Language Politics

Part of the process of learning a new language involves learning about the people who speak it, and about their culture(s), history and so on. You might also find yourself involved in the politics of when and how the language is used, especially if you’re learning a minority / endangered / revived language, or a non-standard version of a major language. This is certainly the case for the Celtic languages I’ve studied.

Sign on the walls of Conwy

You might be told that there’s no point in learning a Celtic language as everybody who speaks them also speaks English, or in the case of Breton, French. This is not in fact true – there are people in Patagonia in Argentina who speak Welsh and Spanish, but not English, and there are some people who have learnt a Celtic language who don’t speak English or French.

People may object to children being ‘forced’ to learn such ‘useless’ languages in school, or they may complain that they had to learn them in school. Well, education usually involves learning things that you might have little or no interest in, but you never know, maybe it will be useful to know them one day.

Critics of minority languages might come from the country or region where they are spoken, but not feel part of the local culture as they don’t speak the local language. In Wales, for example, non-Welsh-speaking people are sometimes told by Welsh speakers that they are less Welsh or basically English. Fortunately this is not a common view among Welsh speakers. Also, people who don’t speak such languages could learn them, and will find that most native speakers will be support their efforts.

Also, why are they spending our taxes to support those useless languages? That’s a comment that often crops up whenever there’s discussion of bilingual or minority language education, bilingual signage and other material, and any other initiatives to support minority languages. Speakers of minority languages also pay taxes, you know.

Have you encountered any such linguistic politics?

Here’s an example of an article that discusses some of these issues.


I’ve been asked to let you know about IndyLan (Mobile Virtual Learning for Indigenous Languages), a new EU-funded app developed to promote Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Northern Saami, Basque and Galician languages and the cultures.

It’s available on iOS and Google Play, and the developers are looking for users who speak these languages to test it. Can you help?

You can provide feedback to them on this questionnaire.

More information:

I might just try to learn some of these languages – I’ve already learnt quite a bit of Scottish Gaelic, and some Scots and Cornish, and would like to learn more.


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.