Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Date: Thu, 8 Dec 2005 15:56:48 -0600 From: Mike Cahill Subject: Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences, and Challenges
AUTHOR: Batibo, Herman M. TITLE: Language Decline and Death in Africa SUBTITLE: Causes, Consequences, and Challenges SERIES: Multilingual Matters 132 PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2005
Mike Cahill, SIL International
DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS
The first four chapters of this slim volume (129 pages of text, plus several indexes and appendices) are a good introduction to the language situation in Africa as a whole, while the last four chapters explicitly address issues of language endangerment.
Chapter 1 is a useful summary of the language families of Africa – where they are spoken, and a few sample languages. Batibo (B) also introduces what I find a useful term – ''plurilingualism'' - to label a situation where a country or continent has many languages, reserving ''multilingual'' to describe an individual speaking several languages. He also sketches the situation with regard to language contacts between African languages, both ancient and modern, and the situations that arise from these.
Chapter 2 introduces patterns of language use and prestige. B presents an admittedly idealized ''triglossic'' structure of language use, with a colonial language often having higher prestige than a dominant indigenous language. However, the dominant indigenous language has more prestige than a minority language. Here he also mentions that national leaders associate ex-colonial languages with socio- economic development, and this trumps resolutions for promotions of indigenous languages passed by OAU and similar bodies (including linguists…). He describes characteristics of dominant languages which make them dominant, and also the dynamism of languages in contact that leads to phenomena of code-mixing, code-switching, and borrowing. His summary statement is a guiding principle for those involved in trying to sustain endangered languages: ''As long as speakers see some social status or socio-economic value in their languages, they will certainly wish to maintain them.''
Chapter 3 talks of characteristics of African languages, viewing them as a resource. First he discusses the functions that languages play, focusing on Africa, but the same points could be made elsewhere in the world. Language serves as a vehicle for cultural transmission, as a means of self-identity, societal cohesion, social stratification, of socialization and even establishing social relations (a young lady in Lomé addressed by a young man in the Mina language may answer in French as a sign that she does not desire any relationship with him). B then goes on to summarize the unique linguistic characteristics of African languages, from clicks to labialvelars to ATR vowel harmony, noun class systems, serial verb constructions, etc. The cultural wealth of African languages is illustrated, with figurative speech, proverbs, ''joking relations,'' etc. The indigenous languages could be used for national development, but generally are not.
Chapter 4 delves into the status of minority languages in more detail, defining them not only in terms of low number of speakers, but also functionally as not being used in official or public domains. Colonial languages may be actually spoken by relatively few people, but they function in public domains more commonly. Local languages may be areally dominant, and these are not considered minority languages either. In most African nations, most of the languages are minority languages. Speakers of these are often caught in a dilemma, wishing to retain their own linguistic and cultural heritage, but also wanting access to education and better-paying jobs. Even though studies have shown the advantages of mother-tongue education, most minority languages have no resources for such. Governments, in their understandable desire for national unity and to eradicate tribalism, often devalue or actively discourage minority languages in their language policies.
In Chapter 5, B starts in on specifics of endangered African languages, first defining endangered as ''threatened by extinction,'' and noting that endangerment is a sliding scale, with ''highly endangered'' on one end and ''safe'' on the other. He discusses factors leading to language endangerment when two unequal languages are in contact. These include the resistance of the weaker language to the stronger one, the amount of pressure exerted by the stronger language, and finally, the perceived advantages of joining the stronger community. He acknowledges that any attempt to quantify endangerment runs into the problem of inadequate data, and so many of the conclusions must remain ''highly speculative.'' For information on specific languages, B cites a number of resources which the serious investigator might consult, including the Ethnologue (Grimes 2000), and various papers from Brenzinger's (1998) volume. The remainder of the chapter is a country-by-country summary, listing population, major languages, and what B considers highly endangered languages. His judgment of the latter is based on population figures, degree of bilingualism in the dominant language, socio-political pressures, negative attitudes and non-transmission of the language to children, and especially where only older people spoke the language. It is admittedly based on partial information in many cases, but he estimates that 14% of African languages are presently highly endangered.
In Chapter 6, B defines more carefully the processes of language shift and language death. He mentions the Gaelic-Arvanitika model of Sasse, based on causal factors leading to cessation of transmission of the language, but spends more time on his own model, a process- based one. This model assumes that for language shift and eventually death to take place, there must be bilingualism, a differential prestige in the 2 languages, and that attraction to the new language outweighs resistance to change. It has five phases: 1) relative monolingualism, 2) bilingualism with L1 predominance, 3) bilingualism with L2 predominance, 4) restricted use of L1, and 5) L1 as a substratum, at which stage L1 is dead. He mentions sudden language death due to disease, genocide, or deliberate decision to switch languages, but most language death is gradual, involving the factors discussed in the models. He stresses that attitudes toward language are crucial.
Chapter 7 concentrates on language maintenance, particularly in cases of the lesser of two unequal languages. It is common in Africa for two (or more) languages to exist in a more or less state of equal prestige. In this case, L1 and L2 speakers learn each others' language, which B calls ''unmarked bilingualism.'' If L1 is more dominant than L2, L2 is maintained only when people are able to resist pressures, and the most important factor is their attitude toward their own language. B gives a summary of a previous study of his application of Auberger's ''proficiency resistance model.'' Lists of factors by Blench and UNESCO are also given. Among these factors is a written form of the language, something that is missing in many African languages. B also discusses language revitalization, but gives non-African examples such as Maori, since there has been virtually no documentation of any African language being revitalized. He is not optimistic about most African minority languages, since ''gains in the prestige of minority languages are not a common phenomenon.''
Chapter 8 speaks of language empowerment. We have the label of ''minority'' languages, though the sum total of ''minority'' language speakers in a country is often a majority of the population. But they are often disenfranchised from national life and discourse - the powerless. Language empowerment measures are discussed here, including specific language policies by governments, planning and what is often more difficult, implementation of those plans. B singles out Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa as having explicit language policies, but these are not the norm in the continent. There are ideological and technical issues to be dealt with, and B gives a number of recommendations for government actions. He lists a number of African initiatives of recent decades, most of which have vanished, as well as listing a number of organizations that are becoming quite interested in endangered languages recently.
B ends with three useful Appendices. The first lists the nationally and areally dominant languages, country by country. The second, more debatably, lists highly endangered, extinct, or nearly extinct languages for each country. The third lists the number of dominant and minority languages of Africa, also by country, concluding that of 2477 African languages, 308 are highly endangered. A Language Index as well as a Subject/Author Index are included.
This is an excellent introduction to the topic of endangered languages in Africa. But beyond that, by referencing and summarizing much of the theoretical literature on endangered languages, it actually serves as a readable primer to the factors that make languages endangered around the world and what can be done about them. Those who would like more detailed and specific African case studies may want to take a look at other works such as Brenzinger (1998).
B is occasionally uncritical of sources, as when he labels the predictions of Michael Krauss that 90% of the world’s languages will disappear by 2100 as ''statistics'' rather than speculation. He cites Sapir and Whorf uncritically, whereas their views are a continual source of debate. He also calls labialvelars as ''unique'' to Africa, whereas they also occur in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and (rarely) in South America as well. His book is understandably weighted by his experience in Tanzania and Botswana, and would benefit especially from more West African input. However, these are minor quibbles compared to the overall value of the book.
Also, I believe there is reason to be somewhat more hopeful than Batibo is about the survival of many African languages. With orthographies being developed by groups such as NACALCO and CABTAL in Cameroon, BTL in Kenya, SIL and Lutheran Bible Translators in various countries, as well as by other groups, several hundred languages are in the process of receiving orthographic representations, literacy materials, and Bibles in their own language, and a number of these are also getting dictionaries and grammars. Besides the direct value of having literacy and other materials available, the presence of these tends to raise the prestige of the language in the speakers' minds, and their attitudes towards their own languages become crucially more positive (as B himself notes in the case of the Naro language). Still, it remains to be seen how much these positive factors will be able to counteract the negative ones against the survival of the minority languages of Africa.
Grimes, Barbara (ed.). 2000. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th edition. Dallas: SIL International.
Brenzinger, M. (ed.) 1998. Endangered Languages in Africa. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Mike Cahill did on-site linguistic investigation in the Konni language of northern Ghana for several years, including application to literacy and translation work. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1999, and his primary research interests are in African phonology. He was a member of the LSA Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation from 2001-2003, chairing it the last year. He currently serves as SIL's International Linguistics Coordinator.