Vanishing Languages in Context

Ideological, Attitudinal and Social Identity Perspectives

by Martin Pütz (Volume editor) Neele Mundt (Volume editor)
©2016 Conference proceedings 320 Pages


This volume grew out of the 36th International LAUD Symposium, which was held in March 2014 at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Landau, Germany. There is general consensus among language experts that slightly more than half of today’s 7,000 languages are under severe threat of extinction even within fifty to one hundred years. The 13 papers contained in this volume explore the dramatic loss of linguistic diversity, why this matters, and what can be done and achieved to document and support endangered languages especially in the context of an ever increasing globalized world. The issue of vanishing languages is discussed from a variety of methodologies and perspectives: sociolinguistics, language ecology, language contact, language policy/planning, attitudes and linguistic inequalities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Martin Pütz & Neele Mundt - Introduction: Vanishing Languages in Context
  • Section I: Language planning, linguistic inequalities and human rights
  • Modupe M. Alimi - Micro language planning, minority languages and advocacy groups in Botswana
  • Dörte Borchers - Linguistic rights and mother tongue education in post-civil war Nepal
  • Hilda Kebeya-Omondi & Fridah Kanana Erastus - Devolution of governance and linguistic (in) equalities in Kenya
  • Section II: Language attitudes, discourse and ideology
  • Anna Ghimenton & Giovanni Depau - Ideologies and expressed attitudes in Internet: Comparing ethnic identities in two regional communities (Veneto and Sardinia)
  • Neele Mundt - Endangering indigenous languages: An empirical study of language attitudes and identity in post-colonial Cameroon
  • Britta Schneider - Language ideologies beyond ethnicity – Observing popular music styles and their potential relevance for understanding processes of endangerment
  • Eeva Sippola - Rap and resistance in Chabacano
  • Danuta Stanulewicz & Małgorzata Smentek - The Kashubian language at school: Facts and attitudes
  • Section III: Case studies of endangered minority languages
  • Heiko F. Marten & Sanita Lazdiņa - Latgalian in Latvia: How a minority language community gains voice during societal negotiations about the status of two major languages
  • Maria Rieder - The case of Cant: The Irish Travellers and their linguistic repertoire in the context of a changing cultural identity
  • Esther Senayon - Non-native speaker mother, personal family efforts and language maintenance: The case of Ogu (Nigeria) in my family
  • Gideon Sunday Omachonu - Language endangerment in Northern Nigeria: The case of Igala
  • Eileen Lee - Linguistic diversity and endangerment in Malaysia: The case of Papia Kristang
  • Subject Index
  • Language Index

| 7 →


The contributions in this volume represent a selection of the papers that were read at the 36th International LAUD Symposium devoted to the theme “Endangerment of Languages across the Planet: The Dynamics of Linguistic Diversity and Globalization” in Landau, Germany (March 31 – April 3, 2014). The papers were mainly concerned with the current status and fate of endangered languages worldwide, their language ecology and globalization, language policy/planning and ideology as well as language documentation. In view of the alarming disappearance of today’s languages the conference organizers felt the need to explore the reasons and consequences behind this enormous loss of linguistic and cultural diversity. A second accompanying volume stemming from the Landau conference has been edited by Luna Filipović & Martin Pütz (forthc.) entitled “Endangered Languages and Languages in Danger: Issues of Documentation, Policy and Language Rights”.

Numerous colleagues and students have assisted in preparing this volume. We would like to thank our co-organizer Monika Reif for her enthusiasm and kind support as well as the organizing staff of the symposium, in particular Conny Fink, Freya Hemesoth and Tim-Oliver Paul whose eagerness and diligence certainly contributed to the success of the symposium. We would also like to express our gratitude to the external reviewers who dedicated their time and expertise to reviewing the papers and responding with useful and constructive feedback to the authors: Felix Banda, Alan Baxter, Gale Goodwin Gómez, Herbert Igboanusi, Alfred Majewicz, Sinfree B. Makoni, John M. Kirk, Ireri Mbaabu, Padraig O Riagáin, Britta Schneider, Barbara Soukup, Nikolai Vakhtin, Yogendra Yadava and Anastassia Zabrodskaja.

Finally, we would like to extend our thanks to all of the participants and contributors to the conference, whose enthusiasm and commitment to the promotion and revitalization of languages was truly inspiring. Special thanks go to the generous funding agencies such as the German Research Foundation (DFG), the University of Koblenz-Landau, the Gillet Foundation (Edesheim) and the Friends and Supporters of the University of Koblenz-Landau ← 7 | 8 → (Landau campus).

It is hoped that this volume will contribute to a broadening of the research field of Language Endangerment and certainly to a better understanding of the social, cultural and attitudinal issues involved in the maintenance and promotion of vanishing languages.

The Editors
Martin Pütz & Neele Mundt

University of Koblenz-Landau

Landau, December 2015

| 9 →

Martin Pütz & Neele Mundt

Introduction: Vanishing Languages in Context

There is general consensus among linguists and language experts that half of the world’s 7,000 languages spoken by approximately seven billion people today will disappear before the end of this century with one language dying “every three months or so” (Thomason 2015: 2). Looking at the ratio of speakers and their languages it becomes evident that about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken and used by about 3% of the world’s population. For a variety of reasons, speakers of many smaller, less dominant languages/dialects stop using their heritage language and instead adopt more global, dominant languages such as Mandarin, Hindi, English or Spanish. These smaller “vanishing” idioms are not being learnt by children as mother tongues or first languages anymore and therefore do not contribute to intergenerational transmission. In this vein, language endangerment can be defined as “the en masse, often radical shift away from unique, local languages and language practices” (Woodbury 2011: 160), or, as Thomason (2015: 4) more precisely put it:

A language is clearly endangered when it is at risk of vanishing within a generation or two – that is, when its last fluent speakers are elderly, when few or no children are learning it as a first language, and when no one is learning it as a second language.

Language endangerment and potential language death is a worldwide phenomenon, a result of linguistic, socio-cultural and cognitive factors. In the following we will outline some concepts of language endangerment and identify some of the contextual factors which lead to the disappearance of a threatened language (for a more detailed discussion of concepts see the introductory article in Filipović & Pütz, forthc.). The current volume further complicates and advances the contemporary perspective of language endangerment research, as reflected in its subtitle “Ideological, attitudinal and social identity perspectives” and evidenced in the content of the volume. In the light of increasingly complex and variable multilingual environments and their impact on language endangerment the following thematic and partly overlapping areas of research will be explored:

Section 1: Language planning, linguistic inequalities and human rights

Section 2: Language attitudes, identity and ideology

Section 3: Case studies of vanishing minority languages ← 9 | 10 →

Contents of the volume

The volume contains three sections, each part focusing on sub-thematically unified issues pertaining to the overall theme of “Vanishing Languages”. In the following, some of the concepts pertaining to the section titles will be briefly introduced and the 15 contributions in this volume will be summarized.

Section 1: Language planning, linguistic inequalities and human rights

When languages and linguistic varieties are endangered and there is a threat that they will vanish, language policy initiatives often take the form of specific ideologies and belief systems that underlie language planning strategies and language management. This section explores language policy and language planning measures, activities associated with minority and endangered languages, and issues such as linguistic imperialism and language inequality in communities around Africa and Asia. In this vein, linguistic imperialism can be seen as a subtype of linguicism, which Phillipson describes as “ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources between groups which are defined on the basis of language” (1992: 47). Very often, therefore, the question arises as to whether language policies are a way to maintain and promote an endangered or vanishing minority language or whether they can sometimes even be counterproductive? Should we therefore insist on promoting and implementing, for example, mother tongue education or should we further encourage the use of an ex-colonial and official language such as English in multilingual and multicultural contexts? In other words, do speakers have a right to use their languages in public (e.g. in formal education) and even be taught in them? And, what is more, speakers who are not competent official language users very often need access to services such as the legal context, education and the media since inadequate translation very often denies them access to justice and judicial proceedings (Hales & Filipović, forthc.). The right to use one’s language is generally related to linguistic human rights (LHR), which Skutnabb-Kangas (2008: 109) defined as “those language rights… which are so basic for a dignified life that everybody has them because of being human; therefore, in principle no state (or individual) is allowed to violate them”.

Linked to the issue of linguistic human rights, the first two papers in this section are concerned with “linguistic inequality” (Wolfson & Manes 1985) in Southern (Botswana) and Eastern Africa (Kenya). Originally, the term referred to the (unequal) distribution of “high” or “dominant” and “low” or “dominated” languages which function in complementary distribution. In such diglossic ← 10 | 11 → situations languages are assigned different social functions in a multilingual community. While the superimposed highly codified variety, i.e. English or any other European (or other) language, fulfils more elevated functions in primary domains such as government and administration, education, technology and the media, the local or indigenous languages are confined mainly to languages/dialects of self-esteem, identity and cultural rootedness (Pütz 1995), a situation which is representative of linguistic and cultural inequality. “Critical diglossia” (Saxena 2014) therefore contends that diglossia is primarily a socio-cultural, economic and ideological phenomenon not necessarily accepted as a natural state of affairs by all the minority groups and indigenous populations. The papers in this section are all concerned with issues of language policy, linguistic inequality and linguistic human rights. They try to understand the reasons and causes as to why the asymmetrical relationship between the language varieties and languages develops, as well as the status and role that historical and current political, economic and socio-cultural processes play in its construction. This proposed concept of “critical diglossia” also incorporates the role of agency and argues for the development of diglossia from below, in addition to it being imposed from above (Saxena 2014).

In her paper “Micro language planning, minority languages and advocacy groups in Botswana”, Modupe M. Alimi argues that micro language planning in Botswana is a direct response to perceived inequalities resulting from macro-level planning. Such governmental legislations accord preference to one or two majority languages (mainly English and Setswana); local languages (26 in number) are construed as minority languages whose speakers consider their idioms threatened and disrespected in society. Due to these perceived inequalities, advocacy groups in favor of minority languages have emerged dealing with the preservation of the linguistic rights of minority languages and the description and documentation of many indigenous languages. Referring to this, Alimi discusses the role of agencies from a critical discourse perspective and examines three organizations, namely RETENG, Kuru Family of Organizations and the Reformed Church that have immensely impacted the (unequal) language situation, highlighting current linguistic changes in Botswana and trying to achieve their goals of preserving, promoting and maintaining the so-called minor indigenous languages of Botswana.

In “Devolution of governance and linguistic (in)equalities in KenyaHilda Kebeya-Omondi and Fridah Kanana-Erastus show that linguistic equalities are immanent within language policy and practices in Kenya on two different levels: national and county governance. The devolution of power in Kenya might lead to a devolution of language inequalities. On the national level of governance Kenyans rely on English in official matters, making English the most powerful language, ← 11 | 12 → while Swahili is demoted to be semi-official. Generally, it is not foremost official European languages such as English, French or Spanish which impose a language threat to local languages, but rather frequently also lingua francas or Languages of Wider Communication (LWC) such as Lingala, Wolof or Swahili in Africa. So it is not only English that can be viewed as a threat in this context. Ethnic languages are under competition at the county level of governance and linguistic inequalities are evident as they compete among themselves as well as with the official languages. Although language endangerment is an issue in Kenya, the implementation of ethnic languages is not encouraged on both levels, making them more vulnerable to language attrition and loss.

Finally, in “Linguistic rights and mother tongue education in post-civil war Nepal”, Dörte Borchers illustrates the current linguistic situation in Nepal (Asia) where mother tongue and multilingual education was supposed to be established in elementary schools. A governmental project was issued in 2007 in order to preserve Nepal’s 70 indigenous languages and to implement these in primary educational institutions. This project appears to have been unsuccessful, revealing underlying societal issues associated with minority languages and their communities. Negative attitudes towards and discrimination against minority language speakers, as well as linguistic heterogeneity, appear to be major obstacles for this project. Relevant problems are viewed from two different perspectives within Nepali society: the Nepali-speaking group favoring their language and the caste system, and indigenous people who are more accepting of linguistic and cultural diversity.

Section 2: Language attitudes, identity and ideology

Language attitudes or perceptions are opinions, ideas, feelings and prejudices community members may have about their own language variety or the languages or language varieties of others. Thomason (2013: 26) points out that the value, usefulness and importance of the indigenous vernacular to peoples’ culture and identity can play an important role in a language’s fate. Attitudes and opinions toward the community’s heritage language are of key importance in assessing the chances of the success of revitalization efforts for endangered or vanishing languages (Sallabank 2013). Throughout the world, speakers of ethnolinguistic minorities are increasingly abandoning their first language in favor of another more dominant and prestigious language, including in childrearing and especially formal education (UNESCO 2003). People express a variety of opinions, feelings and beliefs on the future prospects of their languages. Quite a number of people consider their own language or language variety backward, impractical and socio-economically weak, even viewing it with indifference and contempt. ← 12 | 13 → As a consequence, as Tsunada (2006) suggests, speakers themselves are often confused by “absence of self-esteem, inferiority complex, self-depreciation and shame” (2006: 60). These negative views are often directly related to the social and economic pressure of a dominant and allegedly “superior” speech community. On the other hand it may also be observed that speakers may counter these threats to their language and make efforts to stabilize their languages and engage in revitalization activities (creating environments such as daycare centers, schools, etc.). In the end, it is the speakers, not outside people or linguists, who maintain or abandon languages (UNESCO 2003).

In her study on the languages of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, Sallabank (2013) discusses how speakers “think about” those languages and how they rate the revitalization efforts that have been put into motion. She argues that the attitudes and opinions of the speakers regarding the future of their languages are variably complex and heterogeneous. It seems paradoxical that on the one hand revitalization efforts preserve the language for future generations, but at the same time, however, risk alienating the current generation from it. Attitudes and opinions are therefore strongly connected to the construction of social and cultural identity as well as to ideological belief systems. This section explores the complex relationship of ideologies, identity and language-related attitudes and practices, and examines the implications of these factors for language promotion and maintenance.

Anna Ghimenton and Giovanni Depau claim in their essay “Ideologies and expressed attitudes in the Internet: Comparing ethnic identities in two regional communities” that computer-mediated communication indexes language attitudes and community identity in regards to the regional languages Veneto and Sardinia, which are spoken in Italy. The focus on data collected from the Internet issues a different forum of language contact. Referring to this, the comparative analysis of both languages highlights the divergence in language and metalinguistic usage as well as prestige. Community identity and language ideology are evident in the comments and attitudes concerning Veneto and Sardinia. In this vein, the speakers’ designation of a local variety as a “dialect” or as a “language” is a possible starting point for the exploration of linguistic identity. The overarching aim of the study is to compare Sardinian with Veneto in order to examine whether the differing status has an impact on the identity values speakers assign to their local languages.

The following empirical investigation is situated in Cameroon, researching the post-colonial effects of English and French on language diversity. In her contribution “Endangering indigenous languages: An empirical investigation into language attitudes and identity in post-colonial Cameroon”, Neele Mundt examines the hegemony of French, and to a certain degree English, while local indigenous languages are marginalized. Ethnic loyalties are very strong, tying minority language ← 13 | 14 → speakers to their communities; however, indigenous languages are predominantly confined to the private sphere. In this vein, they are central to the cultural identity of ethnic communities, signaling a sense of belonging and tradition. The complex diglossic language situation reveals that the public domains in Yaoundé are dominated by the French language, while minority languages are rarely used. The urge for economic and societal success associated with French and English, while struggling to maintain one’s cultural and linguistic heritage, seems to be a balancing act for urban Cameroonians.

Britta Schneider examines the impact of language attitudes shaped by popular music on language ideologies, highlighting that languages also entail non-ethnic symbolic functions. In “Language ideologies beyond ethnicity – Observing popular music styles and their potential relevance for understanding processes of endangerment” two transnational music styles, namely the role of the Spanish language in Australian and German Salsa communities and the use of Creoles in Caribbean popular music, are analysed in this empirical investigation. Shared features of these two examples are that language choice is not determined by ethnic loyalty, but rather by non-territorial, societal identity also including capitalism, colonialism and resistance. Thus, these multiple social boundaries diminish existing language categorizations and related language attitudes which empowers these languages in these communities.

Also starting from a music-centric perspective, “Rap and resistance in Chabacano” by Eeva Sippola puts forward the significance of shared ethnic loyalty in the young Chabacano-speaking community who amend their language to current national and global changes. This corpus-based analysis also includes sociolinguistic interviews and reveals that ethnic identity is embedded in rap lyrics, which are instrumental to resisting the dominant national culture and language. Language, especially its modification in rap music, symbolizes resistance and empowerment in multilingual spaces such as the community of Ternate, the Philippines. This study exemplifies the negotiation of language practices in a complex multilingual context as Chabacano gains recognition in the domain of popular music.

Finally, Malgorzata Smentek and Danuta Stanulewicz’s comparative study “The Kashubian language at school: Facts and attitudes” contrasts a school with Kashubian language classes to a school without indigenous language classes. The authors examine bilingual Kashubian-Polish students who attend these two schools. The overall aim is to investigate the respondents’ attitudes to the endangered language. Education is a central aspect to prevent language loss as Kashubian language classes focus on the language acquisition process, but also ← 14 | 15 → comprise ethnic and cultural awareness, reintroducing the young generation to the Kashubian language and culture. This effectively reignited the spark of the Kashubian language, its traditional values and cultural events.

Section 3: Case studies of vanishing minority languages

The last section examines the richness and complexity of linguistic diversity and language contact situations from the perspective of language endangerment, with a focus on individual case studies from several geographical regions of the world (e.g. Latvia, Ireland, Nigeria and Malaysia). In this regard, topics such as the role of minority language communities in the promotion of minority languages, diversification of languages and their adaptation to new ecologies will be discussed from various perspectives.

Heiko F. Marten and Sanita Lazdiņa argue in their paper “Latgalian in Latvia: How a minority language community gains voice during societal negotiations about the status of two major languages” that the status of Latgalian, a regional and endangered language spoken in Latvia, has been gradually improving since 2012 due to the societal discourse on the oppositional perspectives of Latvian and Russian speakers. Based on political efforts which arose in this conflict, a larger amount of attention has been dedicated to the minority language Latgalian, increasing cultural and language awareness. This minority language benefited from the Latvian-Russian conflict having a determining influence on the official recognition of Latgalian, its prestige and wider acceptance. Due to the political discourse, the case of Latgalian exemplifies that language conflict does not always necessarily result in the demotion of minority languages, but also presents an opportunity if certain conditions are met: change in attitudes in politics, the media and policy.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Endangered languages Linguistic Diversity Language documentation Language revitalization Language policy
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 320 pp.

Biographical notes

Martin Pütz (Volume editor) Neele Mundt (Volume editor)

Martin Pütz is Full Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Koblenz-Landau. His research focuses on sociolinguistics, language policy/planning in sub-Saharan Africa and applied cognitive linguistics. Neele Mundt studied English linguistics at Laval University (Québec) and the University of Koblenz-Landau. She carried out fieldwork in Yaoundé (Cameroon) and received a teaching degree from the University of Koblenz-Landau.


Title: Vanishing Languages in Context
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
324 pages