Learning an Endangered Language (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Our Spring semester just started here in Taiwan, so I’ll keep this entry short. I just wanted to link two recent studies:

  1. One uses phylogenetic methods to determine that “the origin of the entire Austronesian language family can be dated back to Taiwan around 5,200 years ago, and moved through Island South-East Asia, along New Guinea and into Polynesia.” (More over at Language Log.) I’m not qualified to judge their methodology, but it looks like an important contribution to a long-standing debate over the dispersal of Austronesian languages.

  2. The second link is to the New edition of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which brings some good news amidst the bad, stating that “there has been an increase in the number of speakers of several indigenous languages.” (Specifically “Central Aymara and Quechua in Peru, Maori in New Zealand, Guarani in Paraguay and several languages in Canada, the United States and Mexico.”)  Since it is a UNESCO map, it follows UN policy of not recognizing Taiwan as a country, but it does document the dangers faced by Taiwan’s indigenous languages. News of the report led to renewed demands from Aboriginal lawmakers for the preservation of indigenous languages.

UPDATE: Right after posting this I saw a Twitter post [can’t quite bring myself to say “tweet” – but saying “Twitter post” feels like saying “web log” before “blog” gained widespread usage] about a test Wikipedia in the Pazih language. Pazih is a severely endangered language. Its last fluent speaker is Mrs. Pan Jin-yu who was born in 1914.

2 thoughts on “Learning an Endangered Language (Part 4)

  1. In your Learning an Endagered Language series, are you going to talk about David Harrison’s work? As an anthropologist, I think his idea of “documentary linguistics” is interesting. And his efforts to spread the word not only about little-known languages but also, and perhaps as importantly, about linguistics to the public is worthy and worth noting.

  2. Hi Liz. I’m familiar with David Harrison’s work. He’s done a great job at popularizing this stuff, but it wasn’t something I was going to write about. I recommend the Joseph Errington article I linked to in Part 3 for a good discussion of the ways in which linguists and activists tend to frame these issues. I will be focusing (when I get a chance to finish the series) on more practical matters.

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