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Creoles – not "broken" language

by Karin Wiecha

March 7, 02013

Creoles are languages that emerge in situations where two or more languages are in close contact. Most of the creoles spoken today have developed in the context of colonization, when the languages of the colonizers – mostly English, French, Portuguese and Dutch – mixed with the languages of the indigenous peoples.

Often creole languages are looked down on as degenerate dialects of the languages they evolved from and have a low prestige, even in their speech communities. In many countries the language of education is still the language of the colonizers and students are forbidden to speak their native creoles at school and on campus. But creoles are not broken language; they are young languages in their own right. They have full-fledged grammars and follow their own grammatical rules. In fact many languages have been influenced by language contact. French, for instance, developed as a dialect from so-called Vulgar Latin (the spoken variant of classical Latin) under the influence of Celtic languages.

Fortunately, the attitudes are gradually changing in some countries. The Jamaican Language Unit of the University of the West Indies has developed a writing system for Jamaican Creole and is currently conducting a pilot project to educate students at primary school level bilingually in English and Jamaican Creole. Some creole languages, like Haitian Creole and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, now have the status of an official language of the government (here is a list of creoles with official status). Hopefully, more and more countries will follow suit in order to stop language discrimination and appreciate creoles as the full-fledged languages they are.

Why it is important to save data on endangered languages

by Karin Wiecha

February 13, 02013

All over the world linguists go to some of the most remote places in order to document languages that are yet undocumented, sometimes spending years with the speech communities. Many of these languages have only a small number of speakers left. ‘Why would you want to spend years writing a dictionary or grammar of a language with just a few hundred speakers just to let it gather dust in the library?’ you might ask. But the importance of languages on cultural life is not to be underestimated. Language is vital for the identity of the individual and the community.

The truth of this must have been evident to the inventors of forced boarding schools for indigenous communities in Canada, Australia and America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The goal was to assimilate the aboriginal children to western culture. One means to do so was prohibiting the use of their native languages. The cultural loss these children and their descendents have suffered is still painful for many today. But there are language revitalization programs like the Limu Project in southern California, which makes use of the extensive field notes on a number of now extinct native Californian languages collected by linguist John Peabody Harrington in the first half the 20th century.

The biggest and most successful language revitalization yet has been the revival of Hebrew in the course of Israel’s birth as a new state. Hebrew had not been spoken for about 2000 years and has now 3 million native speakers. A crucial prerequisite for such a success was that substantial language data was available in the form of religious texts. Unfortunately, the database on many endangered or extinct languages is very limited in comparison, if there is any. Gathering data on endangered languages is therefore vital for the preservation and revitalization of these languages.

Find texts, audio and video data on endangered languages in the Rosetta Project Digital Archive

The Rosetta Disk

Fifty to ninety percent of the world's languages are predicted to disappear in the next century, many with little or no significant documentation.