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From language apologism to language recovery
Thread poster: Alan R King

Alan R King
Local time: 07:07
Basque to English
+ ...
Aug 10, 2007

(A personal view concerning linguistic diversity...)

When the term "Linguistic Diversity" is bandied about in a European context today it may refer to policies and practices aimed at keeping the continent's linguistic landscape diverse by providing the social, ideological, political, educational or technical means to allow this to happen. For example, a few years ago I participated in a European study on the role of the Internet and language technology in furthering the (presupposed) European goal of maintaining language diversity. This modern concept of language diversity need not, but may and often does, include minority, unofficial and stateless languages in its scope.

On the contrary, when the term "Linguistic Diversity" is applied in an area such as Latin America, what I usually see and hear is pages of literature and hours of lectures devoted to chatter about how many languages are likely to become extinct by the end of the Nth century, what a tragic loss for mankind this will be, how diverse, precious and historically or culturally important human languages are...

If you think I am insinuating a critical view of the latter kind of discourse, you are right! Some will disagree. These approaches, they may say, are complementary and neither is incorrect. In any case, awareness is a necessary preliminary to action. I admit there is some truth there, but there are also problems, which I will try to explain here.

In the case of Basque, some (not all) writers in centuries past went to great lengths to show that Basque is a worthy language, as well as an ancient, complex and fascinating one; in their enthusiasm some even made truly exorbitant claims (by today's standards), such as that Basque was the language of Adam and Eve or the most perfect language in all creation. Today the group of writers I am describing are referred to as "Basque language apologists", or "apologists" for short.

Now the thing is this: the apologists did nothing practical at all to actually keep Basque alive, stop its decline or increase its vitality. Invariably they themselves wrote in Spanish, French, English or German. As a rule, their works are not even of much practical value as linguistic descriptions, so they didn't greatly help anyone who might have wanted to to learn to speak the language. It is almost obvious that this was not their purpose. All they did was bemoan the great loss that the (inevitable?) extinction of Basque would be for all of us.

Does that sound vaguely familiar?

Interestingly, when the Basques (and I say the Basques, because they did it themselves) started actively recovering their language, roughly from the beginning of the twentieth century, they stopped "apologising" for it and became less preoccupied with explaining why it shouldn't be allowed to die. Perhaps this is because it is generally not easy to be weeping and fighting at the same time, so people tend to choose one role or the other.

Notice too that this is a chronological progression, and therefore these are really not so much mutually complementing views as successive stages of development. The apologist is like someone lying in bed in the morning drowsily contemplating the fact that they really ought to get up at some point - but without any actual plan for doing so. The language recovery activist is like someone running around the house, making breakfast and starting to organise the activities of the long day ahead. Not only are these two images not really complementary, they pretty much look like opposites! The best we can hope for is that the early risers will make so much of a flurry in the house that the lazybones will stop grumbling about the noise (as they probably will, at first at least, finding everything the "activists" do distasteful - except making their breakfast for them!) and finally get up (i.e. decide to do something), get dressed (study the language and start to use it) and find something useful to do (join the language recovery movement).

Language apologists and language recovery activists each have their discourse, their ideas and their favourite words. As it happens, the expression "Linguistic Diversity" is compatible with both types of discourse. Talking about linguistic diversity is not enough. The only really important question is: what are we going to do about it? I know this will not be to everyone's liking, but experience has taught me to start worrying when I hear people talking about the perils for mankind of languages dying out. From a language recovery viewpoint, that is all words and theory of little value if that is all we have to say.

The real reason, the driving reason for undertaking language recovery can only be the will of a people to use their language and carry on doing so as a people (which means it must be transmitted to future generations of speakers), even making sacrifices if necessary to bring this about. And why should a people want to do this? For the good of mankind? Of course not! Why? Because of their regard for their own identity. Because they do not wish to lose what they have. To resist domination by another people, another country or another culture. As a form of collective liberation. And because this is their right: a right that others deny and the language recovery movement aims to defend.

In most parts of the world, many languages are still under direct attack, and the few well-wishing voices that can be heard defending Linguistic Diversity speak very much from an apologist viewpoint. It took the Basques centuries to evolve from an apologist to a recovery position. During the apologist period, the sociolinguistic reality (the number of speakers and frequency of use) of the language steadily declined. Only in the subsequent period has the curve changed directions.

The lesson here is clear: apologism does not lead to language recovery. Rather, the apologist discourse has to be abandoned and the flag of language recovery activism taken up if we want to change anything. Crying while you watch someone drown is not going to save their life! Jumping into the water may help. So let us learn to swim!

Except that in most cases today, we do not dispose of centuries. We can no longer take ages to slowly "wake up". It's time to get up and do something.

(I invite responses to this piece, which I offer as a "discussion document" to promote constructive debate among all those interested in linguistic diversity and the recovery of minority and endangered languages.)


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
Uruguay
Local time: 02:07
Member (2004)
German to Spanish
+ ...
Thanks for opening the debate Aug 10, 2007

Hi Alan,

Thanks for opening this most interesting thread.
I already know your activity from the American Indian Languages threads - you really deserve to be taken into consideration in this new forum.
This is your place!
Welcome, and wish you good luck with your academic crusade in favour of "minority" languages.

Regards,
Fabio


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Deschant
Local time: 06:07
Reply Aug 10, 2007

Alan R King wrote:

In the case of Basque, some (not all) writers in centuries past went to great lengths to show that Basque is a worthy language, as well as an ancient, complex and fascinating one; in their enthusiasm some even made truly exorbitant claims (by today's standards), such as that Basque was the language of Adam and Eve or the most perfect language in all creation. Today the group of writers I am describing are referred to as "Basque language apologists", or "apologists" for short.

Now the thing is this: the apologists did nothing practical at all to actually keep Basque alive, stop its decline or increase its vitality. Invariably they themselves wrote in Spanish, French, English or German. As a rule, their works are not even of much practical value as linguistic descriptions, so they didn't greatly help anyone who might have wanted to to learn to speak the language. It is almost obvious that this was not their purpose. All they did was bemoan the great loss that the (inevitable?) extinction of Basque would be for all of us.

Does that sound vaguely familiar?



Exactly the same thing which happened to Galician. Some of its defenders (in the 19th century) tried to demonstrate a direct etymological connection between Ancient Greek and Galician, or that Spanish had been in fact a derivation from Galician... but they wrote all this in Spanish. Still within the "language apologism" movement, the only area in which Galician could be written was usually in literature, mostly poetry, a certain kind of poetry which emphasized the love for the land, the nostalgia of the past. I usually call this "folklorism", that is: the use of a minority language as mere "local colour", a particularity which is okay to use at home or in some scenarios, but not in "serious" matters. For example - even during the Franco regime in Spain it was okay to write a love poem in Galician, or to sing a folk song in Galician. But it was not okay to use it to teach a lecture at university, or to deliver a political speech.

In my view, some minority languages/dialects in Europe are still handled in this "folkloristic" way. For example, when I lived in Turin it was pretty easy to get hold of poetry books written in Piamontese, or to see theatre plays in this language, even the local newspapers included some pages in Piamontese dealing mostly with cultural and social matters. But the idea of using Piamontese at university, or in the bureaucracy, or in political debate, was of course strange to most people (and, I mean, it is okay for them if this is what they really want). I can imagine that most of the "apologists" Alan mentions shared a similar view of the languages they defended.

I would like to mention, however, that the passage from apologism to active recovery has also a materialist side: people must get persuaded that their language is not only valid for folkloristic or cultural matters, that social progress and economic success (which is that matters in the end ) can also be achieved in their language without the need to adopt a "stronger" one. I think that this explains partially the current differences of status among Basque and Catalan (which were industrialized, rich regions with a burgeoisie) and Galician (which was mostly a peasant, impoverished region, in which speaking Galician is still associated to being of lowly status).

Regards,
Eva


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 08:07
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Both ways are valuable Aug 10, 2007

If you want to influence those above, who decide about budgets and rules, you cannot address them in a minority language but have to use a language they understand.

In order to influence e.g. the Russian government to allow certain minorities keep their cultural institutions, newspapers, theaters, schools etc. you would hardly send a letter to Mr. Putin lets say in Mari, but would use Russian or German, don't you think so?

Regards
Heinrich


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
Uruguay
Local time: 02:07
Member (2004)
German to Spanish
+ ...
Good point, Heinrich Aug 10, 2007

Heinrich Pesch wrote:
If you want to influence those above, who decide about budgets and rules, you cannot address them in a minority language but have to use a language they understand.
In order to influence e.g. the Russian government to allow certain minorities keep their cultural institutions, newspapers, theaters, schools etc. you would hardly send a letter to Mr. Putin lets say in Mari, but would use Russian or German, don't you think so?

Hi Heinrich,

Thanks for sharing with us in this thread, one of the first of the new Diversity forum.
There's a lot of truth in what you say.
Here's an interesting article regarding some minority languages in Russia (Finno-Ugric family) which was originally published in The Economist: http://www.mari.ee/eng/articles/soc/2005/12/01.htm

In this forum, I think we should enable a friendly discussion on the pros and cons of using "minor" languages. So - the chance is there!


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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:07
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Here's the problem Aug 11, 2007

Alan R King wrote:

On the contrary, when the term "Linguistic Diversity" is applied in an area such as Latin America, what I usually see and hear is pages of literature and hours of lectures devoted to chatter about how many languages are likely to become extinct by the end of the Nth century, what a tragic loss for mankind this will be, how diverse, precious and historically or culturally important human languages are...


It's a bit like the story of the armchair theoretician of Enlightenment-based anthropology. A lot of outsiders looking at a culture as though through a microscope and ignoring what the "germs" think.

Later on, when that culture has raised its own anthropoligists, the corrections begin, but not before an "establishmentarian" viewpoint has congealed. But basically, what the second generation is doing is redefining key premises within a paradigm already created by the first.

However, the "first wave", if we may call them that, will eventually have to accept that they were never in a real position to actively put a remedy to the question of language revitalisation. (What they can do passively is another matter). As you have put it:

The real reason, the driving reason for undertaking language recovery can only be the will of a people to use their language and carry on doing so as a people (which means it must be transmitted to future generations of speakers), even making sacrifices if necessary to bring this about. And why should a people want to do this? For the good of mankind? Of course not! Why? Because of their regard for their own identity. Because they do not wish to lose what they have. To resist domination by another people, another country or another culture. As a form of collective liberation.


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Ingles
Portuguese to English
apologetics and use of a minor language Aug 12, 2007

Linguistics is used to identify indigenous peoples and establish a base for 'inclusion' in nation-state recognition of rights, a form of apologetics - if I understand correctly.

I would add the case of the Guarani(Tupiguarani linguistic trunk): According to Litaiff/Darella researchers have found that in the 18th century Carl von Linné referred to them as 'primus verus systematicus' in recognition of intellectual contributions to biological knowledge (portuguese):
see pages 21-22: HTTP://FTP.UNB.BR/PUB/UNB/DAN/F.3-22RBA/SESSAO3/LITAIFFEDARELLA.RTF

Over 10,000 words of Tupiguarani origin are currrent in Brazilian Portuguese. Medical dictionaries contain etymological reference to the language. In the above paper generated in 2000 it is also noted that the case cited culture remains both symbolically and cognitively intact. It has also been noted that traditional Guarani do not recognize a Cartesian separation of time/space.

I would submit that in this case given the blossoming of chaos theory and its applications to analysis of ecological concerns, a culture such as the Guarani represents an important nexus. In the mean time there is a difficult question of establishment abrogation of their constitutionally protected processes of land confirmation. There is also an increasing body of research indicating the role of indigenous peoples in forest sustainability and recuperation. Large tracts of the Amazon rainforest and Atlantic Forest are now being analyzed as 'anthropogenic' - the result of thousands of years of indigenous presence- where they have formerly been considered 'virgin' by western entities.

Though the Guarani language is official in Paraguay its use was outlawed in Brazil until only relatively recently. Linguistic recovery for traditionals in this case is an issue of the right to differentiated education models as language and quotidian life are inextricably tied. Though Guarani might register on the radar as not being a minor language in its written form, there remains the living oral tradition. Oral transmission of the culture includes a socially based stewardship element both of the people/culture and biomes of traditional migration. It would seem that in this case linguistics is also inextricably tied to cosmology.

Myth and how we perceive its role in everyday life becomes a part of the conversation. I respectfully submit that there are cases of Guarani statements that they perceive their traditional presence in these territories as explictly to sustain this stewardship aspect not only for themselves but for the earth and humanity. There is a central Guarani myth called "yvý marane’ỹ ", the search for the "Land without Evil". Rather than a simplistic utopia, it includes a sphere of integrated balance of migration through traditional territories - also integrated with the oral transmission aspect of the culture.

Sometimes the congealment of establismentarian perspectives run parallel with traditional perspectives, transcend expected linear developments and catalyze engagement in a new historical context. It seems to me that when this occurs, the traditional linguistic/cosmological regeneration could conceivably serve to break ground for other projects of language recovery. Recognition entails a dimension of reciprocal liberation of perspectives and ideas in a never ending journey.

This is simply one armchair apologist's perspective.


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