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  • Small-Language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages by Nancy C. Dorian
  • Lenore A. Grenoble
Small-Language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages. Nancy C. Dorian. Brill’s Studies in Language, Cognition, and Culture 6. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Pp. xiv + 476. $162.00 (hardcover).

This volume is a collection of twenty-three of Nancy Dorian’s articles, along with an introduction by Dorian and a brief preface by Alexandra Aikhenvald and N. J. Enfield. All the articles (except the introduction) were published previously, between 1973 and 2010, and are republished here with minor revisions. They are grouped thematically, not chronologically, in five sections: “Language Change in an Obsolescent Language”; “Speaker Skills and the Speech Community in a Receding Language Context”; “Language Shift and Language Maintenance”; “Language Use”; and “Fieldwork: Methods, Problems, Insights.” Dorian’s work encompasses all of these subjects across time, so each section includes articles from a range of dates. They come together in a remarkably holistic way: while each chapter can (and has been!) read as an individual, stand-alone article, the volume reads like a book. The articles have stood the test of time remarkably well: the same questions that Dorian began raising decades ago are hot issues today. And Dorian’s voice is central to discussions of these issues now; this book should be required reading for linguists working in endangered language communities.

Dorian began work in three fishing villages (Brora, Golspie, and Embo) in eastern Sutherland on the northeast coast of Highland Scotland in 1963. The local Gaelic varieties of these three villages (grouped as East Sutherland Gaelic) were unwritten and had features distinctive within Gaelic; some features were common to all three villages, and some were distinctive to individual villages. Moreover, by the time Dorian arrived in the 1960s, speakers were already bilingual in East Sutherland Gaelic and English: there were no monolingual Gaelic speakers and language shift was already apparent.

These were early days in endangered language research. American descriptive linguistics at the time focused on first-language fluent speakers and was not yet at a stage where it was prepared, theoretically or even philosophically, to address issues of contact, acquisition, variation, attrition, and obsolescence. And yet Dorian found herself in an environment where all of these issues were at play. At the same time, the theoretical study of the importance of social context on language use and structure was on the rise. Within this intellectual environment, Dorian proceeded to investigate the speech patterns of the three villages. Her work has been, and continues to be, foundational for work in the study of language loss and obsolescence in a range of ways. She has now been working with speakers from these communities for over forty years. Since she not only noticed but also documented language shift from the very beginning of her work there, we have a close study of multiple aspects–linguistic, social, ideological–of language shift over time with a small set of speakers. It is a remarkable history, because Dorian had the wherewithal to recognize what she encountered when she first arrived, and to document and study it. Moreover, she has sustained a long-term working relationship with these three village communities, and her work is an important testimony to the value of working closely with a single group over a long period of time.

Although the articles are grouped in different sections, the issues that they address are necessarily intertwined and there is a natural flow from one chapter to the next. For example, chapter 3, “Making Do with Less: Some Surprises along the Language Death Proficiency Continuum,” is rightfully placed in the first section because of its focus on linguistic consequences, but it also addresses issues of speaker competence, loosely defined. Dorian shows that speakers of an endangered language can be not only fluent, but also skillful speakers, and still show signs of hesitation and weakness or uncertainty with regard to certain grammatical points. At the same time, less proficient speakers [End Page 104] (semispeakers) can “have minimal active control of the grammar” (p. 116) and still deploy their knowledge very artfully to communicate successfully...


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