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Economy and wealth in the maintenance of endangered languages.

A sociolinguistic perspective

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26/05/2011 às 20:21


This dissertation aims to discuss the dissimilarities between the sociolinguistic approach to endangered languages revitalisation and the approach adopted by legal instruments and will suggest that the latter fails to address the issue of economic disadvantage of minorities, which Sociolinguistics identifies as a central player in the process of language loss. The main linguistic ideas concerning the solutions to the extremely accelerated language death phenomenon will be discussed and then compared to what has been codified about the issue. After determining precisely that the issue of economy and wealth is absent when treating linguistic minorities, this paper will discuss the works of both Hudson and Edwards, as well as others, to understand the consequences of this omission. This discussion is partially explained by the existence of language-based prejudice, which created a hierarchy of languages. Hudson wrote about the subjective inequality of accents and that theory will be adapted in this paper to help understanding the ideas of advantage and disadvantage in a situation of linguistic conflict. The supremacy of some populations over others can and does change the way linguistic minorities see their language and, once that feeling of humiliation, embarrassment and shame about their language is felt, the direct outcome is that they tend to decide not to transmit it to future generations, bringing the language to a risky and almost certainly fatal situation. This work understands that international human rights do not currently address this economic matter and this brings about two consequences. The first is that the lack of compulsion on Governments to spend money on these groups makes all the other granted rights weaker and extremely difficult to implement. For instance, it is impossible for poor and disadvantaged communities to set up schools, translate official documents, engage themselves in cross-border communications or name streets in their languages without governmental help. The second and most important consequence is failing to acknowledge the economic fragility of the linguistic minorities. This makes all the effort to recuperate languages inefficient, as it misses the main point to be considered. The cost of this lapse is severe. All the efforts to build up minority speeches might have been in vain as the evidence demonstrates that a poor economy is the one factor that links most of the dying languages. The languages which do not match this scenario tend to be spoken by isolated communities with little contact with outsiders.


Languages have always died. They disappeared as a consequence of a variety of reasons, from wars and invasions to natural phenomena that killed most of the speakers of particular communities [01]. Throughout human history they have emerged and ceased to exist as the cultures in which they were used have come and gone. That is not necessarily considered as a negative phenomenon, but rather as a normal episode of the times. It is known that a vast number of languages from the classical times are no longer alive, such as Bithynian, Cilician, Pisidian, Phrygian, Paphlagonian, Etruscan, Sumerian, Elamite and Hittite [02]. There are probably a large amount of others which have not left clues behind and therefore are not counted as extinct or ever existent. But, if on the one hand language death is common, on the other hand the scenario shown in the last decades may be too extreme, with a large number of languages dying out in a short period of time.

Having precise numbers for languages that face extinction has been a challenge. Surveys have been made with no pre-established method and were subjected to the interpretation of the researcher, which has obviously led to over and underestimations. Indeed, a number of issues can influence the final results. Some languages are known by several different names, while other names describe a number of different languages. For example, one language in the Nigerian district of Plateau State is known by 12 alternative names: Berom, Birom, Berum, Gbang, Kibo, Kibbun, Kibyen, Aboro, Boro-Aboro, Afango, Chenberom and Shosho. Quechua, in contrast, is said to be a cover-name for a dozen languages. Another issue is the distinction between a language and a dialect. Two speech systems are considered to be dialects if they are mutually intelligible, but this pure linguistic ground can be distorted by political criteria. As an example, the mutually intelligible Swedish, Danish and Norwegian have statuses as separate languages [03]. Despite these and a number of other difficulties, the approximate size of the problem is thought to have been reached. The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (HRELP) based at SOAS, University of London, estimates that there are 6,500 languages currently spoken in the world, half of which are under threat of extinction in the next 50 to 100 years. [04]

This widespread phenomenon of endangerment of minority languages, allied with historical events such as the fall of Communism in the former Eastern Bloc and the ensuing outbreak of ethnic tensions in Central and Eastern Europe [05] gave rise to the need for a movement of revival of linguistic rights. After 1990, with intensified work by the Council of Europe, OSCE and EU [06], the protection of minorities have occupied permanent place in international law debates. In 1992 the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages drew attention to the linguistic rights of minorities, functioning as a milestone in the safeguard of multilingualism in general. Europe was, then, leading the world awareness about the threats to cultural richness if enough was not done to save languages at risk. The preamble of the mentioned charter illustrates this concern and states that "the protection of the historical regional or minority languages of Europe, some of which are in danger of eventual extinction, contributes to the maintenance and development of Europe's cultural wealth and traditions".

Previous to this legal support, sociolinguists had put a great deal of effort into trying to find out the reasons for language death and how this could be reversed. This study aims to discuss the dissimilarities between the sociolinguistic approach to endangered languages revitalisation and the approach adopted by legal instruments and will suggest that the latter fails to address the issue of economic disadvantage of minorities, majorly discussed by sociolinguistics as a fundamental point in language maintenance. It will also be discussed the consequences of this omission. While there is now open debate and even a certain amount of achievement about schools operating in minority languages, use of minority languages in the access to justice and street signalisation in minority languages, Governments have been excused from the responsibility of empowering these communities through economic development, therefore making their lives unviable amongst the mainstream society formed by the speakers of the majority language.

In order to understand the current questions and concerns about language revitalisation, the main theoretical contexts will be discussed next, exploring the linguistic approaches to what might be the solutions to the extremely accelerated language death phenomenon. After that this paper will present the understanding rights have about the theme and what was in fact codified in order to protect linguistic minorities. This will be followed by the actual analysis and discussion about how the sociolinguistic doctrine differs from the practical linguistic rights and how the economical disadvantage of minorities influence their self-esteem and makes them opt not to teach their languages to future generations. It will also explore how the empowerment of endangered language speakers is believed to effectively strengthen languages and the consequences of the lack of this economy-related factor in law. Subsequently there will be a summary of the main findings, as well as points of consideration for further research.

2.Literature review

After identifying language death as a problem, scholars started the search for solutions. David Crystal points that there are many obstacles to succeed in the long journey towards language revitalization. He states that "we know a great deal about why languages become endangered and die, and why people shift from one language to another, but we still know very little about why they are maintained and why people stay loyal to them". [07]In reality, different languages respond differently to stimulus, making it difficult to theorise and generalise a safe policy to ensure their maintenance. In the case of the Maori of New Zealand, a strong ethnic community involvement since the 1970s seemed to do the job, with a long-established literacy existence among the Maori and the adoption by the Government of policies that included their language into the curriculum of schools. The Ugong of Thailand, on the contrary, has died in the places where the interaction with Thai was bigger and has survived in geographical areas which are relatively isolated, where the community was more likely to be economically self-sufficient and had little contact with outside groups.

In fact, everything seems to change from group to group. Willem Fase, Koen Jaspaert and Sjaak Kroon explore the different attitudes an ethnic group may have in a language contact situation. They divide the behaviours in four, as follows:

1.The ethnic group might decide not to communicate if not in their own language, avoiding contact with non-speakers;

2.The ethnic group can opt to use their own language to establish communication. In most cases the dominant group will reject this option, but it might happen that it accepts this choice as a legitimate form of contact;

3.The two groups can choose to communicate in a third language;

4.The minority group adapts and uses the dominant group language to communicate, which is the most frequent situation [08].

But what do these behaviours depend on? After all, what can be done to preserve endangered languages? Sociolinguistics tried to answer this question and, in spite of small divergences between the academics, some factors turned up so frequently that they could be recognised as postulates for a theory of language revitalization. This study is going to use David Crystal’s important work to illustrate what Sociolinguistics believes the solutions are. The first five points are related to the themes of education, media and law. The last one, to economy and wealth.

It has been repeated thoroughly that an endangered language will survive if its speakers have a strong presence in the educational system. [09] It is known that the presence of the language in the home is the priority, but if it is not also present at school, the future of the language tends to be bleak. Crystal explains that the role of the school in helping the child using its mother tongue is now well understood, after decades of study and research. The school setting provides a wide range of opportunities for children to use the language in all its facets: speaking it to their colleagues, learning new vocabulary and engaging with literacy, which will broaden the range of knowledge accessible to them. Bilingual education is to some extent a mixed blessing. It makes it possible for children to practice their mother tongue with others in a natural way, but also introduces them to the very foreign influences that threatened their language in the first place. Nevertheless, the key point about being taught in the endangered language tends to hold, which is the increase in the pupils’ self-confidence that comes with the knowledge of their language’s history, folklore and literature.

An endangered language is also said to progress if its speakers can write their language down, which is perceptibly part of the previous point but requires separate attention due to its importance. There is no guarantee a language will survive because it can be written down, as one can infer from the classical languages that disappeared and left nothing behind but written records, but it is enormously more assured if it can. The reason is not only to preserve data for posterity, in which case a large number of audio and video recording would suffice. The writing down of a language requires a very elaborate linguistic work to analyse the best way to turn the sound system into symbols and to prepare material such as grammars and dictionaries. It is an extremely bold maintenance policy with several difficulties. First, the community itself may resist. If literacy was never part of a culture, the speakers might see it not as a gain, but rather as a loss of ownership and a surrendering to the outside world. Some peoples have a very strong oral tradition, in which dynamism, tones of voice, melodies, gestures and facial expressions play an important role. Once written down, these stories become static, reduced in form, imprisoned in the alphabetic system and lacking the dialogue element. A second problem is choosing which variety of the language to write down. When a particular dialect is chosen it inevitably acquires a higher status, which can result in community divisiveness and accelerate the loss of the other varieties. Although risky, literacy programs have been implemented with success in hundreds of endangered language situations and are a priority in the majority of revitalisation projects [10].

Another factor discussed in the maintenance and promotion of language on the verge of death is the use of electronic technology. This is to a large extent a hypothetical postulate, as many parts of the world with language loss problems do not have access to electronic technology and, at times, not even to electricity. This is also an expensive investment and usually only wealthier speakers can afford it. However, whenever possible, the Internet showed to be a good means of spreading the language and making it available to those interested, with the cost of a web page being the same for all. This is particularly important because it overcomes geographical barriers and allows speakers to communicate from distant places, whereas it is acknowledged that the dissolution of communities via migration has been an essential aspect of language deterioration [11].

An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their prestige within the dominant community [12]. For that to happen, the dominant community needs to notice the endangered one. Increasing its visibility or profile can only happen, according to Crystal, through access to the media, from churches and community centres’ news to television. The mainstream speakers need to have access to the language to be revitalised. The aim is to move from the initial domain to be explored in the media, such as arts or religion, to more and more sectors. With political support, the minor language can be used in law, business, public administration, advertising, place names, road signs and on public signs in general. It is believed this connotes the acceptance of the minority language by the majority language speakers.

The other factor said to help the minority languages to progress is the increase of its speakers’ power in the eyes of the dominant community [13]. This point is interesting as it refers to the attention legal statements drew to minority languages. Crystal notes the trend of sympathy to indigenous languages in the last decades all over the world, with emphasis in Europe. He points to the rise in linguistic rights documents as responsible for this behaviour. In 1981, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that proposed a Community charter to deal with regional languages and cultures and the rights of ethnic minorities. In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which came into force on 1 March 1998. Likewise, other parts of the world also made efforts, with the USA passing two Native American Language Acts in 1990 and 1992, the 1991 Colombian Constitution giving indigenous languages official status in their own territories, etc.

The last factor pointed by Crystal discusses the issue of language loss from the point of view that the minority speakers are less wealthy and economically disprivileged. He believes an endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their wealth relative to the dominant community. He quotes Grenoble and Whaley when they observe that economics "may be the single strongest force influencing the fate of endangered languages" [14]. A change in the economic fortune of a community has the most certain impact in their self-esteem. The strong economy of certain minority language communities backs them in their will of using their mother tongue. Crystal believes the strengthened economy of Catalonia, for instance, has been the strongest reason why Catalan is still widely spoken there. The relationship between economy and the loss of minority languages discussed by Crystal is present in every relevant work on sociolinguistics. This presence is not recent. Classical authors such as Fishman and Edwards had already examined it.

Gellner, quoted by Edwards, defends the idea that the change in the importance of language is due to the rise of nationalism and that men do not become nationalists from sentiment or sentimentality, atavistic or not, well-based or myth-founded; they become nationalists through genuine, objective, practical necessity, they become nationalists grounded in economics. Gellner does not consider language especially important and states that "if switching of language were the only problem, no new divisive nationalism need ever arise" and that "changing one’s language is not the heart-breaking or soul-destroying business which it is claimed to be in romantic nationalist literature". [15]Edwards names more authors who discussed linguistics as an economy-dependant field. He states that Dorian wrote that "language loyalty persists as long as the economic and social circumstances are conductive to it", William observed that "language allegiance is firmly rooted in economic order rather than in any independent cultural order", that Fishman has protested against "economic reductionism" and Ridler has questioned the "priceless" nature of language and identity. [16]

Edwards identifies three distinct groups when it comes to the relationship between economy and language [17]. He affirms that there are indeed cases in which economy does not explain language shift or retention. Some groups have their language tied to their main activity in life, such as religion. In fact, some groups are even willing to undergo privation, suffer persecution or die for their religion, which is surely not an economical behaviour. Such communities, however, are increasingly rare and, even within them, those behaviours are limited to a small number of members.

A second and more common instance are the groups who support the retention of language and cultural markers where this does not represent an economical advance and where there is no link to religion or to something as crucial. With no economical or metaphysical pay-off, it is thought that the key factor for these groups is that their language might not contribute to them economically, but, equally, it does not lead to material loss. Groups in this category tend to be secure enough and have some psychological and economic capital to spare. This usually appeals to those who are strongly positioned within society, forming a minority intellectual group different from the ordinary majority members, on behalf of whom they believe to speak.

Finally, Edwards states that "For most groups and for most individuals within them, pragmatic or economic issues have top priority. It is for this reason that language shift occurs and that calls for the retention of language (or other markers of groupness) are usually without broad appeal." [18] This grip on reality is not a conscious one, differently from the conscious attention to language which is so much part of nationalistic appeals. Again, Gellner reminds us that "The self image of nationalism involves the stress of folk, folklore, popular culture, etc. In fact, nationalism becomes important precisely when these things become artificial. Genuine peasants or tribesmen, however proficient at folk-dancing, do not generally make good nationalists". [19]

A region that is economically depressed has its language unavoidably linked to penury and backwardness. A non-economic intervention in the language situation would not attack the problem at its root and would therefore produce ephemeral results. Similarly, economic interventions on behalf of linguistic and cultural goals usually manifest themselves in temporary or isolated measures. Edward explains that success would require an effort of sustained political will from those most directly involved. [20]

With sociolinguistics identifying economy as a central player in the fate of languages, one would expect this to be adopted as a main principle in language maintenance, employed by Governments on the protection of the linguistic minorities and with a strong presence in every treaty and convention on linguistic rights. This paper argues that this has not happened yet.

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Sobre o autor
Daniel Nogueira Passos

Bacharel em Direito pela Universidade Federal do Piauí - UFPI. Mestre em Direitos Humanos pela Birkbeck - University of London

Como citar este texto (NBR 6023:2018 ABNT)

PASSOS, Daniel Nogueira . Economy and wealth in the maintenance of endangered languages.: A sociolinguistic perspective. Revista Jus Navigandi, ISSN 1518-4862, Teresina, ano 16 , n. 2885, 26 mai. 2011 . Disponível em: https://jus.com.br/artigos/19180. Acesso em: 13 ago. 2022.

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