Can David Crystal's 6 point survival strategy be applied to the Circassian language?

This text is based on large excerpts from David Crystal’s book “Language Death” (2002, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521012716). expresses its gratitude to David Crystal for his permission to reproduce parts of his book here. Our visitors are highly recommended to visit Crystal’s website and obtain a full copy of the book. - An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their prestige within the dominant community. Prestige comes when people start to notice you. An endangered community therefore needs to make its presence felt within the wider community. It needs to raise its visibility, or profile. Obtaining access to the media (traditionally, the province of the dominant culture) is critical – to begin with, a regular column in a daily newspaper, perhaps, or an occasional programme exposing the language on radio or television, such as a cultural celebration or a religious festival.

Compiled by

This text is based on large excerpts from David Crystal’s book “Language Death” (2002, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521012716). expresses its gratitude to David Crystal for his permission to reproduce parts of his book here. Our visitors are highly recommended to visit Crystal’s website ( and obtain a full copy of the book.

CHAPTER 5 What can be done?

1. An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their prestige within the dominant community.

Prestige comes when people start to notice you. An endangered community therefore needs to make its presence felt within the wider community. It needs to raise its visibility, or profile. Obtaining access to the media (traditionally, the province of the dominant culture) is critical – to begin with, a regular column in a daily newspaper, perhaps, or an occasional programme exposing the language on radio or television, such as a cultural celebration or a religious festival. But the media will only report what they perceive to be significant community activity, hence the first step is to enhance that activity in community settings, such as churches, social centres, and town halls. People have to get into the habit of using a language, and this requires that they have regular access to it. Sporadic language activities need to be replaced by activities in which the language has a predictable presence, thus enabling a process of consolidation to take place. Decisions need to be made about which social activities to concentrate on: after all, people cannot revitalize everything at once. Certain functions may need to be selected for special effort, such as story-telling or religious ritual. Traditional religious links and practices are especially important in the way they provide motivation for language revival,
as are the arts.

The longer-term aim is to increase visibility in more and more sectors of the public domain. The worlds of business, law, and public administration are particularly important targets. A token presence is often all that can initially be obtained, through letterheadings, company symbols, and the like; but if the political circumstances are auspicious, this can steadily grow, until it becomes (as in present-day Wales) co-equal with the dominant language in such areas as advertising, public-service leaflets, and minute-taking. There is an associated growth in translation and interpreting services. With political support, also, a high level of visibility can come from the use of the indigenous language in place names, on road signs, and on public signs in general. These usually provide a real indication of the acceptability of a language’s presence in the wider community, and are thus often a focus of activism. The defaced road signs in many countries, in which names in the dominant language have been painted over by their Welsh, Basque, Gaelic (etc.) equivalents, provide a contemporary illustration. They demonstrate the presence of a community dynamism which has gone further than the law permits in order to express corporate linguistic identity. But dynamism at grass-roots
level there must be.

2. An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their wealth relative to the dominant community

I have already quoted an observation by Grenoble and Whaley that economics ‘may be the single strongest force influencing the fate of endangered languages’ (see p. 125), but the point is so salient that it deserves to be repeated. I am inclined to agree, if for no other reason than that it costs money to raise the social and political profile of a language, and that money will only be forthcoming in a prosperous environment. But a change in economic fortunes has a more fundamental and positive impact on the self-esteem of a community, as long as the increase in prosperity is gradual, and is well managed. (There are cases, such as the oil booms in some parts of the world, where the arrival of sudden wealth has proved to be destructive of an indigenous community.) The strengthened economy of Catalonia, for example, has been a major factor in encouraging the use of Catalan there, and this has enhanced the prestige of the language in other Catalan-speaking areas. Service industries and light manufacturing industries tend to be the domains in which endangered languages can most benefit from economic growth. (By contrast, as we have seen in chapter 3, the so-called ‘primary’ industries of the world, and especially the extractive industries, such as mining and quarrying, have had an overall harmful effect on indigenous languages, because of the way they attract exploitation by outside organizations.)

Tourism is a good example of a service industry which can bring considerable benefits to an endangered language, as has been seen in parts of Switzerland and northern Italy. Dolomitic Ladin, for example, spoken in a few small locations in the South Tyrol, has benefited in this way, as has the use of Romansh, since 1938 one of the four national languages of Switzerland, spoken in the canton of Graubünden (Grisons) in south-east Switzerland, and also in the valleys of the upper Rhine and Inn rivers. Other minority languages and dialects in the region have also developed a higher profile as a result of the tourist presence, such as Franco-Provençale in the Vallée d’Aoste, the German-related Walser in the Vallée de Gressoney, and Friulian in the extreme north-east of Italy. A significant attribute of tourists, of course, is that they come and go, at different times of the year, and represent a wide range of linguistic backgrounds. There is thus less likelihood of the emergence of an alien threatening presence in the indigenous community.

3. An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community

The closing decades of the twentieth century saw indigenous languages in many parts of the world benefiting from a trend in public opinion displaying increased sympathy towards cultural and linguistic rights. The mood was particularly strong in Europe, where a series of statements emerged from within the leading political organizations; and while these were inevitably focused on the position of the lesser-used languages of Europe, they sent a strong message to those concerned with language rights in other parts of the world. In 1981, a milestone was passed when the European Parliament adopted a resolution, prepared by Gaetano Arfé (an Italian member of a parliamentary committee), proposing a Community charter to deal with regional languages and cultures and the rights of ethnic minorities. In 1992 another milestone was reached when the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in the form of a convention; this came into force on 1 March 1998. As a convention, it is legally binding on the ratifying countries, and offers significant levels of protection for minority languages in crucial walks of life. Other bodies, notably the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have contributed important statements which have helped to encourage the current climate, and the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, with its aim of conserving and promoting the regional, autochthonous languages and cultures of the European Union, has been a significant facilitating force.

It is perhaps not surprising to see European support these days for multilingualism, given that the European Union has affirmed the national-language principle in its affairs, despite the costs involved: if a country is proud of its right to have its national language used in Brussels, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg, it becomes much more difficult for that country to deny the same right to its own constituent ethnic communities. But several other parts of the world have also seen positive political developments. The USA passed two Native American Languages Acts, in 1990 and 1992, the first ‘to preserve, protect, and promote the rights of freedom of Native Americans to use, practice and develop Native American languages’, the second ‘to assist Native Americans in assuring the survival and continuing vitality of their languages’. The 1991 Law on Languages of the Russian Federation gave all languages the status of a national property under the protection of the state. The 1991 Colombian Constitution gave indigenous languages official status in their own territories, and supported a bilingual education policy. On the wider world stage, UNESCO and the UN have produced various statements, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted in 1992. Language, however, has tended to be just one of several cultural issues covered by these statements, hence the potential significance of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights produced at Barcelona in 1996, with its primary focus on language (see Appendix). Statements, declarations, and resolutions are of course relatively easy to make; they are much harder to interpret in real social settings and to put into practice. The various formulations have all received their share of critical comment about the comprehensiveness of their coverage or the practicability of their recommendations. But they are certainly more specific and focused than earlier expressions ofsupport for human rights, which have often not mentioned language at all, or done so in the vaguest of terms.

The need to maintain pressure on governments, at international, national, and local levels, to make sure that something is actually done, is therefore as critical as ever. Notwithstanding the above developments, there are probably still more countries in the world currently violating or ignoring language rights than supporting them. So there is no room for complacency. At the same time, the progress made in certain countries has to be acknowledged, as they provide illustrations of what can be done. Probably the most heart-warming case is in Paraguay, where Guaraní has come to be the chief sign of national identity, with official status (since 1992), enjoying widespread prestige, attracting great loyalty, and spoken by over 90% of the population. Paraguay was formerly considered to be a Spanish-speaking country in which Guaraní had a presence; today, some commentators reverse the description, talking about a Guaraní-speaking country in which Spanish has its place. There has also been progress in Greenland, where Home Rule in 1979 led to a real increase in the numbers of bilingualGreenlanders appointed to senior positions. And in Eritrea, as already noted, it is government policy to have no official language – an unusually liberal policy (especially in Africa: see p. 82) which was strongly affirmed by President Afewerki in 1995:

Our policy is clear and we cannot enter into bargaining. Everyone is free to learn in the language he or she prefers, and no one is going to be coerced into using this or that ‘official’ language.

4 An endangered language will progress if its speakers have a strong presence in the educational system

To promote a presence in the home is the priority, with any endangered language. As we have seen, it is no solution to develop a mindset which sees all the responsibility transferred to the school system. But if there is no presence in the school system at all, at primary and secondary levels, the future is likewise bleak. The role of a school in developing a child’s use of its mother-tongue is now well understood, following several decades of research and debate in educational linguistics, and while most of this work has been devoted to helping children improve their skills in unendangered languages, there is an immediate and obvious application to less fortunate linguistic situations. The school setting provides an increasingly widening range of opportunities for children to listen and speak, as they learn to cope with the demands of the curriculum and come to use the language in school-mediated social occasions (such as religious or cultural gatherings). It gives them the opportunity to engage with literacy (see further below), which will open the doors to new worlds. If their only experience of speech and writing in school is through the medium of the dominant language, it will not be surprising to find that the indigenous language fails to thrive (an example of this happening was noted by Bradley in the case of the Ugong, above). Conversely, if careful planning has managed to give the indigenous language a formal place alongside
the dominant language, the result can be a huge increase in the pupils’ self-confidence.

Education is to some extent a mixed blessing, in endangered language situations. It introduces the pupils to the very foreign influences and values which have made their language endangered in the first place. At the same time, the knowledge and awareness which comes from the process of education can generate a confidence which stands the children in good stead, as they find themselves coping with the difficulties of language maintenance. Knowing something about a language’s history, folklore, and literature can be a great source of reassurance. The school is not the only source of this knowledge, of course. A great deal of language awareness, as well as social solidarity, results from the various forms of extra-curricular activity which a community can arrange as part of its language maintenance programme – for example, language playgroups, summer immersion camps, master–apprentice programmes, or bilingual holidays. And the same point applies in educational settings when older members of the community are involved. If ‘educational system’ is interpreted in its broadest sense, it will include all kinds of adult education courses in local halls and centres, community-based programmes, informal apprenticeships, in-service courses, and a great deal of activity that goes under the heading of ‘awareness-raising’.

But no teaching programme can succeed without good materials, and good materials are of no value unless there are teachers trained to use them. Teacher-training is thus a critical need, in most endangered situations. Ideally, these teachers would come from the population of fluent speakers left within the indigenous
community, and their training would prepare them to cope with the non-speakers who will form the bulk of the next generation. The training required is complex, because the language-learning situation is so mixed. A great deal of the work is remedial, in the sense that many learners have varying levels of proficiency in the indigenous language, ranging from reasonable fluency to semilingualism. Many of the students will be members of the ‘in-between’ generation, who have learned the dominant language as a first language in order to assimilate, and who now have no alternative but to learn the ancestral language as if it were a foreign language.  The teachers also have to cope with enormous variations in student temperament, ability, and motivation; a sociopolitical situation which may not always be sympathetic to their work; and an economic situation in which typically there is a shortage of materials and resources. The job, in short, is not easy, and demands proper status and pay – with indigenous teachers being paid comparably to visiting teachers who may have been imported to assist with the problem. Unfortunately, low salaries and discrepant levels are all too common, in endangered situations.

5. An endangered language will progress if its speakers can write their language down

The teaching of literacy is, of course, a major educational function; but literacy raises so many special issues that it requires a section to itself. It has a unique role in the maintenance of a language, as Samuel Johnson asserted, reflecting on the differences between a written and an unwritten language:

Books are faithful repositories, which may be a while neglected or forgotten; but when they are opened again, will again impart their instruction: memory, once interrupted, is not to be recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

Just because a language is written down does not automatically mean it will survive, of course, as is evident from the many extinct languages of classical times which we know about only through their written records. But equally, once a language passes the stage where it can be transmitted between generations as the first language of the home, its future is vastly more assured if it can be written down. The reason is not simply to safeguard a corpus of data for posterity: if this were all that were required, these days it would be enough to make large numbers of audio or video recordings. The writing down of a language is a different kind of activity, as it involves an intellectual step – an analysis of the way the sound system of the language works, so that the most efficient form of spelling system can be devised, and the preparation of materials to aid learning, in the form of dictionaries, grammars, and other manuals. It is a step that linguists should be trained to do, in ways which will be reviewed below. It can also be a controversial step, so this postulate for progress needs to be viewed with caution.

For people whose culture has a history of several centuries of literacy, it can come as a surprise to realize that literacy has its down side, in relation to endangered languages. But there are several ways in which this can be so. To begin with, there may be resistance from the people themselves. If literacy has never been part of your culture, it is easy to see how its adoption could be perceived as a loss rather than a gain – a surrendering of that culture to a possibly hostile outside world, or a loss of ownership (see further below). Some people think of their language as being destroyed, once it is written down. And certainly, there is bound to be an effect on the way the language is represented: the stories of oral tradition are typically dynamic in character, varying between retellings, relying greatly on a lively interaction between speaker and listeners, and using an array of communicative effects of a non-verbal kind. When written down, they become static, reduced in form, and lacking a dialogic element; moreover, the alphabetical system is incapable of coping with the melodies, rhythms, tones of voice, gestures, and facial expressions that give the stories so much of their life. All recordings privilege one version above others; and in a tradition where the whole point is to allow for narrative variation, a great deal is lost as a consequence of the selection.

The decision to introduce literacy involves a second problem of selection. Which variety of the language shall be written down? Many endangered languages exist in a variety of dialects, some of which are very different from each other in sounds, grammar, and vocabulary. It is rarely possible, for reasons of practicality, to write them all down; so one dialect must be selected. What, then, happens to the others? Ironically, the very process of selection can be a factor leading to the loss of the diversity it was designed to safeguard. A literacy programme tends to burn money, and resources which might otherwise have been used in support of a range of dialects suddenly turn out to be available no longer. Moreover, when a particular dialect is chosen for literacy, it inevitably acquires a higher status, and this can result in community divisiveness, which again might hasten the process of language loss. The problem is especially difficult in places where two different alphabetical systems are in competition, perhaps associated with different cultural or religious traditions – such as the Roman (Christian) and Arabic (Islamic). The decision to write down any of the unwritten endangered languages within the Arabic- or Hindi-speaking countries can lead to confrontations of this kind. It is easy to see why ‘standardization is the single most technical issue in language reinforcement’– needed before the production of written materials can make much progress.

It is important not to overstate the problems. Indeed, sometimes the risk is the opposite one – people become so positive about literacy that they develop a false sense of security, believing, for example, that once a language is written down it is thereby saved, and nothing more needs to be done. Literacy programmes have been successfully implemented in hundreds of endangered language situations, and is a priority in most revitalization projects. Sometimes, two writing systems can be involved. In Yup’ik, for example, intergenerational transmission was at risk because the schoolchildren were having difficulty understanding the language of the elders. A book of elders’ narratives was therefore compiled; and it was decided to print this in two orthographies. This was because the region was in a transition period between older missionary-developed orthographies which the elders would be used to, and the newer phonetic orthography which was being used in the schools. (This project had other interesting features. For instance, the compilers decided to keep the older, more difficult words in the text undefined, to encourage the children to ask their teachers, parents, and elders about them. This strategy shifted the emphasis away from the text and into the community, resulting in a more dynamic linguistic interaction.)

Even the question of competing dialects can be handled, with careful planning. An example is Quechua, where several local dialects were each given official status, all written in one alphabet. Another is Romansh, where five dialects had each developed an individual literary norm. In 1978, a non-Romansh linguist, Heinrich Schmid, was given the task of devising a unified system which would treat each dialect impartially. The resulting ‘Rumantsch Grischun’ reflected the frequencies with which words and forms were used in the different dialects, choosing (whenitems were in competition) those which were most widespread. Although controversially received, as an artificial standard, it hassince come to be increasingly used as a practical administrative tool, in official situations where the five dialects need a lingua franca. All dialects seem to have benefited from the newfound prestige, as a result.

6. An endangered language will progress if its speakers can make use of electronic technology

To some extent, this is a hypothetical postulate, as many parts of the world where languages are most seriously endangered have not yet come to benefit from electronic technology – or, for that matter, electricity. But in principle, information technology (IT) – and the Internet in particular – offers endangered languages which have been written down a fresh set of opportunities whose potential has hardly begun to be explored. The chief task presented by my first postulate above involved the need to give an endangered language a public profile. Traditionally, it is an expensive business: newspaper space, or radio and television time, does not come cheaply. Only the ‘better-off’ languages could afford to make routine use of these media. But with the Internet, everyone is equal. The cost of a Web page is the same, whether the contributor is writing in English, Spanish, Welsh, or Navajo. It is perfectly possible for a minority language culture to make its presence felt on the Internet, and this has begun to happen – notwithstanding the attempted repression of some languages by the occasional service-provider. There are probably over 500 languages with an Internet presence now. What is significant, of course, is that the Net provides an identity which is no longer linked to a geographical location. People can maintain a linguistic identity with their relatives, friends, and colleagues, wherever they may be in the world. Whereas, traditionally, the geographical scattering of a community through migration has been an important factor in the dissolution of its language, in future this may no longer be the case. The Internet, along with the growth of faster and cheaper means of travel between locations, is altering our scenarios of endangerment.

There is a great deal to be done before these scenarios become compelling. Software developers need to become more multilingual. More comprehensive coding conventions for non-Roman alphabets need to be implemented. And for many endangered communities, the basic possibility of an Internet connection is a long way off, given the lack of equipment – or even electricity. But there are already several signs of progress. A number of language maintenance projects have recruited language technologies to facilitate their task. For example, spelling-checkers have been used to help implement normalized spelling conventions in a newly written language – particularly useful where there is interference from some other language in the region. Computers have begun to handle bodies of specialized knowledge, such as lists of place names, genealogies, or plants. There has been a steady growth in computer-assisted self-study materials. One of the most promising signs is in the knowledge-management side of IT, where the importance of the notion of localization has steadily grown, to the extent that it must now be regarded as an industry in itself, with its own association, LISA (the Localization Industry Standards Association). In this context, localization refers to the adaptation of a product to suit a target language and culture, and is distinguished from both globalization (the adaptation of marketing strategies to regional requirements of all kinds) and internationalization (the engineering of a product, such as software, to enable efficient adaptation of the product to local requirements). It is a healthy sign tosee this swing back from the global to the local, within such a short time, and it may be that endangered languages will be one of the domains which will benefit from this change of focus. At any rate, I am sufficiently convinced of the potential power of electronic technology to make it one of my six postulates for progress in language maintenance, notwithstanding the limited role it has been able to play in this domain hitherto.

My six postulates cut the cake in a certain way, and there are of course many other ways. Yet, despite differences of terminology and emphasis, similar themes recur. For example, Akira Yamamoto distinguishes nine factors ‘that help maintain and promote the small languages’:

• the existence of a dominant culture in favour of linguistic diversity;
• a strong sense of ethnic identity within the endangered community;
• the promotion of educational programmes about the endangered language and culture;
• the creation of bilingual/bicultural school programmes;
• the training of native speakers as teachers;
• the involvement of the speech community as a whole;
• the creation of language materials that are easy to use;
• the development of written literature, both traditional and new;
• the creation and strengthening of the environments in which the language must be used.

And Lynn Landweer provides eight ‘indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality’ for an endangered language

• the extent to which it can resist influence by a dominant urban culture;
• the number of domains in which it is used;
• the frequency and type of code switching;
• the existence of a critical mass of fluent speakers;
• the distribution of speakers across social networks;
• the internal and external recognition of the group as a unique community;
• its relative prestige, compared with surrounding languages;
• its access to a stable economic base.

These lists have a great deal in common.