While browsing YouTube this morning I came across a video about Gallo, a Gallo-Romance language spoken in Brittany and Normandy in the northwest of France.

Gallo is one of the langues d’oïl, and is closely related to such languages as Norman and Picard. It is recognised as a minority language in France, and is taught at state schools in Upper Brittany, although few students choose to study it.

One of the comments on the video goes as follows:

De ce que j’en entends dans ce reportage, c’est plutôt une déformation paysanne du français et non une langue avec sa grammaire et son vocabulaire comme le breton.

Which means:

From what I hear in this report, it is rather a peasant distortion of French and not a language with its grammar and vocabulary like Breton.

This kind of thing seems to be quite common when minority and regional languages and dialects are discussed. Speakers of majority languages often belittle them, claim they are not proper languages, that they don’t have their own grammar, and/or that they are ‘just’ dialects, patois, or distorted / corrupted versions of a majority language, and so on.

I wonder why people feel the need to make such comments. Any ideas?

Echoes on the Tongue

Many years ago I went to a fascinating talk by David Crystal in Bangor University about endangered languages. One of the things he said was that a good way to spread the word about the plight of such languages might be for creative people to make art, or to write songs, stories, poems, etc about them.

Since then I’ve been thinking about writing a song about this topic, and finally got round to it a few weeks ago. Today I made a recording of it, with harp accompaniment. It’s called Echoes on the Tongue, and is written from the perspective of the words of an endangered language that has never been written down, and has only a few elderly speakers.

At the end of the recording I’ve added the phrase “we are still here” spoken in endangered languages – currently Welsh, Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. If you can translate this phrase into other endangered languages, and ideally make a recording of it, please do. Recordings can be sent to feedback[at]omniglot[dot]com.

Disappearing Languages

According to many reports, a language becomes extinct every two weeks, on average, and over the next century, up to 90% of the world’s languages will cease to be spoken.

This is an oft-repeated story, but is it true?

According to Mike Campbell of Glossika, the actual data on language death tells a different story. He wrote a blog post about this, and made a video:

If a language dies every two weeks, you would expect an average of 26 to die each year, and 260 each decade. This is not what is happening at the moment, and new languages are even being discovered. Or at least forms of speech that were formerly classified as dialects are being reclassified as separate languages.

These the languages that have become extinct since 2008. The dates given are for when the last known native speakers of these languages died.

  • Eyak (I·ya·q), a Na-Dené language that was spoken in south central Alaska in the USA until 2008. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Bidyara, a Pama-Nyngan language that was spoken in Queensland in Australia until 2008. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Pataxó (Pataxó Hã-Ha-Hãe), a Maxakalían language that was spoken in the Bahia region of Brazil, until 2009.
  • Kora (Aka-Kora), a Great Andamanese language that was spoken in the Andaman Islands, a part of India until 2009.
  • Nyawaygi, a Pama-Nyngan language that was spoken in the northeast of Queensland in Australia until 2009.
  • Bo (Aka-Bo), a Great Andamanese language that was spoken in the Andaman Islands, a part of India until 2010.
  • Cochin Portuguese creole, an Indo-Portuguese creole that was spoken on Vypeen Island in Cochin in the state of Kerala in southern India until 2010.
  • Pazeh, an Northwest Formosan language that was spoken in central Taiwan until 2010. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Lower Aranda / Lower Arrernte (Alenjerntarrpe), a Pama–Nyungan language that was spoken in the Northern Territory of Australia until 2011.
  • Holikachuk (Doogh Qinag), a Northern Athabaskan language that was spoken in the village of Holikachuk (Hiyeghelinhdi) on the Innoko River in central Alaska until 2012.
  • Upper Chinook (Kiksht), a Chinookan language that was spoken along the Colombia River in Oregon in the USA until 2012. Efforts are being made to revitalise the language.
  • Dhungaloo, a Pama–Nyungan that was spoken in Queensland in Australia until 2012. The current status of this language is not certain
  • Yurok (Puliklah), an Algic language that was spoken in Northern California until 2013. It is currently being revived.
  • Livonian (Līvõ kēļ), a Finnic language that was spoken in Latvia until 2013, and which is being revived.
  • Klallam (Nəxʷsƛʼayʼəmúcən), a Salishan language that was spoken in Washington State in the USA, and in neighbouring areas of Canada, until 2014. It is currently being revived.
  • Thao (Thaw a lalawa), a Northern Formosan language that was spoken in central Taiwan until 2014, or maybe more recently. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Wichita, a Caddoan language that was spoken in Oklahoma in the USA until 2016. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Mandan (Nų́ų́ʔetaa íroo), a Siouan language that was spoken on Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota in the USA until 2016. Efforts are being made revive it.

That’s a total of 18, plus a couple of dialects I haven’t listed, over the past decade – slightly less than the predicted 260. Moreover, while there are no native speakers of these languages, efforts are being made to revive some of them.

More information about recently extinct languages, language death and language revitalization:

Reasons to learn minority languages

I came across an interesting article today which discusses some of the benefits of learning a minority language like Manx. The writer, a fluent Manx speaker, is currently studying French and Linguistics at Oxford University, and has found that her knowledge of Manx has enabled her to make all sorts of connections, and has opened many doors. She was also in Gleann Cholm Cille studying Irish, though in July during the week I’m usually there, and I heard that Adrian Cain had been there teaching Manx that week – it’s a shame I missed it.

When you learn a language with a small number of speakers like Manx, it is possible to get to know quite a few of them and feel part of the community, and there is quite a lot of interest in such languages among linguists and language enthusiasts. I’ve certainly found this with all the Celtic languages, and whenever I meet someone who speaks one or more of them, I feel an instant connection. In Gleann Cholm Cille, for example, I met an English lad who is doing Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth University, and we found we have some mutual friends, and chatted away happily in Welsh, though I was in Irish mode that week, so sometimes mixed in a bit of Irish with my Welsh.

Does the same kind of thing happen for other minority and endangered languages?

One of my classmates in Gleann Cholm Cille, a gentleman from Oklahoma, mentioned that he had studied some Cherokee, but that the Cherokee people are suspicious of outsiders learning their language, so it can be hard to find material to learn the language and people to practice with.

The Right To Read, The Right To Write

Today we have a guest post by Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project

An text in Hmong in the Pahawh Hmong script carved into a wooden block

As those of us in the United States head into the long weekend that celebrates the country’s independence from colonial authority (yes, as a Brit I have to accept my birth country’s history!), the Endangered Alphabets’ Mother Tongue initiative is especially significant.

Take a look at the photo, for example. The Hmong were, and to some extent still are, a disadvantaged minority in many of the countries of their native southeast Asia. The fact that they did not have their own written language was seen as a sign of how uncivilized they were. When Shong Lue Yang, an unlettered farmer, created this script for his people it gave them such a strong sense of identity that the majority cultures of the region were disturbed – so much so that soldiers were sent to assassinate him.

I’d like to suggest we think of Independence Day not just in terms of nations but in terms of people and cultures, and the right of all peoples to their own culture, history, identity and language. That’s what our Mother Tongue exhibition will be all about.

Please take a moment to back our Kickstarter this weekend.

And then go back to celebrating independence!


Tim Brookes

PS I learned about most of this on Omniglot, of course!

Post-vernacular languages

In an article I read today – Sustaining languages: An interview with Peter Austin, I came across an interesting idea – post-vernacular languages.

A vernacular language is one you use in your everyday life, while a post-vernacular language is one you may not want to use in your daily life and as means of communication, but may learn to connect or reconnect with your heritage, culture and heritage, for fun, out of interest, or for other reasons.

An example given in the article is of Jewish people in the USA who use English as their everyday language, but decide to learn some Yiddish as it was the language of their parents or grandparents. Some may just learn a few words and phrases, others may learn more of the language, but few will use it as a vernacular language.

Here is an interesting video which discusses the status of Yiddish as a post-vernacular language:

There is also a book which discuss the phenomenon: Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture by Jeffrey Shandler

My learning and use of languages is mostly post-vernacular – I learn them mainly for fun and out of interest, and while I do sometimes use them to communicate with others, that isn’t necessarily my primary goal. I have used languages in a vernacular way when living in other countries, and I do currently life in Wales, in an area where the majority of people speak Welsh, and I use Welsh quite often, though not necessarily every day.

Languages in Bhutan


I listened to a very interesting programme on the BBC about languages in Bhutan today. It mentioned that although the 19 or so indigenous languages of Bhutan have equal status, in theory at least. In practise, particularly in education, the main languages used are Dzongkha / Bhutanese and English, and to a lesser extent, Nepali. Kids are discouraged from, or even punished, for speaking other languages in school. Moreover none of the indigenous languages, apart from Dzongkha, are written, and people are starting to worry about their future.

At the same time it was mentioned that it’s common for people in Bhutan to speak 6 or 7 languages, and that someone who speaks only 3 or 4 is considered unusual.

Languages spoken in Bhutan include: Dzongkha, Chocangaca, Lakha, Brokkat, Brokpa, Laya, Khams Tibetan, Bumthang, Kheng, Kurtöp, Dzala, Nyen, ‘Ole, Dakpa, Chali, Tshangla, Gongduk, Lepcha, Lhokpu, Chamling, Limbu, Nupbi, Sikkimese, Groma, Toto, Nepali and English. More details.

Have you studied any of the languages of Bhutan? Or been to Bhutan? Do you know any more about the linguistic situation there?

Social Media Helps Threatened Language Threatened by Social Media

Today we have a guest post by Alissa Stern of

On the eve of the Balinese holy day of knowledge, learning, and wisdom (Saraswati Day), a free innovative multi-media Balinese-Indonesian-English wiki dictionary was just made available to people in Bali and throughout the world.

The wiki uses social media to save Balinese, a language threatened by, among other things, social media.

In recent years, Balinese has dwindled down to use by only about a quarter of native Balinese, the result of globalization, nationalization, and social media taking its usual toll on a minority language. With Balinese, where speakers rely on who they are, who they are speaking to, and what they are speaking about to choose the right level of words, the faceless internet presents a serious problem, encouraging Balinese posters to use the national – and status neutral – Indonesian rather than make a mistake with Balinese.

But with the new Wiki, social media is being use to re-energize Balinese by promoting pride in the language through an international web presence and by providing a tool for anyone with internet access – which these days is large portions of the island – to contribute to its well being and benefit from its information.

Nala Antara, Chair of the Linguist team from Badan Pembina Bahasa Aksara dan Sastra, Universitas Udayana, Universitats Pendidikan Ganesha and other universities within and outside of Bali who will oversee and edit the Wiki explains: “Technology will be our bridge to the future. The wiki Balinese-English-Indonesian dictionary will help everyone in Bali learn and speak Balinese alongside Indonesian, so that we two strong languages co-existing: the language of our people and the language of our nation. The wiki allows the people of Bali to actively take part in this project to take pride in their participation.”

Ayu Mandala from BASAbali which is working to connect the Linguist team with the Balinese public says “with this wiki, we can make the Balinese language well known throughout Bali and throughout the world. Wiki technology gives free access to everyone and provides an opportunity for the public to be part of the action.”

A small firm called TinyMighty, based in a remote part of Spain, which also has a threatened language, created the wiki interface. It is being supported by a Kickstarter campaign, using the same crowdsourcing for funding as the wiki uses crowdsourcing for knowledge. The wiki is particularly unique in being able to handle the different registers of Balinese – something unique to the Balinese language – but it also gives real life examples of word usage from Balinese literature, newspapers and other media, and handle the old – the endangered Balinese script – and the new – youtube videos of native speakers.

Alissa Stern of BASAbali“>BASAbali hopes that the Wiki will not only inspire people to learn and use Balinese, but that Balinese can be a model how other threatened languages in the rest of the world might benefit from a collaboration of expert linguists and the general public.

Extreme Polyglottery

The Polyglot Gathering in Berlin last week was fantastic and I enjoyed everything about it. The organizers did an excellent job and everything went well, with only minor hitches. Many other people helped things to run smoothly, and gave talks and/or arranged discussions and language practise sessions.

The A&O Hauptbahnhof hostel/hotel where the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin took place in June 2014

The venue was a huge hostel/hotel near Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (main station), and not far from famous places like the Reichstag (home of the German parliament) and the Brandenburg Gate. It was equipped with hotel and hostel-style rooms, a dining hall in the basement, a reception area with seating and a games section on the ground floor, and a roof-top bar on the 5th floor. The gathering itself took place mainly in function rooms on the 5th floor, with a large room for the talks and activities and two smaller rooms for discussions and talks. One of the smaller rooms also served as a tea room – Gufujo (owl room in Esperanto) – in the evenings for those looking for somewhere quieter than the bar for a chat. There were also spontaneous outbreaks of polyglottery in other parts of the venue, and outside as well.

The program for the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

The program included lectures, talks, discussions, games, and plenty opportunities to practise languages and to talk about language learning, language and languages – or polyglottery as I like to call it. The talks and discussions ran from 9am to 1pm, with two hours for lunch, and from 3-6pm. In most time spots there were two or three things going on at the same time, so you couldn’t go to everything. Fortunately the talks were all videoed and the videos will appear online when they have been edited, so I can watch the ones I missed, and those who weren’t there can watch all the ones that interest them. The program booklet was printed several months before the gathering, so there were some changes, and people filled in empty spots with talks on a variety of language-related topics, and other activities.

The talks I went to include ones on Proto-Indo-European, careers for polyglots, neuroscience and language learning, practising languages in virtual words, Scots and Scottish English, Welsh; and discussions on passive v active learning, and synesthesia; and introductions to Indonesian, Toki Pona and Macedonian. Some talks were quite academic, others were more informal. All were interesting.

On the first evening there was an international culinary festival with food and drink from many different countries. There were polyglot games on the subsequent two evenings, and an international culture evening with songs and poems in many different languages on the final evening. I started it off with a song in Welsh – Lisa Lân, and my Manx/English song about seagulls and chips – Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea, and finished it with my song Everyday Adventures, which all went down well.

Here’s me singing Lisa Lân and Spollagyn son tey / Chips for tea (videoed by David J. James):

The most impressive contribution was Richard Simcott singing Let it Go from Frozen in some 20 different languages from memory:

There were some 230 participants there from all over the world ranging in age from teenagers to pensioners. All spoke at least two languages, and many spoke quite a few more – I think the average number of languages spoken there was around four or five, with a number of people who speak ten or more languages. There were plenty of students there who are studying languages, and many other subjects, as well as people who run language-related businesses, or work as translators, writers, journalists, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and many other professions. Whatever our background, we all shared a passion for languages, and were interested in finding out about other peoples, countries and cultures.

A group photo of most of the participants in the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in June 2014

Meeting so many other polyglots and being able to talk in many different languages and about languages and language learning was wonderful. I don’t often get to do this as I only know a few other polyglots where I live, so the gathering was fantastic for me. I didn’t need to suppress or hold back any of my enthusiasm for languages, as I usually do to varying degrees when talking to people who don’t share my passion. Everyone was friendly, interesting, and had different stories to tell, and I now feel like a part of the polyglot community. Before the gathering I had watched videos and read blogs and forum posts, and even commented from time to time, so I was familiar with a number of polyglots with an online presence, but felt that I was kind of on the periphery of the community. Few people recognised me, but many were familiar with Omniglot, and were happy to meet the guy behind it.

I found the talks, discussions and other activities interesting and fun, especially the discussions on synesthesia, and on raising bi/multilingual children – I don’t have any kids, but my niece is being raised bilingually in English and Russian, and quite a few of my friends are raising their kids with two or more languages, especially English and Welsh.

I would recommend this kind of event to anybody interested in languages, and I’m looking forward to the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad in Serbia in October.

Code talkers

The role of the Navajo and other Native American tribes played in secret communications or code talking in World War II is fairly well known, and today I found out on the BBC News magazine that members of Choctaw Nation played a similar role in World War I. They communicated military information via phone, and to the Germans who tapped the phone lines Choctaw, and the other Native American languages that were used, sounded utterly baffling – they apparently thought the the US had invented a contraption to speak underwater.

Very few people knew about this until recently as in Choctaw culture one doesn’t boast about one’s achievements, so those involved rarely mentioned it, even to their own families. At the same time Choctaw, and other Native American, children were being punished for speaking their mother tongues in schools.

Do you know of other languages used for secret communications like this?