Symposium on endangered and creole languages

Left to Right: Dr. R. David Zorc, Dr. Douglas Whalen, Mr. Gregory Nedved, Dr. David Frank, Mr. Michael Horlick

(March 2007) A symposium on endangered languages and creole languages, presented by the National Museum of Language, was held in College Park, Maryland on 25 March. One of the panelists, SIL linguistic consultant and creole language expert Dr. David Frank, addressed the topic “Creole Languages as Misunderstood and Endangered Languages.”

The three-hour symposium also featured panelists Mr. Michael Horlick, linguist at the Language Research Center, who gave an overview of endangered languages; Mr. Gregory Nedved, National Security Agency, who presented an award-winning video cartoon in Mi'kmaq, the language of a First Nations People in Nova Scotia, Canada; Douglas H. Whalen, PhD, of the National Science Foundation, who spoke on "Loss of Languages in the Americas"; and R. David Zorc, PhD, program manager at the Language Research Center, McNeil Technologies, whose topic was "Loss of Languages in Australia, Africa and Oceania."

Dr. Frank noted in his symposium presentation that creole languages are mother tongues that arise out of pidgin languages, which in turn are formed when mother-tongue speakers of different languages have to come up with a way of communicating with each other. This was the case with the Sea Island (Gullah) and St. Lucian Creole, two creole languages in which he worked as a linguistics consultant. He pointed out that, "A remarkable feature of creole languages is that they tend to have certain identifiable characteristics regardless of where, and what language mix, out of which they had developed."

Gullah is a creole language spoken by the descendants of enslaved West African people brought to South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida from the late 1600s until the mid 1800s to work on rice plantations. The Gullah language is derived from an older form of English and West African language forms.

He pointed out that creole languages have two particular handicaps among languages in general, both of which contribute to their being misunderstood and endangered. One problem is a problem of historicity. Other languages are based on older forms going back generations and even millennia, whereas creole languages have a definite starting point.

The other is a problem of "indeterminacy" which Dr. Frank says involves a continuum on how much of the European language is borrowed in the creole languages. When it absorbs more of that European language, the creole language might become a dialect of that language, and then eventually no longer be considered a separate language.

Dr. Frank asked, "What can be done, if we don’t want to see these languages die out? Documenting the language is part of the answer, illustrating that the grammar of the creole is not the same as the majority language that creole languages are compared with, and working with mother-tongue speakers to produce dictionaries."

Dr. Frank closed his talk by telling the audience what Lucilla Edwards, a St. Lucian Creole speaker said, "As a teacher, I see the Creole language spoken and read with understanding, and I see that is the most beautiful thing I can ever see in this life."

Background Information

Dr. Michael Cahill, SIL's International Linguistics Coordinator, chaired the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and Their Preservation in 2003. He wrote the response to the "Frequently asked Question" (FAQ) on the SIL website: "Why care about endangered languages?" and notes that there are many causes for language endangerment, among them "warfare, disease, and parents teaching their children a dominant language for economic reasons. Of the more than 6,900 languages in the world, half may be in danger of disappearing in the next several decades."

Size of the population still speaking the language is certainly a significant factor in considering a language endangered, but it is not the only factor. Dr. Cahill states, "SIL has worked in languages of fewer than 100 speakers. At the time, those languages looked like they were dying, but today they are thriving."

SIL cares about languages dying, according to Dr. Cahill, "because a people's identity and culture are intimately tied to their language." He recounted how when SIL's first president, Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, asked a Danish linguist why all Danes didn't give up Danish and switch to English, the man replied, 'If you lose your language, you've lost your moral substance. Your language is…you.'"

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