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Endangered Languages, Knowledge Systems and Belief Systems


David Hirsh

Many of the world’s 7000 documented language groups are endangered due to falling rates of language and culture transmission from one generation to the next. Some endangered language groups have been the focus of efforts to reverse patterns of linguistic and cultural loss, with variable success. This book presents case studies of endangered language groups from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific (including Bisu, Iban, Iquito, Quechua, Wawa, Yi and sign languages) and of their associated knowledge and belief systems, to highlight the importance of preserving linguistic and cultural diversity. Issues of identity and pride emerge within the book, alongside discussion of language and culture policy.


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3. Endangered languages 51


3. Endangered languages Krauss wrote in 1992 of the status of indigenous Alaskan languages. The report was grim. Ainu was thought to be extinct, and many other languages were critically endangered. Eyak was assumed to be next to be lost with only two remaining fluent speakers at the time, both elderly, followed closely by Ubykh, Iowa, Osage, Mandan, Abenaki- Penobscot, Yokuts, Coeur d’Alene, Tuscarora and Menomini. A feature of these dying languages was small numbers of remaining speakers, all aged, and no passing on of the language to younger generations. Intergenerational transmission, the passing of language knowledge and use from one generation to the next, was reported at the time to be evident in only two of the 20 indigenous languages of Alaska (Yup’ik, Siberian Yup’ik of St. Lawrence Island) where children were still learning the language of their ancestors. Basing his estimates on the reported number of languages and known intergenerational transmission, Krauss estimated that around 3,000 (or 50%) of the world’s known 6,000 languages were not being satisfactorily passed onto future generations, and were likely to be lost. Nettle and Romaine stress that “a language is not a self- sustaining entity” (2000: 5). A language’s vitality can be measured in the vitality of use among the youngest generation. Some languages may have small numbers of speakers but display strength in transfer to younger members of the community and in the domains of language use. Other languages may have large numbers of speakers but be experiencing language...

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