ELAR Occasional Seminar Series

When: 3-4PM, Friday 4 April, 2014
Where: Room B104, Brunei Gallery, London ...  location information

Measuring and understanding ethnolinguistic vitality in the two most endangered Northwest Solomonic languages

Ellen Smith

University of Newcastle, Australia

In the past two decades, the now frequently cited prediction that there will be 50% loss of the world’s 6000-7000 languages in the next 100 years (Crystal 2000: 19) has led to a growing interest in ethnolinguistic vitality. There has emerged not only an appreciation for what is lost when a language dies, but also a greater understanding of why languages disappear, and a proliferation of scales which strive to assess the degree of endangerment. This paper presents sociolinguistic profiles of the two most endangered Northwest Solomonic languages (Oceanic, Austronesian); Papapana (Bougainville island, Papua New Guinea) and Ririo (Choiseul island, Solomon Islands). Using data from recent documentation and description fieldwork projects of these sister languages, this paper investigates why and to what extent Papapana and Ririo are endangered.

Except for the rare situation in which a speech community is physically eliminated, all instances of language death are due to language shift; the abandonment of a group’s native language for another (Winford 2003: 15). Motivations for language shift are complex, varied and interrelated, and result from the distinctive circumstances of the particular language contact situation. This paper reveals that while there are some factors, such as intermarriage and population displacement, which have contributed to language shift in both the Papapana and Ririo speech communities, there are other factors which are unique to each community. Most crucially, the languages to which the speech communities have shifted differ greatly in their genetic affiliation and status, therefore challenging the notion of ‘dominant language’.

A number of frameworks exist which aim to determine the vitality status of a language (Fishman 1991, Wurm 1998, Krauss 2007, Brenzinger et al. 2003, Lewis and Simons 2010). By using these frameworks to assess and compare Papapana and Ririo, it becomes clear that the frameworks may need re-evaluating on the basis of their clarity, breadth, and particularly their relevance to the Melanesian context. Landweer (2012) addresses the latter issue; however, like many of the other frameworks, Landweer fails to distinguish symptoms and causes of linguistic endangerment. This paper makes such a distinction and subsequently evaluates the importance of particular symptoms.

The comparison of Papapana and Ririo demonstrates that distinguishing symptoms from causes can be challenging, especially since some symptoms, such as proportion of speakers, can be both indicators and causes of language endangerment. However, it is vital to make this separation; accurately assessing the degree of ethnolinguistic vitality is crucial if we are to successfully evaluate the urgency and feasibility of documentation, preservation and revitalisation projects, while investigating the causes of endangerment can significantly aid the implementation of such projects.

This paper contributes to our understanding of the complexities of language endangerment, and challenges some of the assumptions and definitions used to discuss degree and causes of endangerment. It is hoped that this will lead to the development of a more comprehensive framework for categorising and understanding endangered language situations.


Brenzinger, M., A. Yamamoto, N. Aikawa, D. Koundiouba, A. Minasyan, A. Dwyer, C. Grinevald, M. Krauss, O. Miyaoka, O. Sakiyama, R. Smeets & O. Zepeda. 2003. Language vitality and endangerment. Document submitted to the International Expert Meeting on UNESCO Programme Safeguarding of Endangered Languages, Paris, 10-12 March 2003. Online: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/00120-EN.pdf.: UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting on Endangered Languages
Crystal, D. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fishman, J. A. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters.

Krauss, M. 2007. Classification and terminology for degrees of language endangerment. In Trends in linguistics, studies and monographs: language diversity endangered, ed. M. Brenzinger. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Landweer, M. L. (2012) Methods of language endangerment research: a perspective from Melanesia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 214, 153-178.

Lewis, M. P. & G. F. Simons (2010) Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS. Revue Roumaine de Linguistique, 2, 103-120.

Winford, D. 2003. An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Wurm, S. A. 1998. Methods of language maintenance and revival, with selected cases of language endangerment in the world. In Studies in endangered languages: papers from the International Symposium on Endangered Languages, Tokyo Nov 18-20 1995, ed. K. Matsumura. Tokyo: Hituzi Syobo.

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