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Looking back, looking forward – taking stock of the world’s endangered languages

Archiving, Indigenous Languages, IYIL, Nicholas Evans, Shape

Date: 20 December 2019

A major review of 25 years in recording, studying and revitalising the world’s endangered languages shows both significant advances and critical shortfalls.

Published 12 months ago, on the cusp of the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, the study reported that more than half of about 7,000 now living languages are currently endangered. Around 600 of these are already nearly extinct and are now only spoken occasionally by the grandparent generation.

Over the last quarter century, researchers have described 574 endangered languages for the first time, enlarging our stock of knowledge by another 15 per cent of the world’s languages.

Twelve months on, co-author and Centre Director Professor Nicholas Evans says the Year has been tremendously beneficial in shining a spotlight on the state of language documentation. But researchers are losing the race against time, because over a third of the world’s languages severely under-described, lacking even basic information on their grammar and vocabulary, let alone aspects of cultural use.

“We are striving to record the planet’s rapidly dwindling linguistic diversity, helped by technological advances in data collection, processing and archiving, so our scientific knowledge has expanded greatly,” Professors Evans said. “But the potential loss is enormous on all accounts, both to people from these speech communities and to our human heritage, if linguists do not up their game.”

The study of diverse languages keeps turning up new and unimagined phenomena, and there are no signs that the discoveries are tailing off. They keep driving linguistics to broaden its canon of possible grammatical categories, bringing new meaning domains and entirely new speech sounds to light. Work with little-studied languages is expanding our knowledge of how language is learned, processed, socially organised, culturally applied, and how it evolves within even as little as one generation.

“Our researchers have played a role in some of the best linguistic breakthroughs in recent times,” Professor Evans said. “For example, there is a special sort of new language – what linguists call ‘mixed languages’ – that emerge not be simplification (like pidgins) but rather by melding complex elements of two languages together. Until recently we knew of a couple of these, such as Michif in Canada formed from the melding of Cree with Canadian French. However, these had already been formed - nobody had been able to observe the moment of their birth."

Work by two CoEDL linguists on emerging mixed languages in Indigenous Australia – Felicity Meakins (UQ) on Gurindji Kriol and Carmel O’Shannessy (ANU) on Light Warlpiri – has shown for the first time how these languages arise, painstakingly looking at the detailed differences between generations and the language they use. Such advances are only possible by extending the knowledge base through the meticulous descriptive work of linguists in the field.

Writing grammars is a central part of capturing the intricate structures of entire languages, but unfortunately the commitment by leading universities around the world to grammar writing as a central activity in the language sciences has not improved substantially. “If we track the top dozen linguistics programs worldwide by QS rankings since 2013, only two of the grammar-writing powerhouses make the cut: UC Berkeley in four years out of five and the Australian National University in two years out of five, Professor Evans said. “We have much to be proud of here at the ANU, coming fourth in the world in the number of PhD grammars produced between 1954 and 2016.”

The Centre continues this proud tradition, with researchers in our Shape program studying more than 120 speech communities in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. 

“The biggest engine driving the documentation of undescribed languages is PhD students,” Professor Evans said. “And the field needs to keep its foot on the gas to make sure that these languages are captured in the world’s stock of knowledge while they are still actively being used.”

About 950 of the endangered languages are still spoken by children, but the proportion of children acquiring them is getting ever smaller. This highlights that the goal of recording and securing the world’s linguistic heritage will not be achieved without the participation of indigenous speech communities themselves, including better engagement between them and archives.

“The involvement of Indigenous communities who own and wish to preserve their languages is critical,” Professor Evans said. “We are striving to increase the involvement of First Nations research and students at Centre, supporting First Nations researchers to set up an alliance to give voice to their concerns, and to strengthen the relationships between speech communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous linguists

“It is also vital that we develop new methods of ‘autodocumentation’ – ways for community members to record the full wealth of their own languages – to draw on the energy, commitment and cultural knowledge of those for whom these languages are a key part of their heritage.”    


‘Language documentation twenty-five years on’, by Frank Seifart (CNRS & Université de Lyon, University of Amsterdam, and University of Cologne), Nicholas Evans (ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, The Australian National University), Harald Hammarström (Uppsala University and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) and Stephen C. Levinson (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) was published in Language. It is a follow-up to the seminal article by Ken Hale et al. that appeared in the same journal in 1992.

[Image: Nick Evans and Jim Nébni collecting bird names in the Nen language, Bimadbn Village, PNG. Photo by Julia Colleen Miller.]

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University