Breton village

The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.

France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”

So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.

As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.

In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”

The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.

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cornish language

It’s estimated that half the world’s 6,000-plus languages are in danger of disappearing.

Many have become victims of progress and development that has aligned speakers of endangered tongues with a more dominant culture that relies on a handful of principal languages, such as English, Russian or Mandarin.

A vast number of the world’s endangered languages haven’t even been set down in written form, which further hinders efforts to keep them alive as older speakers die off.

Yet, a glimmer of hope for those who see the inherent value in the diversity of spoken languages can be found in the revival of the Cornish language in the United Kingdom.

Cornish, considered extinct for decades, has undergone a rebirth in years, with a small but steady increase in speakers as cultural awareness of the distinctive nature of the Cornwall region has been recognized and celebrated.

Today, London is home to a vibrant group of Cornish speakers and it’s estimated there are today in Britain hundreds of fluent Cornish speakers and thousands with at least some ability, according to The Independent.

In addition, a small number of children in Cornwall have been brought up to be bilingual native speakers, and, in a development unheard even of a century ago, the language is taught in many schools.

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Amid the ruins of a Middle Eastern palace dating back nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, archaeologists believe they have discovered a previously unknown ancient language.

Working in southeast Turkey, a team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan recently unearthed a 2,800-year-old clay writing tablet.

Cambridge University archaeologist John MacGinnis discovered the unknown language – which was likely spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – while deciphering the tablet, according to The Independent.

“The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first ‘barbarians’ – mountain tribes which had, in previous millennia, preyed on the world’s first great civilizations,  the cultures of early Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq,” according to the British newspaper.

The clay tablet revealed the names of 60 women – probably prisoners of war or victims of an Assyrian forced-population transfer program.

But when MacGinnis began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45, or three of every four, bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.

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The Sami are the only official indigenous people of Scandinavia, but they’re looking south, far south, for help preserving their fading native language.

The Sami, with roots as reindeer herders in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Russia, are turning to Israel for assistance in keeping their languages alive.

A Sami delegation from Norway spent five days in Israel earlier this year, hoping the Jewish state’s experience reviving the once-dormant ancient Hebrew language can provide a blueprint for them, according to the Associated Press.

“Over the past century, Israel has transformed Hebrew, once reserved almost exclusively for prayer and religious study, into a vibrant, modern language,” according to the wire service. “Through its “ulpan” language immersion program, it has taught a common tongue to immigrants from all over the world, helping the young state absorb generations of newcomers.”

Sami is a general name for a group of Uralic languages. Sami is frequently and incorrectly believed to be a single language. There are nine different extant of Sami, ranging from Northern Sami, with more than 20,000 speakers, to Ter Sami, with two speakers.

The Sami, formerly known outside their community as Lapps, a term now abandoned because the Sami regard it as derogatory, have tried different methods for the past generation to boost the number of fluent Sami speakers, without success, said Odd Willenfeldt, principal of Sami School for Mid-Norway and a member of the delegation.

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Six decades after Yiddish appeared destined for the history books, a handful of North American colleges are offering the language as part of their curricula, enabling the grandchildren of aging native speakers a chance to learn the tongue of their ancestors.

“If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and consciously,” said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Atlanta’s Emory University who uses song to teach the language. “The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to be preserved because we’ll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die.”

Emory is one of about 20 colleges and universities in the US and Canada that offer courses in the Germanic-based language of Eastern European Jews, though just a few of them have degrees in the language.

Yiddish developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages, and is written in the Hebrew alphabet. It dates back in its earliest form at least a millennium.

By the late 1930s, there were between 11 million and 13 million Yiddish speakers worldwide.

The Holocaust, however, led to a dramatic, sudden decline in the use of Yiddish, as the extensive Jewish communities, both secular and religious, that used Yiddish in their day-to-day life were largely destroyed.

Around 85 percent of the Jews that died in the Holocaust – 5 million people – were speakers of Yiddish. And while several million Yiddish speakers survived, assimilation in countries such as the US and the Soviet Union, along with the rejection of Yiddish as a national language in Israel, led to a sharp decline in the use of the language.

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The Economist has an interesting question-and-answer piece with K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College who has made a career documenting many of the world’s endangered languages.

By some estimates, according to The Economist, half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century. 

A film about Harrison and fellow linguist Greg Anderson, “The Linguists,” was nominated for an Emmy award, and recently Harrison wrote a book with National Geographic titled “The Last Speakers.”

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The Rosetta Stone language program sounds intriguing. Essentially, the program gets the user associating the language they’re learning with pictures and concepts, but not in English.

The Rosetta Stone folks say this method mimics a child’s language acquisition.

But this concept of learning a language through set of building blocks – start with some basic nouns, move to a few verbs, and so on – fails to take into account the crucial features unique to individual languages, according to The Economist’s column on language:

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chickenghost

 

One can only imagine how this would read translated in Mandarin.

(Special thanks to Language Log.)

Furman University professor Paul Thomas has an interesting piece in The State in which he decries the trend of high school students taking Latin courses simply to improve SAT scores.

“… any reform aimed primarily at raising SAT scores is misguided,” Thomas writes. “And we must not ignore that time spent focusing on increasing a test score is time lost engaged in real and valuable learning experiences.”

Amen. Latin is a wonderful, challenging language. But to study it simply to improve SAT scores is akin to erradicating fire ants with a ball-peen hammer: it’s possible, but often laborious and painful.