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?

Preserving and reviving languages – a high-tech solution

A hand-held device called a Phraselator, that can translate between English and a variety of other languages, has been adapted by a Cherokee business man, Don Thornton, to help with the preservation and revival of Native American languages, according to an article I found today.

You can talk into the Phraselator in English, it recognises your voice, translates your words and then reads the translation aloud. It was originally developed for military use in Afghanistan to translate from English into Dari, Pashto. Quite a few more languages have been added since then and the device is now used by used by the military, police and in disaster relief.

When he read about the Phraselator in 2001, Don Thornton thought that it could be used to help to save indigenous languages. After a long campaign for the right to use the technology, he set up a company, Thornton Media Inc. to do just that, and now works with over 70 tribes. The device is being used by and with elders to record words, phrases, stories and songs in their native languages, along with English translations, and then other members of the tribes are able to use it to learn their languages.

The device enables people to preserve and revive their own languages in their own ways without relying on others. For this reason, because it emulates oral traditions, and because of it’s ease of use, it has be adopted with enthusiasm by many. Thornton acknowledges that it would be better if the languages were passed on in the home from generation to generation, however this is not always possible. This device offers an alternative solution.


Moves are apparently being made to establish a single written form of Cornish, which currently has four different spelling systems. The Cornish Language Partnership has set up a Linguistic Working Group consisting of Cornish speakers with a good knowledge of the language to recommend a solution to this excess of orthographies. A conference will be held this month to discuss this matter. If an agreement is reached on a single written form, it will be used in schools and for official purposes.

I understand that the lack of a standard spelling system is discouraging some people from taking Cornish seriously. If a standard can be agreed on, this could lead to more people learning the language.

Here are a few Cornish-related sites I found yesterday.

Cornish for Absolute Beginners

Radyo an Norvys – a pod cast in Cornish

Cornish forum – discussions in and about the Cornish language

Tablys leveryans – Cornish pronunciation tables

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.

Reviving Sanskrit

Recently the number of people studying Sanskrit, the best known of India’s classical languages, has been increasing, according to an article I found today. The piece mentions that there’s a lot of interest in Sanskrit both in India, and among India ex-pats in the USA and other countries.

Reasons for this include the booming Indian economy, which has lead more people to take an interest in India’s history, and also the efforts of a group called Samskrita Bharati, whose mission is to “bring the pan-Indian language back to the mainstream and lay the groundwork for a cultural renaissance”. There are more details of their work here.

In one village called Ganoda in Rajasthan, many of the people are apparently able to speak Sanskrit and use it to some extent in their everyday lives.

Do you speak Sanskrit or have you studied it? Are there any other places where Sanskrit is used as a community language?

Word of the day – puke wehewehe ʻōlelo

Today’s word, puke wehewehe ‘ōlelo, is the Hawai‘ian for dictionary. It means literally ‘book [that] explains words’. I found a good Hawai‘ian-English dictionary today, and also some online Hawai‘ian lessons.

According to this article, the Hawai‘an language is in a slightly more secure position today than it was 20 years, when the most of those who spoke were adults, and there weren’t many of them either. Nowadays about 2,000 children are educated through the medium of Hawai‘ian each year, and Hawai‘ian medium education is available from kindergarten to college. Few of the students in the Hawai‘ian medium schools speak the language when they start, and most of them speak English outside school, so there is a long way to go to revive Hawai‘ian.