Archive for the ‘Indigenous languages’ Category

Remapping the world

Posted on January 15th, 2010by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Research | Leave a Comment »

Papua New GuineaIn my last post I wrote about The Atlas of True Names, which renamed places according to their etymology.

Another map has been brought to my attention – one that reorganises the world according to the number of languages it has produced.
Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages (whew!) by Mikael Parkvall is “part Guinness Book of World Records, part Book of Lists, and part illustrated encyclopedia”. And if that doesn’t make you want to take a look at it, this will: Papua New Guinea is the biggest place on the map.

Yep, tiny little Papua New Guinea (it’s off the northeast coast of Australia, if you’re trying to find it on a map), has produced more languages than any other country. Its total indigenous language count is 841, of which 830 are classified as ‘living’ and 11 have no known speakers.

Take a look at this PDF file for a sneak preview.

Native languages of Canada

Posted on October 11th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, English, French, Indigenous languages | 2 Comments »

Assembly of First NationsAfter graduating from university, I had the opportunity to live in Canada for a year.

My knowledge of the country was pretty limited, to the extent that I didn’t know it is officially bilingual (French and English). I found an article discussing efforts to preserve indigenous Canadian languages interesting. The two official languages are supplemented by a range of indigenous languages, which do not get as much attention as French. (Note: “First Nations” refers only to the Indian aboriginal people of Canada. For more information, see here.)

By official count, there are more than 50 First Nations languages across Canada.

Some are thriving.

The Cree, for example, have as many as 80,000 everyday speakers. Dozens others, though, are in danger of disappearing. In 1998, the Assembly of First Nations declared a state of language emergency.

First Nations people aren’t the only ones concerned about the vanishing words. Linguists frantic to preserve the historical tongues are furiously collecting and recording data before all those speak them pass away.

“There’s a sense of desperation, of our data disappearing before our eyes, ” laments aboriginal language expert Darin Flynn from the University of Calgary.

Southern Alberta provides an example of the dangers facing First Nation languages across the country.

The Treaty 7 languages – Tsuu T’ina, Stoney Nakoda and Blackfoot – are each at different stages of decline. (Source:

Let’s hope that all the effort put in to bilingualism in Canada will also recognise these indigenous languages. Read the full article here.

Hangul and native languages

Posted on October 9th, 2009by Michelle
In Alphabet, Culture, Indigenous languages, Korean, Language acquisition | 2 Comments »

Following my earlier post about Hangul Day, or Korean Alphabet Day, I was reading further about the alphabet.

The Koreans have immense pride in their alphabet, and are keen to share it. One woman also thinks Hangul’s use can be extended outside of Korea. The Hunminjeongeum Research Institute was founded by Lee Ki-nam in 2007, and aims to apply Hangul to native languages which are becoming extinct due to a lack of their own writing system. Currently, the Institute has a memorandum of understanding with the city of Bau-Bau of southwestern Indonesia to use Hangul, and it is being used by the Cia-Cia tribe to transcribe their language.

There are some issues surrounding the project however:

In Indonesia, where the government is encouraging its 240 million people to learn a “language of unity,” Bahasa Indonesia, for effective communication among a vast array of ethnic groups, Ms. Lee’s project raises delicate issues.

“If this is a kind of hobby, that’s fine,” Nicholas T. Dammen, the Indonesian ambassador to South Korea, said recently, referring to the decision by the Cia-Cia ethnic minority to adopt Hangul. “But they don’t need to import the Hangul characters. They can always write their local languages in the Roman characters.”

Shin Eun-hyang, an official at the Korean language division of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Seoul, said: “This is diplomatically sensitive. The government is limited in how much direct support it can provide to such projects.”
The government says it does not provide money to Ms. Lee’s group, but she said it offered indirect support by giving linguists grants to pursue their work, which can include teaching Hangul abroad. (Source: New York Times)

Read more about the Cia-Cia project, and the full article from the New York Times. What do you think? Is it appropriate to apply the Korean alphabet to completely different languages?


Posted on August 23rd, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Greenlandic, Indigenous languages | Leave a Comment »

Aurora - GreenlandWe often hear of languages becoming extinct, with the UN estimating that the world will lose half of its 6,700 languages by the end of the century.

This article, however, highlights one success story. Greenlandic, the native tongue of Greenland, is experiencing a revival, partly due to the country’s ongoing steps towards being independent from Denmark, who have ruled the island since the 18th Century.

With a population of just 55,000, Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world. Being tied to Denmark meant Danish was taking over as the most spoken language, with the associated loss of culture. As the article points out:

Grenoble smiles through the hardships because she believes that language is much more than words — it’s our culture, our history. It’s what connects people to one another, and if it’s lost, a society is truly threatened.

“When the language is in trouble there are all kinds of other things in trouble, so that’s the canary in the coal mine,” she said.

Let’s hope that Greenlandic, or Kalaallisut, can serve as an example to other indigenous and soon to be extinct languages.

The Rosetta Project

Posted on August 20th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Historic, Indigenous languages | 2 Comments »

Rosetta ProjectIn the last post, I looked at what the Rosetta Stone is and its importance to languages.

This importance is highlighted in The Rosetta Project, named after the Stone –

a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages

This incredible project is working to preserve all languages across the globe, and document them before they are lost. This is no mean feat as linguists predict that as much as 90% of linguistic diversity may be lost in the next century. As the project’s website puts it so eloquently:

Language is both an embodiment of human culture, as well as the primary means of its maintenance and transmission. When languages are lost, the transmission of traditional culture is often abruptly severed meaning the loss of cultural diversity is tightly connected to loss of linguistic diversity.

Almost 2 years ago now, the Eyak language was lost in Alaska with the death of its last remaining speaker, Chief Marie. Around the same time, concerns were being raised about the fate of Wichita, spoken by people in west central Oklahoma. It seems that the Americans have less to be concerned about than the Australians, however – an Ethnologue list reveals a catalogue of indigenous languages that that are nearly extinct.

So, how can you help? Well, perhaps by taking up a language that is close to extinction. Or, you could donate to the Rosetta Project and help them continue to document our diversity.

A language rising from the dead

Posted on June 29th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Education, Indigenous languages | Leave a Comment »

Following on from my last post (again!) is the hopeful news that another Aboriginal language is being brought back from the dead.

Dharug was one of the dominant Aboriginal dialects in the Sydney region when British settlers arrived in 1788, but became extinct under the weight of colonisation.

Details of its demise are sketchy but linguists believe the last of the traditional Dharug speakers died in the late 19th Century, and their unique tongue only survives because of written records.

In a remarkable comeback, Dharug now breathes again – its revitalisation helped by the efforts of staff at Chifley College’s Dunheved campus in Sydney.

The language is being taught partly through song, which I have mentioned previously as being a useful tool for language acquisition. It seems to be successful at this school, so their methods can hopefully be imitated in other places to promote the comeback of this Aboriginal language and others.

Read the rest of the article here.

Aboriginal languages

Posted on June 27th, 2009by Michelle
In Culture, Indigenous languages, Pronunciation | 1 Comment »

UluruMy last post was about Aramaic, the language scholars believe was spoken by Jesus, making it approximately 2000 years old.

Perhaps even older are the languages of the Aboriginal people, the indigenous people of Australia. The Aboriginals, or Indigenous Australians, are thought to have inhabited Australia for around 40,000 years before the first European settlement. Pre-colonisation, Aboriginal people were part of different ‘nations’ spread all over the continent, each with its own language. There were an estimated 700 dialects and 250 distinct languages, which were as distinct as English, Swedish and Mandarin.

Today it is estimated there are 20 – 50 “healthy” Aboriginal dialects. These are spoken mostly in the Northern Territory. “Healthy” means the language is spoken to, and used by kids.

Aboriginal languages are strongly interlinked with their culture, with ancestral creative beings said to have left languages in the country.

In Aboriginal societies language is not only seen as a form of communication but as a method of right to land, forming boundaries for each family group, and language group. Language is used as social control as it has various forms depending on the ages and status of people within a language group. (Indigenous Australia)

Some elements of Aboriginal language have made it into Australian culture (for example, place names such as Canberra) and gone on to take a place in popular culture. Koala, kangaroo, and boomerang are all things we associate with Australia, generally without knowledge of their Aboriginal roots.

So, perhaps next time you think about Ayers Rock, you could spare a thought for this ancient culture and refer to it by its original name, Uluru*.

*Note: the correct spelling of Uluru has a retroflex under the ‘r’, which I cannot recreate here.