SP07: Language Endangerment and Preservation in South Asia

front coverUniversity of Hawai‘i Press
ISBN 978-0-9856211-4-8 (2014)

Edited by Hugo C. Cardoso





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Front matter (contents, contributors)
Hugo C. Cardoso, pp. 1-2

1. Death by other means: Neo-vernacularization of South Asian languages
E. Annamalai, pp. 3-18

Endangerment of a language is assessed by the shrinking number of its speakers and the failure to pass it on to the next generation. This approach views multilingualism in statistical terms. When multilingualism is defined by the functional relationship between languages the meaning of endangerment expands to include functional reduction in languages. This takes place when the economic, political and cultural value of a language comes to near zero. The language may still be spoken inter-generationally, but only for limited in-group communication. Such a language survives, but does not live. This situation can be found even in a language with a large population and official status. This paper illustrates such a situation with Tamil, a South Asian language. Tamil has a long literary history, is the official language of an Indian state and has political and cultural value. But its lack of economic value makes its speakers consider it a liability in education and for material progress and this restricts it from functioning substantively. Such a language will not die but will become a vernacular. Most Indian regional languages, which were vernaculars in the first millennium when Sanskrit was the dominant language, may become vernaculars again in the third millennium when English is the dominant language.

2. Majority language death
Liudmila V. Khokhlova, pp. 19-45

The notion of ‘language death’ is usually associated with one of the ‘endangered languages’, i.e. languages that are at risk of falling out of use as their speakers die out or shift to some other language. This paper describes another kind of language death: the situation in which a language remains a powerful identity marker and the mother tongue of a country’s privileged and numerically dominant group with all the features that are treated as constituting ethnicity, and yet ceases to be used as a means of expressing its speakers’ intellectual demands and preserving the community’s cultural traditions. This process may be defined as the ‘intellectual death’ of a language. The focal point of the analysis undertaken is the sociolinguistic status of Punjabi in Pakistan. The aim of the paper is to explore the historical, economic, political, cultural and psychological reasons for the gradual removal of a majority language from the repertoires of native speakers.

3. Ahom and Tangsa: Case studies of language maintenance and loss in North East India
Stephen Morey, pp. 46-77

North East India is probably the most linguistically diverse area on the Indian subcontinent, with long established communities speaking languages of four different families – Austroasiatic, Indo-European, Tai-Kadai and Tibeto-Burman. Comparing Tai Ahom, language of the rulers of a kingdom that consisted of what is now Assam, with the very diverse Tangsa varieties spoken on the India-Myanmar border, we will discuss factors of language decline and language maintenance. Tai Ahom has not been spoken as a mother tongue for 200 years, but survives in the large body of manuscripts, and in the language used in religious rituals. While both of these features have been necessary foundations of the ongoing revival of the language, neither was able to maintain the language in its spoken form. At least 35 different Tangsa sub-tribes are found in India, with more in Myanmar. Each has a distinct linguistic variety, many of which are mutually intelligible while others are not. Despite having no writing until very recently, each variety is still healthy. Since many Tangsas are now Christians, Bible translations are underway, and many Tangsa of all religions are interested in orthography and literacy development. This may lead to standardisation, which would represent a significant loss of diversity.

4. Script as a potential demarcator and stabilizer of languages in South Asia
Carmen Brandt, pp. 78-99

South Asia is rich not only in languages, but also in scripts. However, the various roles script can play in this region have been only marginally explored. Besides an overview of the most important examples from South Asia in which script has contributed to the strengthening or weakening of a language, or to the classification of a tongue as a language or dialect, this paper offers first inputs for a discussion on the role of script today in smaller speech communities which lack a long literary tradition. Especially in cases of script invention, script is not only allocated the role of an identity marker for the speech community, but seems to be expected to strengthen the language itself, and finally to act as a preserver of the minority language.

5. The lifecycle of Sri Lanka Malay
Umberto Ansaldo & Lisa Lim, pp. 100-118

The aim of this paper is to document the forces that led first to the decay and then the revival of the ancestral language of the Malay diaspora of Sri Lanka. We first sketch the background of the origins of the language in terms of intense contact and multilingual transfer; then analyze the forces that led to a significant language shift and consequent loss, as well as the factors responsible for the recent survival of the language. In doing so we focus in particular on the ideologies of language upheld within the community, as well as on the role of external agents in the lifecycle of the community.