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date: 09 May 2021

(p. ix) Foreword

(p. ix) Foreword

Michael Krauss

I am deeply reassured to see the progress the Handbook of Endangered Languages represents, the progress made over the last quarter century, in our concern for the survival of our intellectual heritage, our diverse languages. Twenty-five years ago it seemed we had completely forgotten the lesson of Babel, and even linguists seemed altogether oblivious to the threat of unprecedented mass language extinction. American linguistics in the tradition of Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield had at least considered documentation important and urgent; as anyone could see, American languages were vanishing. Helping them not vanish was probably impossible in those days, but making written record of them was still an ancient tradition central to linguistics. My own training was in the 1950s, the very end of that period.

Then came Chomsky, say 1957 (Chomsky 1957) or 1962 (Chomsky 1964), whose intellect and personality, both, virtually redefined linguistics. That an extraterrestrial would find Earthese interesting though essentially uniform, with but trivial variation, was the new perspective. English, maybe with some other language for double-checking, would do for a sample. It might be said that up to 1957 theory in linguistics was languishing, but Chomskyian insight brought such impetus to theory in linguistics as to relegate documentation to the dustbin. I spent 1969–1970 at MIT, “to learn how to document languages better.” That puzzled Chomsky, understandably, though it did not puzzle Ken Hale, who was not only tolerated but well appreciated at that very citadel. In fact, at MIT in those days, documentation was called “fact-grubbing,” and the one course on the linguistics of the forerunners, such as Sapir and Bloomfield, was called the “bad guys” course. That terminology was half-satirical though, and I felt perfectly welcome there. The sad point is that the effect more generally elsewhere became such that mere “fact-grubbing” had to fall seriously beneath the dignity of True Linguists. The Chomsky effect pulled the pendulum so mightily in the direction of theory as opposed to documentation that it got stuck there for thirty years. It was Ken Hale who unstuck the pendulum by organizing the panel on Language Endangerment at the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) 1991 annual meeting that may be considered the turning point, and who invited me to speak on the scope of it. The only person in the whole audience who said anything to me right after my tirade there was in fact Morris Halle: “I hope you weren’t blaming us [MIT] for the overkill.” His eloquent choice of the term “overkill,” in itself (p. x) made me answer something like “Not really.” An even better reason for not blaming MIT is the fact that MIT harbored Ken Hale, which made the difference in 1992. After all, there is a sociology to linguistics too.

There were complaints about the published version of that paper (Krauss 1992), about my comparing the dire endangerment rate of languages to biological endangerment rates—far higher than the rates for birds and mammals—appealing creatures. It was complained that the comparison was a “cheap shot.” Fair enough, if we don’t want to compare the value of languages with that of biological species, but the comparison of linguistics with biology has multiple important facets, and one of these, even a trivial one in fact, is the sociology of the field and the chronology thereof. It was also in the 1950s that biologists discovered DNA. The interest and importance of that galvanized the field of microbiology so dramatically that there were fears that what we might call macrobiology, the study of the biosphere, “butterfly-collecting,” might be eclipsed, and “ecology” was almost becoming a bad word. Any such imbalance was short-lived in biology. After all, our lives depend on the biosphere, “why save [even] the snail-darter” was hardly a question, and Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring was merely a clincher. Biology is a big profession, and we all need to breathe. Linguistics is tiny, and has the Chomsky effect. Small wonder, perhaps, that linguistics has taken so long even to start regaining some balance. Bad timing for imbalance! The comparison extends all too well to the issue of climate change and to how well we act at the brink of disaster.

The rate of endangerment may be a controversial issue, but now at least it is an issue. In 1992 it was of course mainly guesswork. We had only our own experience along with what was by far our best broad source of information or worldwide perspective, namely SIL’s Ethnologue. I unhesitatingly brandished that source at the LSA. Hardly irrelevant, but in fact symptomatic, was that only missionary rather than strictly academic linguists had cared enough to undertake a basic inventory of the world’s languages. I had myself been on a National Science Foundation panel that granted support during the 1980s to advance the Ethnologue project.

As for personal experience about the endangerment rate itself, I remember talking about that especially with Ken Hale, Steve Wurm, and Robert Austerlitz. Their “impressions” basically reinforced my 90% rate. Granted, we were strong in America and Australia, also Asia, weaker on Africa, tending to skew my guess somewhat upward, or failing to lower it. It seemed to me far easier and safer to guess what proportion of the world’s languages were “Safe” rather than endangered, i.e., would still be neither extinct nor moribund for the foreseeable future. I defined that future explicitly as the year 2100, arbitrarily the end of the coming century; such languages being, I now add, still spoken then by a viable or sustainable proportion of children. The main criteria were sheer number of speakers (over a million), and some kind of governmental support. Those two groups of course greatly overlap and could total only in the hundreds of languages, even the low hundreds. My best guess for “Safe” in that sense was at most 10%, so the rest were “unsafe” or endangered, at least 90%. At the same time, I must confess I feel it better by far to err by being too careful than too careless, and would rejoice to find the (p. xi) 90% too high. Given the position of linguistics, at least in the United States at the time, it was hard for me to feel that my estimate could be too alarmist.

It is indeed gratifying to see the response in the progress of linguistics since then to the catastrophe looming, including serious research on the rate of language endangerment, especially now by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages Project. That project currently defines the rate at 45.9% (this volume), and that figure is uncannily close to recent SIL figures. I’m afraid I remain skeptical about a figure that optimistic. If it is at all true that the world’s median-sized language has 7,000 speakers (a figure available still only from Ethnologue), that implies that languages averaging well below 7,000, at the 46th percentile on the population curve, are “Safe.” The 46th percentile on Ethnologue’s curve is around 5,000. It seems quite impossible or counterintuitive to me that an ordinarily situated language of 5,000 in today’s world could in fact be safe. This would seem to be the case even in the still diverse parts of best-off /less unstable Africa, e.g., Cameroon, where perhaps no local languages widely dominate, with only ex-colonial English versus French doing that job, perhaps allowing 250 languages to last longer than they would elsewhere; but for how long? How long can that “stability,” such as it is, last in the ever-more-rapidly changing world? And if Africa is relatively stable or safe for languages, what then of New Guinea, Brazil, or China, for example? How many nation-states positively value all their indigenous languages, take active measures to support them all, or even allow them all to be valued?

At last facing the imminent loss of human language diversity, whatever the precise proportion of its massiveness may be, linguistics could hardly have picked a worse time to be caught so long off balance. Thinking again in terms of percentages, I would guess that from maybe 2% of linguists in academe concerned with language endangerment and prioritizing to do something appropriate about it in 1992, we now might have 25%, optimistically. That is significant progress toward a balance, whatever that is, considering the urgency. Theorizing can wait; documentation and activism can’t, so it could be argued that the appropriate balance for that in these times should be not 50% of linguists but maybe 98%, until the situation is under control and we’re ready for another Chomsky.

The ironies in all this are enormous. Microbiology, e.g., DNA, and macrobiology, e.g., ecology, biosphere, coexist nicely in biology as a science, even though macrobiology is “tainted” with issues of our survival as living creatures, and so is linked inevitably to environmentalism, to our benefit. Chomsky is thought by many to have made linguistics a True Science, while the other half of him is more than “tainted” with concern for the human condition. How ironic then that linguistic science is so separated from concern for the human condition instead of being inextricably linked by language, the very essence of our humanity. As humans, have we not evolved beyond mere “survival of the fittest” for language?

Things are still backward in academe for languages, unilaterally. Too often, languages must serve linguistics, and not the reverse. The National Science Foundation (NSF), in addition to its support for linguistics, now has a program specifically for documenting endangered languages, partly as a result of the movement in linguistics starting in 1992. (p. xii) Yet NSF’s guidelines require a grant proposal to show how that documentation will be of value to Linguistic Science, presumably because NSF’s charter is for science alone; taxpayers are paying the NSF for Science, not for good deeds, or even just for language facts that may be going away.

Sadly, care is needed for fact-based prioritization as to what is truly an endangered language, but we should not have to show that documentation proposed for a truly endangered language will contribute to linguistic theory before it is even done, as though good documentation of a truly endangered language were not of sufficient value in itself. Even unskilled or random documentation could be of what I call scientific as well as humanistic value, and of course the more skilled the better, as documentation, again, is a science as well as an art.

The field of “conservation” of endangered languages has burgeoned dramatically, as this handbook shows. This movement needs of course to keep doing so, but with unity as well as vigor. The relation between the two obvious branches of preservation, i.e., documentation (including secure archiving) and support (maintenance, revitalization), is bound to be a big subject of concern for us. Any tension there should be kept healthy and productive.

My own experience in Alaska is typical enough, that there is a natural tension between the need to document languages as well as possible (particularly for any which will become dormant before that happens), and the needs or wishes of the community for language support. (The latter too often for revitalization rather than maintenance, unfortunately, as community awareness is all too liable to come only after its language is moribund.) The priority for documentation is inescapable if we rigorously consider posterity over the immediate desires of the community, not just for science but even for the community itself, if they want more of their moribund language to be left for future generations of their children to learn.

One quibble here with terminology tendencies. Let’s not get carried away with euphemisms. “Moribund” is worse than “endangered” or “severely endangered.” Certainly a living species that had lost all reproductive capacity would be definitively doomed to extinction. Continuing the biological comparison, “extinct” (of biological species) is much worse than “dormant” or “sleeping” (of languages) unless some day we can resurrect an extinct species from its DNA. A language with no living speakers is certainly extinct, not dormant, unless we have documentation. Insofar as we have documentation and a community, the language can indeed be “reawakened,” insofar as Hebrew or Cornish or Miami can be considered living examples. Even ignoring those examples, archived documentation in principle not only provides for possible future resurrection but also provides knowledge for linguistic science, not to mention for other fields, history for one.

This handbook shows how the movement has begun to burgeon, not only for both the documentation and revitalization but more broadly to include the close relation it has with our concern for our biosphere and its essential diversity, which most people know we need to preserve. So should it be with the heritage of our linguistic diversity, essential to our humanity.

We’ve made real headway in academe, discussed already in simplistic terms of percentages. But, to repeat a 1992 question still unanswered, where can one get a (p. xiii) PhD with something like a good dictionary of an endangered language for a dissertation? There is a dramatically increasing need for help, and hopefully a demand, in endangered-language communities, but that also requires people, linguists, and/or community members with training in appropriate language pedagogy as well as analysis. Where in academe is such training to be had?

Beyond academe and the language communities themselves, there are further domains we need to consider, some addressed in this handbook, others that may not be addressed here. One domain is the general public. We have written eloquently about the threat to our linguistic diversity, there is the lesson of Babel, and there have been pulses of coverage in the press, but much more is needed for public awareness even to approach that for biodiversity. To what extent has it been broached, for example, in our educational system? This brings up the administrative domain, government. I have already asked the question of what governments positively value their linguistic diversity. We should know and act—not only at the nation-state level, but perhaps the more local the better. Just to take the case I know best, the United States in general and Alaska in particular, is a sad one. Highly negative until late last century, federal policy officially recognized indigenous languages as a national asset at last in 1992, with over 90% of its indigenous languages extinct or moribund. In Alaska, also as devastated as that, we got the legislature to allow indigenous languages in its schools in 1972, with a university center for documentation and support. The public voted for English Only in a 1991 referendum, a landslide, but in 2016 the legislature, voting almost unanimously, recognized all twenty Alaska Native Languages as official state languages, including Eyak with no living native speakers. The effects of these vicissitudes, of course, remain to be seen.