5. Why save endangered languages, and what for?

Julia Sallabank
Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, University of London


My interest in language endangerment and revitalisation is long-standing. Ever since I was very young I have been fascinated by Guernesiais (“Guernsey Norman French”),  the indigenous language of Guernsey (in the Channel Islands between England and France), which I consider to be my “heritage language” because my mother comes from the island and my father spent some of his formative years there. I always wanted to learn it, but it was not until the age of 40 that I had the opportunity. I had always assumed that the aim of learning or knowing a language is to use it as much as possible, but I’ve recently found that this is not the case for everyone.

Even when I was a teenager I was aware that the number of speakers of Guernesiais was declining and that they mainly belonged to the older generations. I watched displays of traditional-style dancing and wondered why there were no young people taking part, whereas just across the water in Brittany, Breton dancing and ‘fest-noz’ (night festivals) were highly popular among young people in their late teens and early twenties. At the time of writing (2015) there are thought to be only five people under the age of 60 who are capable of holding a sustained, impromptu conversation in Guernesiais. So, I wondered, aren’t young people interested in traditional language and culture? Or is there some other reason why these are not being passed on effectively?

From an early age I was also aware that Guernesiais (and its speakers) were regarded with affection, but also with ridicule. It became clear that attitudes play a key role in the maintenance and loss of languages. As with many other minority vernaculars, until the last 30 years or so Guernesiais was seen as “not useful” compared to French or English, and even as an impediment to social advancement. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century it became clear from anecdotal reports and the media that attitudes towards Guernesiais were becoming increasingly positive. I became interested in how attitudes can change, and in ways of “saving” endangered languages.

Much of the coverage of language endangerment, in both the media and in academic literature, has been fairly pessimistic in that it highlights “language death” and the “threat” to linguistic diversity, rather than on the numerous language revitalisation movements that have arisen in the last few decades. Media coverage also often focuses on the “last speakers” of a language. Both of these tendencies reinforce the impression that endangered languages belong to the past and there is “no hope” for the many small languages of the world. An interesting recent newspaper article, which seems to follow these trends but then challenges them, is “A Loss for Words: Can a dying language be saved?” by Judith Thurman, published in the New Yorker on March 30th, 2015. The “last speaker” that Thurman starts off by interviewing is aged  just 21, and the wide-ranging discussion is upbeat, focusing on indigenous people’s reasons for wanting to keep their languages alive and some examples of success stories.

I want to focus on efforts to raise awareness of language endangerment and to challenge, even reverse it, looking at the example of Guernesiais. I also want to look at why people want to maintain, learn and revitalise endangered languages, and what it means to “save a language”: particularly what it means to the people involved. All too often linguists forget that languages are not just patterns of words but are spoken by people: so it’s important to investigate people’s reactions to language loss, and their motivations for trying to reverse it.

The term ‘language policy’ is often used to refer to such reactions, especially at governmental level. But individuals and families also have language policies, although they are often not overt or conscious ones. For example, several people have told me how when Guernesiais speakers married non-speakers, English tended to become the family language. They explained that they wanted to avoid a situation where one parent felt left out of the conversation. But where one language has much lower social status than the other, societal attitudes must surely play a role in the choice of family language. One speaker recounted: ‘When I was little it [Guernesiais] was the first language that I learnt and my mother took a lot of stick for allowing me … it was early 50s, the war was over and so on and it wasn’t fashionable at the time. A lot of the other mothers [said]: “oh gosh you know you’re letting her speak patois and when she goes to school she won’t be able to learn – she’ll be a dunce” and all the rest of it.’

The influence of educational institutions on language attitudes and practices cannot be underestimated. Schools reinforced the belief that Guernesiais was merely a peasant dialect, fit only for illiterates. Many older people report that children who could not speak English had unhappy experiences at school, so parents started speaking English in the home to prepare and protect their children. These kinds of comments  are common in endangered language contexts:

‘My younger brother and sister were smacked at school for speaking Guernesiais – even in the playground.’

‘My daughters understand everything but they don’t want to speak it – because their friends made fun of them at school.’

‘I was put down at school for being from the country and didn’t admit to speaking Guernsey French’.

Because schools play such a major role in reinforcing the low status of minority languages, revitalisation movements often try to reverse this by promoting languages through the school system. Another reason is because language campaigners see that the future of the language is with young people. They recognise that the language is no longer being learnt in the home, and hope that school- teaching will enable the language to “skip a generation”: that the children will go on to speak it with their own children.

There is a wide range of ways in which endangered languages can be included in formal education.  In the most effective cases, such as Welsh in the UK or Māori-medium schools in New Zealand, all subjects are taught through the language (‘immersion’ teaching). Then there is bilingual education, with varying proportions of languages. In other cases, minority  languages are taught as school subjects. The minimum option (like in Jersey and Guernsey)  is extra-curricular “language clubs” taught by volunteer teachers.  All of these options require varying amounts of resources for teacher training, materials, etc. if they are to be done effectively.

Until 2007 there was little or no official support for Guernesiais, and most language support activities are still run by voluntary groups and individuals. The activities focus on two main areas: performance in cultural festivals and extra-curricular lessons for children. Volunteers go to schools once a week to run half-hour extra-curricular sessions in lunch hours or after school. These lessons are popular and have spread to eight out of 14 primary schools (public and private). The big problem with this kind of lesson, however, is that it provides too little, not often enough. The American Army Language School estimates that 1300 hours’ exposure to another language is necessary for fluent acquisition, even if the teaching is of high quality. It is clear that neither the quality nor quality requirements are being met in Guernsey: with 30 minutes per week, for a maximum of 40 school weeks a year, it would take at least 50 years to produce fluent learners. So far there is no evidence that any of the learners have progressed beyond beginner level.

In Guernsey, as in many other places, school-based teaching has not led to widespread use of an endangered language; indeed, it is often found that a focus on schools tends to replace home-based learning. People find it easier to campaign to change the school curriculum than to change their own and their neighbours’ behaviour.

Voluntary and charitable work is a strong tradition in Guernsey, but it also has disadvantages:  in the extracurricular lessons there is no syllabus, no teacher training, little coordination and no accountability. Another potential problem is that the lessons take up most of the available time and energy of the relatively small circle of people involved in language-related activities, which may have led to a decrease in other activities. As the volunteer teachers are mostly retired, there is concern that there are not enough proficient younger adults to take over in the future. It could therefore be argued that it should be a priority to increase the number of younger adult proficient speakers. There are evening and lunchtime adult Guernesiais classes available, but they currently extend no higher than elementary level. Language learning can also be carried out in less formal and more community-based ways, e.g. mentoring or buddying schemes. Recent examples in Guernsey have included pairing Guernesiais speakers with songwriters for a song project which culminated in a concert, and ‘language speed-dating in the pub’ sessions.

The main annual language event in Guernsey is the “Guernsey-French” section of the Eisteddfod, a general cultural competition named after the Welsh festival. This is now one of the few opportunities to speak and hear Guernesiais publicly. It includes recitations of poems, short stories and Bible readings, songs, sketches and plays, and has classes for beginners, intermediate and fluent speakers. The number of schoolchildren taking part has increased hugely in the last ten years; while the increase in participation from both children and their parents in the audience is to be welcomed, due to space restrictions it has become necessary to hold the children’s section on a separate evening, which has reduced interaction between older speakers and young learners. In the adult sections, participants and audience members welcome the opportunity to celebrate what they see as their traditional culture. Many participants dress up in old-fashioned clothes (not necessarily traditional dress) and there is a strong feeling of nostalgia, in the words of the 2011 adjudicator, for “the language of our youth … of our grandfathers”.

Although cultural festivals are an important expression of linguistic pride and identity, and provide an opportunity to meet speakers and to use the language during the event, the focus is on linguistic identity as display rather than on language as a living part of everyday life; even people who win prizes for their recitations cannot necessarily hold a conversation in Guernesiais. As more non-speakers enter who have learnt set pieces without much other knowledge of the language, judges “help” them by commenting in English, and so the Guernesiais environment is diluted.

This leads to the question of what it means to “save a language”. Local languages and dialects are often called “vernaculars”, which  means the language spoken by ordinary people (often contrasted with formal written languages). But highly endangered languages are usually no longer spoken in everyday life, and no longer passed on to children in the family. Linguists are increasingly referring to them as “post-vernacular languages”, which also opens up a range of other possible motivations for using a language, where communication is no longer the primary purpose. In this context, a major focus for language-related activities is the performing arts, which as mentioned earlier, do not necessarily require language fluency.

Returning to attitudes, the prestige of Guernesiais is growing, and it is generally now seen as a valuable part of island heritage. For example, local cheese, beer, coffee, etc. are given local-language names or slogans. Similarly, on the neighbouring island of Jersey, the government web page devoted to its indigenous language, Jèrriais, describes it as “precious because it is a treasury of information about the past as well as a symbol of Jersey’s independent identity in the present and something of value to pass on to the future”.

This reason for “saving” endangered languages is for their symbolic value as markers of local identity rather than for communicative purposes. It may be no coincidence that the main language-related activities in both Jersey and Guernsey, extra-curricular language lessons and language festivals are also, for all intents and purposes, also symbolic in nature. This is not necessarily a conscious decision, and people involved may sincerely believe that they are “doing something to save our language”. Nevertheless, such activities are unlikely to lead to Guernesiais becoming a primary language of socialisation again. Indeed, in an interview in the ‘Guernsey Press’ in 2004, Jonathon Le Tocq, a Guernesiais-speaking member of the island parliament who promoted the extra-curricular lessons (and who was elected Chief Minister in 2014), said: “I’m under no illusion that it’ll become our business language, but it is a vital part of our culture”.

Are greetings and symbolic phrases enough to “save a language”? They are a common feature of language revitalisation movements in Australia, where some indigenous languages are being pieced together from fragmentary records after not being used for up to 200 years. In such cases, any use is more than none. But Guernesiais still has native speakers.

It is important to learn from the experiences of language revitalisation in other places.  A book published in 1971 to inspire supporters of Celtic languages stressed that “A language cannot be saved by singing a few songs or having a word printed on a postage stamp. It cannot even be saved by getting “official status” for it, or by getting it taught in schools. It is saved by its use …”. The Māori Language Commission in New Zealand issued guidelines in 2007 stating that what they call “regenerating” a language involves:

(a) raising people’s awareness of language and language issues,

(b) having positive attitudes towards and valuing a language,

(c) learning the language,

(d) continuously developing the language, and

(e) using the language.


This illustrates the vital importance of thinking about why we want to save our endangered languages and what we want them for, before they slip into minimal symbolism without our noticing.

The next few decades will be a challenging period for highly endangered small languages like Guernesiais and Jèrriais, as practically all the traditional native speakers pass away. With the foresight to record them while we still can, and a core of committed language enthusiasts to keep them going, local languages might be retained and re-established as a core value: hopefully not only as symbols but as an accepted part of everyday language use.

4. The Emmaus movement: A common mission in different languages

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB


“Qui vulgui conèixer Emmaús que vingui a dinar” [Whoever wants to get to know Emmaus come have lunch]

El menjador d Emmaus

The communal and dining room of Emmaus Barcelona. Photography by Maria Rosa Garrido under Emmaus Barcelona community license

My first contact with the Emmaus Barcelona community was at a communal dining room bustling with conversations in different languages among over thirty people from different social backgrounds and geographical origins sitting there. I immediately could not help but wonder what brought all those seemingly diverse people together around that table. Unbeknownst to me, the answer lay in front of me: the painting of the Abbé Pierre (nickname given to Henri Grouès, 1912-2007) presiding over us on the wall. This image symbolizes the origins of the international solidarity movement that this French working priest founded, together with Lucie Coutaz and Georges Legay, in a similar community of rag pickers on the outskirts of post-war Paris.

During my visit to the first ever Emmaus community in Neuilly-Plaisance a year later, everything looked familiar there, not only because of the Abbé Pierre pictures and quotes but also because of the communitarian organization and the social diversity among the “companions” that I met there. All over the world, Emmaus is a social movement dedicated to the (re)insertion of marginalized people in live-in communities doing recycling and recovery work to finance solidarity projects, both locally and abroad. My subsequent visits to other communities in England further confirmed these shared aspects among local communities situated in different socio-political and linguistic contexts. How do you create a common identity within the Emmaus movement across borders?

I found answers to my initial question about what unites people at the Emmaus Barcelona table, and at many other similar tables all over the world, in what I had been observing from the first day: daily social interaction. If anybody wants to get to know a community or the Emmaus movement, they are always invited to lunch and, in actual facts, the drapaires d’Emmaús present themselves in a local press article in this light: “Qui vulgui conèixer Emmaús que vingui a dinar” [Whoever wants to get to know Emmaus, come have lunch] (2006). Social interaction, as for instance in communal meals and assemblies, is central to the creation and maintenance of a feeling of belonging to “the community” and to the larger Emmaus movement. On the one hand, the encounter with others in this live-in and working community embodies the central value of solidarity through the creation of affective bonds among the people who form part of it. On the other, established members tell well-known stories about the Emmaus movement and the Abbé Pierre to visitors and newcomers.

The founding story of Emmaus: “A reason to live” 

The central aspect that articulates local Emmaus communities is the founding story of the movement, which narrates the first encounter between the Abbé Pierre, a Resistance hero and French parliamentarian born to a bourgeois family, and Georges Legay, a former prisoner who tried to commit suicide and decided to help the Abbé Pierre build houses for unprivileged families. This story about encounter and solidarity with others inspired the Universal Manifesto of the Emmaus movement, adopted in 1969, as a central text that fixes the shared mission of all Emmaus groups  since the beginning of the movement. This institutional text circulates in different translations into languages such as Euskara, Italian or German.

Our name, “Emmaus”, comes from the name of a village in Palestine where despair was transformed into hope. For all, believers and non-believers alike, this name evokes our shared conviction that only love can unite us and allow us to move forward together. The Emmaus Movement was created in November 1949 when men who had become aware of their privileged situation and social responsibilities in the face of injustice and men who no longer had any reason to live crossed paths and decided to combine forces and take action together to help each other and come to the aid of those who were suffering, in the belief that it is by saving others that you yourself are saved. To this end, the Communities were set up, working to live and give. Groups of friends and volunteers were also set up to continue the struggle in the private and public arena.
(Extract from the Manifesto Preamble, taken from the Emmaus International  webpage <>)

The founding story links the encounter between people from different social backgrounds with personal transformation that brings about new “reasons to live”. This shared story, which is (re)told in communitarian spaces and adopted in institutional texts at the communities, shapes the biographical narratives that the Emmaus “companions” tell. In these personal narratives, we find the same encounter and self-transformation motifs, often expressed with the same words as in the founding story. As a token, a Catalan “companion” in the Barcelona community, with higher education and from a privileged family, explains her affiliation to it within this frame: “per què estic aquí?, perquè m’he volgut quedar a Emmaús, primer vaig venir per desesperació perquè no sabia on posar-me, i después va arribar un moment que vaig dir, però molt aviat, eh?, al cap d’uns mesos vaig dir, pues, la meva vida ja passa per Emmaús, i crec que ho vaig dir amb aquestes mateixes paraules i continua passant-hi, vull dir perquè perquè he trobat un motiu per viure, o per seguir vivint” [why am I here?, because I wanted to stay in Emmaus, first I came because of desperation because I did not know where to go, and later it got to a point when I said, but very early on, huh?, after some months I said, so, my life goes through Emmaus, and I think that I said it with these same words and it still goes through it, I mean because I have found a reason to live, or to continue living].

The version of this history in the Manifesto, as you will recall, calls for the creation of communities among diverse people surrounded by groups of volunteers. In practice, all the communities have socio-communicative practices in which the Emmaus encounter is (re)told and embodied, as in the shared table that opened this note or in the reflexive assemblies among the members. When asked about what unites different people in the movement, an Emmaus “companion” from a community situated in an indigenous area in Peru, who was then working in Emmaus Pamplona, answered: “Pienso que nos une el hecho de que nuestra vida se siga repitiendo aquel primer encuentro entre el Abbé Pierre y Georges” [I think that what unites us, the fact that our life continues to repeat that first encounter between the Abbé Pierre and Georges]. What is interesting is that this encounter is repeated in different languages depending on the sociolinguistic context and the linguistic repertoire of speakers who participate in it, because geographical mobility has greatly changed the make-up of local communities at the turn of the century.

Multilingual communication in the Emmaus network

The network of local groups belonging to the Emmaus movement, currently with more than 400 groups in over 37 nation-states, is very heterogeneous and, as a consequence, multilingual. As a social movement, Emmaus does not have a single language of communication despite the existence of three official languages (adopted in 1971): French, Spanish and English, in order of importance within the movement. The articulation among the different local communities is based on the repetition and appropriation of the story about the founding encounter thanks to translations from the three official languages, which do not have the same value across contexts, and to “mediators” with multilingual repertoires who liase with the broader movement. As in the case of the recent Occupy movement, the common objective rests on discourses and stories that circulate in different linguistic varieties. Communication among local communities and individual members requires a shared language, whose lack can complicate the connections. In addition, the three official languages in Emmaus seem to draw three broad networks within the movement on the basis of a shared language for communication.

For instance, the community that I investigated in Barcelona orients its solidarity mission towards Central and South America, especially through grassroots Christian movements, and looks up to France as the cradle of the movement. Therefore, some old-timers act as “mediators” in French and many adopt a vision that does not make language a problem to communicate, since they resort to “francés macarrónico” [roughly, gibberish French] and “mix” it with Catalan and Castilian Spanish. In assemblies with Emmaus groups from Euskal Herria and Latin America, which are immersed in revitalization movements of indigenous communities, the common language was Spanish. On the other hand, the London community that I also investigated collaborates with other communities in the UK, in addition to some weak links with Northern European ones that have fluent L2 English speakers- which my informants define as “English-friendly” in contraposition to French ones. By and large, multilingualism in London is constructed as a problem to communicate and, during my fieldwork, this community did not have any projects with communities outside the British Isles. Emmaus London constructs its international mission and belonging on the basis of translations from French done by Emmaus UK, the federation of all communities in this nation-state.

In Emmaus Barcelona, only two “companions” can speak English even though some external volunteers and temporary residents (especially migrants) also speak it. Thus, they have not established direct relationships with English-speaking communities or those that have English as a bridging language with the movement.  In spite of this, one of the youngest “companions”, an Amazigh man from Southern Morocco in his thirties, studies English and back in 2012, he wanted to set up an exchange with an Emmaus community in England. Despite the lack of a common language with his Emmaus community of origin, Massin remarks that they share the same principles and objectives as members of the same social movement.

I’m thinking to visit Emmaus London in England for much reasons, in the first, I’m living in a community of Emmaus Barcelona, then I’m sure that they have the same principles and objectives, but each one operate different, in the second, I’m interesting to make relationship with England’s mans to know how is their vision of the life, in the third, i’m looking forwards to learn and practice English language.

New mobilities and multilingualism in social movements

The exchange of “companions” between local communities within the Emmaus network illuminates a new type of international mobility —different from tourism, economic migration, political asylum or academic study — which also requires multilingual repertoires and learning new languages, such as English. At the same time, new migrations in the era of globalization have had an impact on the make-up of local groups belonging to a movement of international solidarity, as this Amazigh “companion” in Barcelona exemplifies as well.

The shared table at Emmaus is a symbol of encounter both in the story about the origins of the movement and in the globalized world in which we live. Multilingualism, and new speakers of Catalan, at the table of Emmaus Barcelona show the generational change and the constant evolution in a postwar social movement.

Note: This note is based upon the doctoral thesis Emmaus as a transnational imagined community: Language, interdiscursivity and stratification in a social movement (2014, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), available at <>.

3. Is Catalan spoken on the London Underground?


Maria Carme Junyent
Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades, GELA-UB

Recently, Oliver O’Brien, a University College London researcher, published a map of the London Underground showing the languages spoken there: The first edition of the work identified the following languages: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, Cantonese, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Somali, German, Dutch, Yiddish, Russian, Hindi, Telugu, Nepalese, Korean, Yoruba and Afrikaans; a later version added Swedish, Albanian, Hebrew and Swahili. An article about this web site on, mentioned the fact that London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, as around 300 languages are spoken there.

Of course, more than 300 languages are spoken in London. Just like here in Barcelona, where so far we have only identified 280 languages, But returning to the map of the London Underground, there is something rather surprising: It does not show a single endangered language. Needless to say, this was neither the author’s intention, and even if it had been, it would have been difficult to find one. The reason is because endangered languages have this feature in common: they are largely hidden, either for fear of ridicule, marginalisation, repression, or because the likelihood of them being noticed is very slim. The speakers of subordinate languages, threatened or not, behave rather similarly when using these languages in public. Centuries of persecution, marginalisation, humiliation and all kinds of inhumane treatments towards their languages have taught them to use discretion.

We all know that Catalan is spoken on the London Underground, but Catalan does not appear on the list; it probably remained hidden among Spanish speakers in the same way that other languages on this list must hide many more. It is also curious to see that Swahili appears in last place on the list when in fact there are many more Swahili speakers than speakers of Lithuanian, Greek, Dutch, Swedish, Albanian and Hebrew. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that in reality the “most widely spoken languages ​​on the London Underground” are the most common “official languages”, that is those used because their speakers have the confidence of people who have won the right to use the language or because they are languages that have “already made it” into the mainstream.

The endangered languages study group (Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades, GELA) have often wanted to show a map of which languages are spoken in which areas, either in Catalonia or in Barcelona, that is, to show similar information to that in the London Underground map. We have not been nor are we able to do it: such data are not available to us and the census does not reflect the full diversity here. Interviewers often find that many Catalans, who have suffered humiliation or repression through speaking their own language, conceal it and the interviewers have to be very well trained to draw out this information.

When GELA was making an inventory of the languages spoken in Catalonia, the fundamental aim was to reveal the diversity. Beyond the inventory, we wanted to show the value of this diversity, which is so often looked down on, and the search for the languages of Catalonia gave us many pleasant surprises and helped us understand that the mother tongue is not the language of the mother but the language you identify with, according to Dr Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. So, for example, a group of Egyptians told us that their language was not Arabic but Coptic, or an Argentinian girl was said to be speaking Selknam, a language officially considered extinct, and another declared that her language was Hawaiian. We also found people who were not taught the language of their parents or ancestors and while in Barcelona found the opportunity to learn it with people from their countries who were preserving it: there have been people here who recovered Tatar, Mapudungun, Quechua and others. And very often, this desire to recover the ancestral language is provoked by the realisation of the vitality of Catalan.

Mirroring of Catalan is also at the root of the claim made by a Nepalese girl that she was from Tamang or that by a Senegalese boy that he was from Bassari, or by an Indian boy that he was from Sikkim. They saw, through us, that their languages have value. Experience in Catalonia has also enabled them to shake off the prejudices that were transmitted to them. Iranians speaking Azeri, or Russians speaking Bashkir, or Ghanaians speaking Akan have also discovered here that what they speak are languages and not dialects as they were always led to believe. And, conversely, Catalans have also been able to learn that eskimo, jibaro and lapp are derogatory terms and that those groups of peoples speak the languages Inuktitut, Shuar and Sami respectively. These are terms that are being gradually incorporated in our dictionary. We have also discovered that there are Catalans who have Rapanui as their first language, or Maori, or Aka, the language of the Pygmies, or Tlingit, a nearly extinct language of Canada.

If we made a map of our languages, either on the metro, the bus, in schools or on squares and streets, we would find more than forty languages from Cameroon and more or less the same number from Nigeria. We would also find a large number of Creole languages and sign languages coexisting with the Catalan Sign language. Catalonia is also the country of 300 languages. We hope than none of them have been hiding for fear or shame because, official or not, with many or few speakers, all these are languages of Catalan people and all form an indispensable part of our linguistic heritage.

2. From Manitas de Plata to Kendji Girac, the music of Catalan gypsies in France


Eugeni Casanova


“Manitas de Plata”

Ricard Baliardo, known as “Manitas de Plata” (“Little Hands of Silver”), died on 5 November last year in Montpellier. Only on the 25 May he had been strolling round the alleyways of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where producer Deben Bhattacharya discovered him playing in the street in the early sixties. Critic, film-maker and writer Jean Cocteau launched him on the commercial circuit after hearing the recording. Right up to the end, Manitas remained loyal to the annual gypsy pilgrimage to the Camargue, although in his later years he was confined to a wheelchair, always impeccably dressed in pure white and with his trademark long, equally white hair.

French critics called him “Manitas de Plata, fingers of fire”. His performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1965 made him an international star, selling 93 million records. No flamenco guitarist had ever achieved anything similar and, until Paco de Lucía became famous, he was the undisputed king of the genre on the international scene.

He was given his unusual stage name by the payos (non-gypsies), but to his family and friends he was always known as “Blum” (meaning ‘blond’). What his biographies don’t say about him is that Manitas de Plata was Catalan, a “Catalan gypsy”, like the tens of thousands of members of his community, scattered from Nice to Bordeaux and from Lyon to Saint-Gaudens. He was born in 1921 in Sète in an old green caravan acquired from the Boglione circus troupe, whose name was still emblazoned on the side. His father, Gustave Baliardo (from Gallardo) sold his ass to buy him a guitar when he was six years old, something his mother, Antoinette Farré, reproached him for all his life, as it meant she couldn’t travel for years.

“Blum” was the first Catalan gypsy in France to win fame as a musician, and it’s hardly surprising that latest success story Kendji Girac (his real surname is Maillé, from Malla), sees himself as his heir. Girac became famous in only a few months after winning The Voice on TF1 and he has just released his first album.

Between Manitas and Kendji Girac there have been many others, such as the group Tekameli (‘I love you’ in the Roussillon Caló language) from Perpignan, and El Mario from Nîmes, Blum’s own great-grandson. And of course, the Gipsy Kings, the French music group that performs on more international stages than any other. Three of the group’s founder members are sons of Manitas de Plata, and four are sons of Josep Reyes “the only gypsy in the world to have a square named after him” explains Luis Ruiz, his godson, who grew up with him in the neighbourhood of La Roquette d’Arles. Reyes, whose gypsy name is “Porc”, was Blum’s cousin. For years they played together in the Languedoc and Provence, as well as in New York, and Picasso even claimed that Manitas de Plata was a much greater artist than him.

The Gipsy Kings began as just Los Reyes (The Kings). Jesús Gimenez, a Catalan gypsy from Montauban who knew them, tells how Manitas played live for Queen Elizabeth II, “and the Queen said to him ‘listen, come to my castle and I’ll give you a horse’, and Blum replied in Caló piatsa, nanai, natse! He was sick of horses!”. “They made a lot of money” continues Jesús, “Porc drove around in a Rolls Royce, but they ended up broke; they had an autograph by Picasso and they sold it for peanuts”.

Catalan gypsies in France performed flamenco until Peret gave them the rumba. The Gipsy Kings threw two styles into the pot and pulled out the genre known nowadays as “gipsy”, their very own contribution to international music.


Pablo Reyes, of The Gispsy Kings

One of the leading characters in the story, Pablo Reyes, a founder member of the group, explains while he warms up by a street bonfire in Quai des Platanes, a Catalan gypsy neighbourhood in Arles: “We took a bit of rumba, a bit of flamenco, a bit of tango… and then we mixed it all up. Peret once said in a broadcast interview ‘I created the rumba, but the Gipsy Kings took it all over the world’. For us, Peret is a great man, a great man of rumba”.­

Catalan gypsies began migrating from the Empordà region to the Roussillon and to the Languedoc region in the late 18th century, and have maintained their culture over the years due to the constant influx of relatives from Catalonia and from Perpignan. Pablo tells the story of the community’s music. Before records with Spanish music arrived, in the early fifties “they were singing in Catalan, that they often call “gitano” (Gypsy), I mean. Back then having a party meant singing and hand clapping, that sort of thing”. And when Peret’s records came out, they started including rumba, “he was the one who invented the rumba. If we play rumba, it’s because of him; my father used to sing me songs by Rafael Farina, Manolo Caracol and Pepe Pinto. We used to listen to my father singing gypsy “tientos” and we went off and messed it all about, like Peret did, and made our own music”.

The majority of Catalan gypsy musicians in France sing in Spanish. Pablo explains: “we sing like that because Spanish words are beautiful. We can sing in Catalan or patois, well, goodness me… And we didn’t even know how to speak Spanish, we’d sing it but we couldn’t speak it”.

One of Manitas de Plata’s children, a musician also called Ricard, cracks a smile when I ask why they don’t sing in Catalan, and he improvises a quick tune, or folk song, in Catalan to show me why it wouldn’t work. It is, in fact, the Caló version of the comment made by Antoni de Bofarull to Milà i Fontanals in 1859 after the Jocs Florals restoration ceremony: “we’ve been speaking in Catalan for three hours and nobody laughed”.

So, the records were responsible for popularising the music now played by Catalan gypsies in France. First came flamenco or flamenco-style tunes. Antonio Heredia, an amateur musician and Spanish gypsy from Montpellier, and his Catalan wife, Paulette Bayardo, both agree with Pablo. They used to go to Spain and bring back records by Rafael Farina, Manolo Caracol and other flamenco performers who were popular in the fifties. Before then they had heard the music from their Spanish neighbours, with whom they shared juergues, or parties. Tonyo Serviole, from Montpellier and a Catalan through and through, born in Perpignan and raised in Barcelona, emphasises the point: “Flamenco is ours”.­  The Catalans started singing songs in the language they heard them performed in, whether they understood the lyrics or not; they sounded cool, it was music made by gypsies and it allowed them to express what they felt. When the rumba appeared, the same thing happened with Peret, El Pescaílla, Chacho del Piano and others…  It was music they adopted as their own. It also reached them in Spanish, leading to this language becoming the norm for songs. ­­

Nadia Gimenez, a friend of Antonio and Paulette, remembers that “old people sang in Catalan, before Peret’s time, when my granddad was young they sang: Munta’m a cavall, munta’m a cavall grossa vaca / ai que sí que sí, ai que no que no, ai la vull per jo”.­ Everyone joins in singing it with her, so it must have been popular.

Then Antonio takes up the song: “Remena, remena, remena…”, although Paulette sings “nena” here, but he sings “el bolero”. And he continues: “Meeè, meeè… el teu pare se’n va al cafè“. And they all join in with the chorus. Gypsies often joke about the lyrics remenar el buleru as bul is bottom in Caló.   

The oldest singer that the Montpellier group of Calés can remember was Sargantana, “who played in a venue at Christmas and all the gypsies would go and watch” explains Paulette. Antonio thinks this was around 1958-1960 and that he performed songs by El Príncipe Gitano (the gypsy prince).

So Kendji, the new kid on the block, is not such a novelty after all. Or maybe he is, as he is from the other end of Occitania; he was born in Bergerac in 1996 and lives in Perigús, a long way from the Languedoc and Provençal region that saw the emergence of the gypsy genre. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t play gypsy music in Spanish, preferring to perform easy  listening numbers in French. What’s new about him is that he openly defends his Catalan identity. He did this by announcing that he would speak the language he shared with prime minister Manuel Valls, and this can be seen clearly in the recently released video clip promoting his album, for which he not only chose Barcelona as the film set, but also opens the video with a conversation in his mother tongue; the profile photo on his Facebook page is an image of the Catalan capital. None of his predecessors had ever done anything like that, but people from the new generation who grew up in Perpignan are doing it, like Col·lectiu Joan Pau Giné, D’ Juerga and Raft, who see themselves as a Catalan movement. The innovativeness lies in the fact that Kendji was born miles away from Catalonia, a place that most of the 2,500 Catalan gypsies living in the Dordogne have never heard of.

1. Once upon a time an explorer came across an old lady, or about the decay and death of a language


Joan A. Argenter

In memory of the last speakers of a language*

I found one old woman who still remembered her native language. I persuaded her to allow me to partake of her knowledge. At first, only with difficulty, she recalled eleven words. I wrote them down, and they struck me as being of the Udehe tongue. Fifty years ago, when she had been a girl of twenty, she had not known a single word of Chinese, but now she had completely lost her sense of nationality, even her own mother-tongue.
(Vladimir K. Arseniev, Dersu the Trapper, London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1939: 143. [Translation by M. Burr])

The name of Vladimir Arseniev may be unknown to the reader. However, if he or she is a great film lover or happens to be of an age to have seen it, the name of Dersu Uzala may bring to mind the character in a beautiful film by Akira Kurosawa, which was shot in a landscape of great natural beauty: the taiga in the Eastern corner of Siberia.

Arseniev was not a linguist. In fact, he was a military explorer and cartographer who had been ordered to venture deep into the unknown Eastern corner of Siberia to map its geography, its vegetation and its ethnography, as well as to perform geological prospecting. He seemed to have had the ability to handle all kinds of very different people, since he had to deal with different nations along the way and was able to seek help and get it. Dersu Uzala, who belonged to the Nanai or Gold ethnic group, became Arseniev’s guide. He was a solitary nomadic hunter with animist beliefs who knew the taiga very well, as he was used to moving around in the area. This unequal relationship turned into a true friendship: the guide became teacher to the soldier lost in the taiga, and Arseniev invited Dersu to live in his cosy house in Khabarovsk. The superficial comfort of the city overwhelmed Dersu and, in spite of his having lost too much of his sight to survive in the forest, he went back and remained there until he died. This relationship was the topic of one of several books written by Arseniev and the basis for Kurosawa’s movie.

Arseniev was not a linguist, but the quotation by the explorer at the beginning of this paper is a proof that he was aware of a phenomenon already current a hundred years ago —between 1902 and 1907 he undertook explorations in the area, as described in his two books dated 1921 and 1923. This phenomenon is the death of a language, the process of obsolescence in the brains of different generations of speakers that leads to its total oblivion and the consequent destruction of linguistic diversity. It is a problem that is becoming increasingly frequent in the world and whose seriousness was reported by linguists just twenty years ago. It is true that there is something after the death of a language, some remains, probably the eleven words that the old lady remembered, probably a saying that a descendant of hers may know how to repeat without understanding it, probably an incomplete prayer or a verse from a traditional song… Or maybe a handful, a remnant, of words and grammar features of the recessive language in the dominant language (lexical and structural borrowings, place names, etc.). Or perhaps the language will remain silent or dormant, rather than dead forever, until someone recovers its voice once again.

Udehe or Udege is a Manchu-Tungus language, part of the great Altaic family. Was the old lady that Arseniev met the last speaker of Udehe? The truth is that she, who ‘did not know a single word in Chinese fifty years ago’, may be just a ‘rememberer’, one of the inferior categories that linguists use to refer to speakers according to degenerative grades of language attrition. Taking into account the situation in general, she was not the last native speaker of the language. In 2010 there were around 80 speakers in an ethnic group of 1,660 people. Udehe is an almost dead language, like many others that meet the same fate under the pressure of international languages or, in many cases, of stronger neighbouring aboriginal languages.

Going back to Arseniev’s text, if we split it into parts and take a close look at each sentence, we realise how suitable it is for the field research concerning the phenomena that occur in this situation and the meaning of each one of them:

‘I met an old lady who remembered her native language’.

Apart from the design, the first step in field research is to encounter people with the life and linguistic experience that we want to know about and from whom we can obtain data to study.

We are told that the old lady remembered her native language. Knowing a language is not the same as remembering it and even less the same as using and practising it with other speakers. However, as we shall see, her memory of the language is not complete, it is not a passive knowledge of the language, but rather an incomplete one. (Everybody has ‘an incomplete knowledge’ of his or her language and uses it in a limited way, but that has nothing to do with the fact reported here.)

‘I convinced her to share her knowledge with me’.

The second step is persuading the ‘informant’ or ‘language consultant’ —that is how linguists refer to ordinary people who can provide them with linguistic evidence, which is familiar to them, whereas unknown or just inadequately known, at best, to the researcher—. The researcher must gain the confidence of the ‘informant’, as well as that of other community members who also speak the language, with the informant’s help. The researcher must turn speakers into a highly valuable source of information, since they own a knowledge that has become a scarce resource and, moreover, it is information that deserves something in return like, for instance, the expert knowledge of the researcher.

‘With great effort she could only recall eleven words’.

In fact, the old lady who ‘remembered her native language’ did not remember it that well. Someone may have told the explorer that the old lady did know her native language or another foreign language or, in other words, the Udehe language; or, probably everything happened by chance and in a more direct way. Remembering ‘only eleven words’ does not mean remembering a language, although those eleven words were the only ones that the old lady could articulate at that very moment, since her memory may have failed or those may have been the only words that she knew and remembered. She was, therefore, a rememberer. In fact, she could not even be considered a semi-speaker. A semi-speaker is someone who does not speak a language any more, or at least he or she does not speak it really fluently. However, he or she still has an imperfect passive knowledge and a great pragmatic and communicative knowledge of the language: he or she knows how to interpret different ways of saying and verbal genres of his or her community properly (cultural meaning, indirect meaning, etc.). This is quite different from someone who has gained a great deal of grammatical knowledge through formal education but out of context, that is, a person who knows how to speak the language, but does not know the uses and values of the natural communication between native speakers who still use the language ordinarily.

‘I wrote them down, they sounded like Udehe’.

Arseniev was not a linguist but ethnography was not completely unknown to him and it seems that he had some knowledge of the map of languages around that area. He could recognise the language thanks to his previous experience. This information is important since it tells us that he may have found people in other areas whose Udehe language was not so damaged. In fact, his contact with Udehe people was intense and it seems that he knew their language well. And he wrote the eleven words down, he recorded them, as a good ethnographer would have done. Nowadays, there is something called documentary linguistics, a complex sub-discipline that combines data collection with linguistic description and computer science. This sub-discipline deals with the access to knowledge of endangered languages and the documentation of several aspects, such as grammar and lexicon, in the first place, but also the rituals, traditional narratives or verbal art and other ordinary forms of communicative interaction. There are ambitious projects with generous budgets enabling young linguists to perform field research with standardised criteria for the notation, recording and transcription of the data collected. Afterwards, this data is sent to a trustworthy scientific institution where it is stored to be studied in the future, or even to be recovered by the descendants of the last native speakers of languages. It is obvious that this new type of documentary linguistics raises important ethical questions concerning the data ownership, copyright, the wishes of the speakers, who may not want a stranger to ‘take’ their ancestral knowledge, as well as the responsibility of both speakers and researchers. Apart from that, there are also matters relating to technology that cannot be easily predicted, like the ability to transfer the data from a current computer system to a future one, given that technological changes take place at a breakneck speed.

‘Fifty years ago, she didn’t know a single word of Chinese’.

Fifty years ago this person knew and used her inherited language —probably she only used her inherited language. The introduction of an unknown language, spoken by a more powerful expansive nation, had forced her to learn it in order to get used to the new ecological conditions so that she could survive in an environment of submission, diseases and addictions that would have been unknown until that time, like opium and alcohol, as well as poverty. The old lady’s native language was deteriorating more and more as she gained more competence (probably limited) in the new language, which was some variety of Chinese. As time went by, she needed more Chinese words to express herself while she was forgetting more and more Udehe words. If this was something that only affected her, it could be considered as an isolated issue; however, it is likely that the progressive decay of the language until its total oblivion and death would affect the whole nation.

How did it all start? Arseniev himself makes a revealing comment when he writes: “The Kusun River Udeheis employed Chinese labourers to do their farming for them. Their garments are a cross between Chinese and Udehei clothes, and they generally speak Chinese, reverting to their native tongue when exchanging confidences” (269). The “natives” he is referring to were Udehe people. In an ambiguous situation of submission to the Chinese, cultural hybridisation and survival, Udehe gradually became an invisible language and its use diminished. In the past there had been so many Udehe people that, “as Liurl colourfully described it, swans flying from the Samarga River to Olga Bay turned from a brilliant white to slate black owing to all the smoke rising from the Udehei yurts along the way” (269).

‘At that moment she had completely lost everything that belonged to her nation, even the language’.

The old lady had lost the community heritage of her nation, which had been passed down by several generations who changed and shaped it, as well as a unique portion of the human knowledge collected by all those generations.

‘Even the language’… Languages are considered to be something so deeply rooted in human beings that a language is the last thing that we lose and the first that identifies us as cultural (not just biological) beings, born in a social and natural environment and in a unique human group. Languages are the sense of identity of a nation and its members, like the voice for a person. Although the voice declines as the time goes by as a fact of life, a language does not disappear if there are generations that pass it on; it is transformed, but not replaced or lost spontaneously. In fact, no language can be replaced by another, since every single one is a particular categorization of reality, formally codified according to its grammar and vocabulary, and all of them accomplish the various expressive roles speakers need. In addition, languages are a way of expressing awareness of the natural and cultural environment, a knowledge shared by the whole of society.

Vladimir Arseniev left us with a living proof of an ancient and local phenomenon: language shift, or the replacement of one language by another due to a particular correlation of power between human groups. What is new about this phenomenon nowadays is the fact that it is taking place globally at an unprecedented and accelerating pace.

I remember a Korean girl once telling me how people in her country are responsible for taking care of their ancestors from at least three generations ago (the maximum that a person can know in a lifetime) and celebrate them with family meetings, meals, donations and prayers. This may happen in other nations apart from my informant’s. If that is the case, we should ask ourselves the following question: How will the ancestors understand the prayers if they are spoken in a different language than the one they knew, most probably the only one they knew?

[*]A previous version of this text, under the title in Catalan “En memòria dels darrers parlants d’una llengua”, was published in Quaderns-e de l’Institut Català d’Antropologia 19(1): 235-240. The text has been revised, avoiding technical apparatus. I am grateful for permission to reproduce the article. I am also indebted to Miquel Cabal, Arseniev’s translator into Catalan, for his comments and suggestions.