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  • Ethnographic contributions to the study of endangered languages ed. by Tania Granadillo and Heidi A. Orcutt-Gachiri
  • Susan D. Penfield
Ethnographic contributions to the study of endangered languages. Ed. by Tania granadillo and Heidi A. Orcutt-Gachiri. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011. Pp. 248. ISBN 9780816526994. $55 (Hb).

Efforts to save endangered languages have been driven by the realization that the existence of half of the world's nearly 7,000 languages is seriously threatened. The field of endangered language study has changed rapidly as the technological shaping of language documentation has evolved and as revitalization efforts are gaining strength. As the title suggests, this book highlights the contributions that ethnography and the field of linguistic anthropology can make to the study of endangered languages and pushes researchers to consider domains of study outside of strict linguistic description. This approach adds dimension to a field that was, early on, dominated by a focus on linguistic structure with outcomes evident in dictionaries, grammars, translated texts, and other language-specific materials. The use of sophisticated recording devices and digital tools now enhances linguistic description through digital documentation, database creation, and electronic archiving. While the study of language structure is a critical part of the endangered language field, [End Page 363] this book is in syncwith recent trends that aim to situate languages within broader contexts in order to understand the forces that have and will contribute to the vitality of the language.

The book under review is a bit ahead of the curve and in line with even more recent work represented by Evans 2010, Austin & Sallabank 2011, and Thieberger 2011. These writings all offer a broadly encompassing look at endangered languages and are indicative of the evolving interdisciplinary approach to the subject.

To state this book's contribution in the simplest of terms, the authors remind us all that language does not exist in a vacuum. To document or revitalize an endangered language, without a nod to the forces that brought it to that place, is an incomplete study in many ways. The authors clearly caution researchers against emphasizing language structure over the sociohistorical context of endangerment (1). We, as readers, are reminded through the examples in this book that bringing in disciplines that differ in scope and theory enriches all of the investigative processes. The examples included are mostly focused on the contribution linguistic anthropology can make to language revitalization (language policy, planning, and maintenance), as defined in the classic writings by Fishman (1991, 2001), Hinton and Hale (2001), Hinton and colleagues (2002), Grenoble and Whaley (2006), and more recently by Spolsky (2012).

The foreword to the book, written by JANE HILL, sets the background, stressing the common plight endangered languages face as nation/state policies impact their ability to survive. Hill foreshadows the book's central arguments: (i) endangered languages, while shaped by similar forces, must be understood within the scope of their local realities, social history, and educational contexts, and (ii) linguistic anthropology demands long-term fieldwork and intensive community involvement.

The editors, Granadillo and Orcutt-Gachiri, both engaged in linguistic anthropological fieldwork at almost opposite ends of the earth. Granadillo has worked in her native Venezuela; Orcutt-Gachiri worked extensively in Kenya. This book grew out of a 2005 symposium presented at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC. The aim of that symposium, and a central theme of this book, was to create awareness of the value of endangered languages and to analyze the sociohistorical contexts in which the languages come to be endangered. Several key questions that were raised are threaded throughout this book: (i) Which particular historical processes intersect with global processes to create the current linguistic situation? (ii) What drives the speakers not to pass on their languages? (iii) What is the assessment of the language's future path(s)? What factors will help to determine those paths? And (iv) What tools does linguistic anthropology offer for helping in efforts to revitalize languages? (2).

The book draws our attention to the fact that language endangerment is a process, resulting from many forces. To reverse this type of shift, the underlying causes need analysis. The strict...


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