Cree language challenge

The inhabitants of the Norway House Cree Nation (Kinosao Sipi), a small community in northern Manitoba in Canada, have been challenged by their chief, Marcel Balfour, to become proficient in Cree (kinose’wi si’pi’hk) by the year 2020, according to an article I found the other day.

The band’s council have decided to make Cree the official language of the community, and will encourage residents to speak it as often as possible. At the moment about three quarters of the people there can understand Cree, some 50% or 60% can speak it, at least to some extent, and its mainly the elder generation who are most comfortable with the language. Balfour himself is not fluent but is determined to become so.

The article doesn’t mention how much community support the initiative has – without such support, it is unlikely to succeed.


The other day I came across an interesting article on efforts to keep the Romansh language alive. Romansh or Romansch, which you can hear in last week’s language quiz, is a Romance language spoken mainly in the Swiss Canton of Graubuenden (Grischun/Grigione/Grissons) by about 60,000 people.

There appears to be mixed views on the language – some people are very enthusiastic about the language and do everything they can to encourage its use, others see the language as a handicap.

One significant problem is that Romansh speakers can’t agree which of the five varieties of Romansh should be taught in schools. Lia Rumantscha, the organisation that promotes the language, would like to see Rumantsch Grischun, a standard written form of the language, used in all schools by next year. Other people would prefer to continue using their local varieties of Romansh in schools.

According to a book I was reading yesterday, Sustaining linguistic diversity: endangered and minority languages and language varieties, there have been similar problems in Ireland with the government wanting a standard form of Irish taught in schools, while people in Irish-speaking areas (gealtachtaí) would prefer to use their local varieties of the language.

When is a language extinct?

The recent publication of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger has generated quite a few new stories and discussion.

The Atlas has a list of 2,500 endangered languages ranked according to five different levels: unsafe (607), definitely endangered (632), severely endangered (502), critically endangered (538) and extinct (200). Of these languages, 199 have fewer than 10 speakers, and 178 have between 10 and 50 speakers. The Atlas is apparently available online, although I can only find information about endangered languages in Africa.

Among the extinct languages it mentions Manx and Cornish, which has stirred up a lot of comment, especially among those who speak these languages and are learning them. For example, the website tells us that the ‘Manx language is very much alive’ and there are articles on Manx and Cornish on the BBC site.

The comments on the iomtoday site are interesting and seem to agree that Manx is nobody’s first language, which I believe is true. One commenter points out that Manx is dead because “there are no longer any monoglot Manx speakers, or even speakers with Manx as a first language”. I’m not sure why it’s essential for there to be monoglot speakers of a language for it to be considered living. There are very few, if any, monoglot speakers of Welsh, Irish or Scottish Gaelic over the age of 5 or so, but there are plenty of people who speak them as their first language.

My dissertation will be a study of the revival of Manx, and this will give me a better idea of the current state of the language.

Ainu language

An article I came across today talks about the Ainu language in which the author, a Russian linguist, talks of his quest to find Ainu speakers in Hokkaido. He met plenty of Ainu but found only two people able to speak the language.

He does find quite a few people who know a few words or Ainu and can recite poems and sing songs, even though they don’t understand them, but as he defines ’speak’ as the ability “to produce spontaneous utterances”, he doesn’t classify these people as speakers. Everywhere he goes, he hears the Ainu speaking Japanese, even in an Ainu language class.

He tentatively concludes that the number of Ainu speakers might be as many as 600, or 2% of the 30,000 people who identify themselves as Ainu. This figure is a lot higher than that reported in Ethnologue (15), or by Murasaki Kyoko, a Japanese anthropologist who said there were 5 or 6 speakers in 2003.

A correspondent has asked me whether I know of any resources (in English) for learning Ainu. Can you suggest any?

Language hotspots

The Enduring Voices Project, which I came across today on the National Geographic website, has the aims of documenting endangered languages and preventing language extinction by identifying the most crucial areas where languages are endangered and embarking on expeditions to:

Understand the geographic dimensions of language distribution
Determine how linguistic diversity is linked to biodiversity
Bring wide attention to the issue of language loss

There’s a map on the site which shows the areas of the world with a particular high density of endangered languages, and also provides information about the languages and a few recordings. The ‘hotspots’ on the map are colour coded to give an idea of the severity of the problems. The areas with the most endangered languages are northern Australia, eastern and central Siberia, central South America, and the northwest Pacific plateau of North America.

Here are a few random factoids from the site:

The Yukaghir people (Siberia, 30-150 speakers) traditionally measured time with a unit called ‘the kettle boiled,’ about an hour long. A longer interval was called ‘the frozen kettle boiled,’ which took about 90 minutes.

Tuvan (200,000 speakers) has a word that means ‘the two wives of my two brothers.’ If you had three brothers, or one of your two brothers was unmarried, you would never use this word.

A noun in Tabassaran (95,000 speakers, Dagestan (Russia)) may have up to 53 distinct forms, using suffixes that describe the location and movement of objects in relation to that noun.

Urban Irish

According to some of the people I met in Ireland last week, Irish might become a mainly urban language in the future. At the moment the majority of regular Irish speakers live in remote, rural areas, the Gaeltachtaí. These areas are suffering from depopulation because there are few opportunities for young people, who tend to move elsewhere to study and work. Some return, but many don’t. In some of the rural Gaeltachtaí the language remains strong, however in others the numbers of people using Irish as their main language is shrinking.

Not all Gaeltachtaí are in rural areas though – in West Belfast there is a thriving and growing community of Irish speakers, which was established in the late 1960s by six Irish-speaking families. In 1970 the first Irish medium primary school in Northern Ireland, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, opened its doors, and the first Irish medium nursery school, Naíscoil, was set up in 1978. Since then numerous Irish medium nursery and primary schools have opened, and there are three secondary schools as well. There is also a daily Irish language newspaper – Lá Nua – and an Irish language community radio station – Raidió Fáilte. One of the people I met in Glencolmcille works for this radio station and he did a number of short interviews with people attending the summer school, including myself.

According to Wikipedia, the varieties of Irish native to Northern Ireland became extinct as spoken languages when the last native speaker of Rathlin Irish died in 1985. However over 10% of the population now have some knowledge of Irish – mainly the Donegal dialect of Ulster Irish. The Irish speakers in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general seem determined to keep the language alive there whatever obstacles are put in their way, and there is no shortage of obstacles.

Manchu in Beijing

Welcome in Manchu (eldenjire be urgunjeme okdombi)

Today I came across an article about efforts to save the Manchu language in China. There are currently around 10 million ethnic Manchus in China, but fewer than 100 of them speak Manchu and they are almost all elderly.

Recently a bloke called Wang Shuo, a construction designer in Beijing, started teaching Manchu language classes for free at weekends, after having taught himself the language using this website – a forum in Chinese and Manchu that includes Manchu language lessons.

Most of the students at Wang Shuo’s classes are ethnic Manchus who want to rediscover their historical identity through the language. One the these students also mentions that he would like to teach his children to speak Manchu. There are also two Han Chinese students who are learning the language out of intellectual curiosity.

The image on the right is the Manchu phrase ‘eldenjire be urgunjeme okdombi’, which means ‘welcome’, in the Manchu alphabet. It was sent to me by a Chinese friend who is trying to teach himself Manchu.

Tourism and minority languages

The other day, I came across an article that discusses the impact of tourism and migration on minority languages, particularly on the Welsh language. While tourism brings a significant amount of money to Welsh-speaking areas, it can also have a negative impact on the language.

When relatively large numbers of non-Welsh speakers visit or move to a Welsh-speaking area, the local people often feel some pressure to speak English rather than Welsh, and English-speaking parents who move to such areas aren’t all convinced of the benefits of education through the medium of Welsh or bilingual education.

Many in-migrants to Welsh speaking areas are apparently those who have been there on holiday before and/or who have a holiday home or a caravan there. Quite a few holiday home owners move to those homes when they retire. One negative aspect of in-migration is on house prices, which tend to rise beyond the reach of the locals.

I suspect similar tensions can be found in other areas where minority languages are spoken, such as the gaeltachtaí in Ireland, parts of Scotland, Brittany and so on.

The original Welsh version of the article can be found here.

‘Ōlelo Hawai’i ‘oe?

According to a couple of articles (here and here) I found today, a new PhD program focusing on the Hawaiian language and culture has recently been set up at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. This is apparently the first doctorate in the United States in a Native language. Five students are undertaking research into Hawaiian and indigenous language and culture revitalization. One the things they’re working on is to come up with Hawaiian versions of scientific and technological terms, such as World Wide Web – Punaewele puni honua (network around the world) and photosynthesis – ka’ama’ai (acting through light to produce food).

When people are bilingual in a ‘large’ language like English and a ‘small’ one like Hawaiian, they might be tempted to simply use English words to fill in any gaps in their Hawaiian vocabulary, rather than coining new Hawaiian words. The new terms being created by the PhD students should help with this problem.

Did you know that wiki, as in Wikipedia comes from the Hawaiian word wiki-wiki, which means quick?

Yiddish in Lithuania

According to an article on the BBC, Jews in Lithuania are trying to revive Yiddish, which was spoken by around 250,000 people before the Second World War. Today there are about 5,000 Jews in Lithuania and only a few hundred still speak Yiddish. Children at the only Jewish nursery school in Lithuania are being taught Yiddish songs and nursery rhymes, which they enjoy a great deal, and a Yiddish class at Vilnius’ Jewish secondary school started last month.

One of people interviewed comments that:

“…the only way to make sure Yiddish survives is to interest all Lithuanians in the country’s Jewish history and art, and above all, its music.”

The position of Yiddish in Lithuania sounds quite similar to that of other endangered languages – most of the remaining speakers are elderly, few families are passing the language on to their children, and a lot of people see speaking the language as a hobby rather than an everyday means of communication.

The BBC article has quite an optimistic tone, however another article I just found paints a more gloomy picture. One of the people quoted in the second article says “There is no real revival of Yiddish, … It’s a club, it’s a fetish, it’s a hobby.”

By the way, I’d be interested to know if there are any Yiddish speakers who read this blog.