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  • Introduction
  • David Bradley

This special issue is the outcome of a symposium on this topic held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, on 27 June 2009, and supported by the Comité International Permanent des Linguistes (CIPL; see

CIPL has long encouraged and supported work on endangered languages. CIPL made language endangerment a central theme of the Congrès International des Linguistes XV held in Ottawa, Canada in 1992. As a part of this theme, there was a plenary panel on the sociolinguistics of language endangerment, with presentations published in advance (Robins and Uhlenbeck 1991). This was the first worldwide survey of the degree of language endangerment. Subsequently, CIPL also continued with language endangerment as a core focus, with two plenary presentations in Prague in 2003 at its Congrès XVII and with a prize for work on language endangerment awarded at the Prague Congrès XVII and at the Seoul Congrès XVIII in 2008.

This issue contains six contributions that were first given at the symposium. All focus on different aspects of the sociolinguistics of language endangerment, and most have been substantially revised and expanded since their initial presentation. They represent cases in Europe, Africa, South, Southeast and East Asia, and Australia, thus also expanding the range of language endangerment studies outside the Americas, where most published work has been done.

In my article, I outline a new approach, resilience linguistics, which is designed to conceptualize and frame the sociolinguistic processes underlying language maintenance and shift and to suggest a way forward for language revitalization. This revolves around systematic documentation of the sociolinguistic situation and an active approach that a community and linguists may undertake together to reinvigorate the community’s language. Two contrasting examples are illustrated with case studies. One is Gong, a critically endangered language in Thailand where the community is now working with us on revitalization. The other is Lisu, a language of China, Burma, Thailand, and India; it is safe and even replacing some other languages, but many aspects of its traditional life including oral literature are endangered, in part due to widespread conversion to Christianity and the resulting rejection of some indigenous practices. In both cases, documentation and other assistance from outsiders is a part of the resilience process.

In a fascinating study on the Kalasha of Pakistan, the last tribal group in the north of the country who have not yet converted to Islam, Pierpaolo Di Carlo [End Page 119] shows how their traditional Vedic religious identity and the associated oral performances are central to the persistence of the group and its language. Conversion to Islam over the centuries has led to a gradual and ongoing erosion of the community, as group members who convert also shift to the language and identity of an adjacent Muslim group. A sample text illustrates the oral literature, and also provides linguistic data to show how a traditional oral genre may have distinct linguistic features; Di Carlo discusses a different pattern of use for a topic marker.

Maïa Ponsonnet provides a case study on the process of language shift in an Australian Aboriginal community and the attitudes of community members during that process. The oldest generation are fully fluent in the traditional language Dalabon and proud of it; but they are also proud of the new status of Kriol (the indigenous Aboriginal creole which developed and spread over the last century, starting in Christian mission stations where members of several groups lived together) and of the role of their younger relatives in developing and spreading it. The middle generation may be more or less fluent, but have ambivalent attitudes about transmitting the traditional language. There is pride in the traditional language, but somewhat unrealistic views about the abilities of the next generation. They also accept the use of Kriol, which is now the most widely spoken indigenous language of Australia. The younger generation speaks Kriol (and English), but in at least one case holds negative views about Kriol, while also expressing frustration about lack of ability in the traditional language. Here we see the widespread pattern of language shift over two generations, with the middle generation not...


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