traditionally associated language is more than just a tool of communication for its culture. Such a language can mean much more to its ethnoculture than just languages in general or than the language capacity with which all humans are endowed. Such a language is often viewed as a very specific gift, a marker of identity and a specific responsibility vis-à-vis future generations.

Why Organising on Behalf of Reversing Language Shift is not Anti-modern

'Globalisation is the wave of the future', more than one recent newspaper headline (not to mention the received popular wisdom) has announced, and, to some extent, this is so. But globalisation is both a constructive and a destructive phenomenon, both a unifying and a divisive one, and it is definitely not a culturally neutral or impartial one. In our day and age, it is definitely the globalisation of pan-Western culture (and pop-consumer culture in particular) that is the motor of language shift. And since America-dominated globalisation has become the major economic, technological and cultural thrust of worldwide modernisation and Westernisation, efforts to safeguard threatened languages (and, therefore, inevitably, contextually weaker languages) must oppose the very strongest processes and powers that the world knows today. That, in a word, is exactly why it is so hard to save threatened languages.

But it is even harder than that. The necessarily unequal competition between the weak and the strong, the few and the many, the poor and the rich, would be bad enough. The case of threatened languages (which is just our short-cut way of referring to threatened cultures and cultural identities) is rendered even more difficult by the fact that not only is the 'enemy' not recognised, but he/she is even persona grata within the very gates of the beleagureed defenders ('We have met the enemy, and he is us!', as the cartoon character Pogo pointed out more than a generation ago). As the 18 cases that constitute the bulk of this book amply indicate, most RLSers are not by any means aiming at a 'return to the golden past', when the interaction between peoples was minimal and, therefore, when local differences could be easily maintained. On the contrary; they generally aim at nothing more than to achieve greater self-regulation over the processes of sociocultural change which globalisation fosters. They want to be able to tame globalisation somewhat, to counterbalance it with more of their own language-and-culture institutions, processes and outcomes. They would like to 'call more of their own cultural shots', so to speak, and to make sure that globalisation's unification of the market (both in production and in consumption) is counterbalanced to a larger extent by an even greater emphasis on differential cultural values, skills, attitudes and beliefs that stem from and reinforce their own identity. Indeed, most RLSers do not even 'go the whole way' and do not aspire to independent statehood (the usual modern mechanism of establishing, maintaining and regulating cultural boundaries). They are committed to pursuing the goals of strengthening their own particular threatened language, culture and identity via peaceful political persuasion, advocacy of democratic cultural autonomy and self-initiated efforts to foster their own intergenerational continuity.


Excerpted from "Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Joshua A. Fishman and the authors of individual chapters.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

PREFACE: Reversing Language Shift; 1. Why is it so hard to save a threatened language? Joshua A. Fishman
THE AMERICAS: 2. Reversing Navajo Language Shift, Revisited Tiffany Lee (Stanford Univ) & Daniel McLaughlin (Dine College)
3. How Threatened is the Spanish of New York Puerto Ricans? Ofelia Garcia (Long Island Univ) Jose Luis Morin (City Univ of New York) & Klaudia Rivera (Long Island Univ); 4. A Decade in the Life of a Two-in-One Language - Yiddish in New York City
Joshua A. Fishman; 5. Reversing Language Shift in Quebec Richard Y. Bourhis (Universite du Quebec a Montreal); 6. Otomi language shift and some recent efforts to reverse it Yolanda Lastra (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico); 7. Reversing Quechua language shift in South America Nancy H. Hornberger (Univ of Pennsylvania) & Kendall A. King (New York Univ).
EUROPE: 8. Irish Language Production and Reproduction 1981-1996 Pádraig Ó Riagáin (Institiuid Teangeolaiochta Eireann); 9. A Frisian Update of Reversing Language Shift Durk Gorter (Fryske Academy); 10. Reversing Language Shift: The Case of Basque Maria-Jose Azurmendi (Univ of the Basque Country), Erramun Bachoc (Basque Cultural Institute), Francisca Zabeleta (Public University of Navarre); 11. Catalan A Decade Later Miquel Strubell (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) .
AFRICA AND ASIA: 12. Saving Threatened Languages in Africa: A Case Study of Oko Efurosibina Adegbija (Univ of Ilorin, Nigeria); 13. Andamanese: Biological Challenge for Language Reversal E. Annamalai & V. Gnanasundaram (C.I.I.L, Mysore);
14. "Akor Itak" Our Language, Your Language - Ainu in Japan John C. Maher (International Christian Univ, Tokyo);
15. Hebrew After a Century of RLS Efforts Bernard Spolsky (Bar-Illan Univy) & Elana Shohamy (Tel Aviv Univ).
THE PACIFIC: 16. Can the Shift from Immigrant Languages be Reversed in Australia? Michael Clyne (Monash Univ);
17. Is the Extinction of Australia's Indigenous Languages Inevitable? Joseph Lo Bianco & Mari Rhydwen (National Language and Literacy Institute of Australia); 18: RLS in Aotearoa/New Zealand 1989-1999 Richard & Nena Benton (Waikato University).
CONCLUSIONS: 19: From Theory to Practice (and Vice Versa): Review, Reconsideration and Reiteration Joshua A. Fishman

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