Opinion, reflections and information

12. Linguistic ideologies in Japan

Makiko Fukuda
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB

The Myth of Monolingualism

Japan’s monolingualism has been deeply rooted in Japanese society for many centuries and today it is still preserved, both explicitly and implicitly. In 1986, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japanese prime minister then, publicly stated that “Japan is a monoethnic country and therefore minorities do not exist.” His words were controversial and organisations defending the Ainu nation (Japan’s indigenous people) protested furiously against the prime minister. Later, politicians who see Japan as a monocultural, monolingual and monoethnic country repeated similar arguments, as though there were no linguistic diversity in Japan. This view is underpinned by the firm belief that Japan’s linguistic problem is not politicised, although the truth of this view has been called into question over the last decade.

The three basic concepts: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’

We can observe this traditional view of monolingualism in several ways. Firstly, we focus on the various names used for the Japanese language: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’. The term ‘kokugo’, which literally means “the State language” ―often translated as the “national language” ― appeared when the modern Japanese nation state was established in the late 19th century and has functioned as a synonym for the Japanese language up to the present day. The second term, ‘nihongo’, is normally used to refer to Japanese as a second language for foreigners in a more neutral way, although the concept originated in the historic sense of Japan’s colonial policy for Taiwan and Korea during the Second World War. This term was put in place to preserve the national symbolic and sacred nature of the ‘kokugo’, as applying the same idea of ‘kokugo’ to inhabitants of the colonies was felt to be unsuitable.

The term ‘kokugo’ refers to Japanese as a school subject. The ‘Encyclopedia for Studying the Teaching of Kokugo’ by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics defines the teaching of ‘kokugo’ on the assumption that all Japanese people speak Japanese as their mother tongue. Here we find another key concept, that of ‘mother tongue’. The two translations normally made of this term, ‘bogo’ and ‘bokokugo’, are used interchangeably without a very clear criterion. The fact that the ‘Iwanami Kokugo Dictionary’ defines ‘bogo’ as a synonym of ‘bokokugo’ confirms the confusion between these two terms. The use of the term ‘bogo’, meaning “mother tongue” is not at all normal in Japan, so it is rarely listed in the dictionaries. On the other hand, ‘bokokugo’, which literally means ‘the language of the home country’, is much more familiar to the Japanese. This term evidences the coherence between state, people and language.

All in all, Japanese enjoys the status of being the country’s sole language, which can be demonstrated by the fact that the concept of ‘official language’ is not used in Japan. Neither is there any legal ruling on the Japanese language declaring its status as official language, except for article 74 of the ‘Saibansho hô’ law on the administration of justice, which states that Japanese must be used in the country’s courts of law.

The ‘Kikokushijo‘: reflection of Japan’s ideology

One example that clearly reflects the predominant ideology in Japan that places nationality on a par with the Japanese people’s language is the name ‘kikokushijos’ used for children. ‘Kikoku’ means ‘returning to their country ’ and ‘shijo’ means ‘children’ . These are Japanese children who were born and/or lived abroad because of their parents’ jobs and who have returned to Japan. Depending on factors such as the country they were living in, the type of school they went to, their interpersonal relationships and so on, these children had different experiences in each country and their language skills can also vary. Equally, it is assumed that these children are fluent in the foreign language — which is presumed to be English — and their schoolmates in Japan typically demand that they ‘say something in English’. This phenomenon illustrates the fact that the image of a bilingual person in Japan is often thought of as someone who is fluent in English. Plus, these children are also presumed to have a much lower level of Japanese, which leads to them being seen as “Japanese strangers”, “half Japanese” and even gaijin (“foreigners”). This means that having a standard level in this language serves as a criterion for “being Japanese”.

These children have had a major impact as, up until a few decades ago, living abroad was not at all common in Japan, and the return of Japanese children with the experience of having lived in a foreign country was regarded as a threat. Instead of accepting heterogeneity, Japanese society makes ‘kikokushijo’ give up everything they have acquired abroad, including their foreign language skills, as this is incompatible with Japanese society and they are under pressure to re-adapt. This ungenerous attitude to heterogeneity comes from ‘Nihonjinron’ (Japanese identity theory), an ideology that values Japan’s homogeneity and distinctive nature. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Deru kui wa utareru” (“The stake that sticks up gets hammered down”); it is difficult to stand out with a “different” way of behaving as this breaks harmony and uniformity. This means that ‘kikokushijo’ often prefer to blend into Japanese society rather than keep up their fluency in other languages in order to protect themselves, as being bilingual or multilingual is incompatible with Japanese society’s preference for uniformity. Despite this, in the 1980s, when the Japanese government began using the concept of ‘internationalisation’ more frequently, the negative view of ‘kikokushijo’ ceased to be predominant and these children went from being a discriminated minority to becoming a symbol of internationalisation and even objects of admiration.

‘Hyôjungo, kyôtsûgo and hôgen’

Japanese society’s huge respect for uniformity can also be seen in the Japanese language itself. In the 19th century, with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan embarked on a period of modernisation, which gave rise to a new government. To form a sufficiently strong nation state that could compete with other countries, the people had to be united. The unification of the language was one measure, as up to then, Japan’s linguistic diversity had been huge, and the country was divided into two hundred and fifty-six ‘Han’ (domains governed by a feudal lord who paid taxes to the central government) with very little contact between them and with such a different range of variants spoken that it was impossible for people from different ‘Han’ to communicate with each other. Plus, differences between social classes also contributed to this linguistic diversity.

To achieve ‘a uniform language’, the variant spoken in the high area of Tokyo was chosen as the standard (‘hyōjungo’). The standard language is also called ‘common language’ (‘kyôtsûgo’), and started being used in 1951, as set out in the regulations governing teaching in schools, as opposed to regional dialects, since the standard could be understood all over Japan.

Other regional variants were given the status of dialect (‘hōgen’); they began to be regarded as “bad” habits to be corrected or excluded. In Okinawa, for example, the islands in the south of Japan, they even adopted a punishment system known as ‘Hōgen-fuda’ (dialect label). Regional variants were simply seen as an ‘accent’ of standard Japanese and were not usually written down. We can see this treatment of regional variants in the guidelines for teaching ‘kokugo’ up to the late 1950s, intended to correct accents and promote the standard language.

This meant that teaching ‘kokugo’ prompted a hierarchical relationship to be set up, with the variant spoken in Tokyo at the top and all the other variants below it. As a result, people who could only speak their own dialect started to feel inferior. Plus, the speakers of each dialect were given a stereotyped image, often negative (so, the people speaking the northern Japan variant were viewed as simple and rustic; speakers of the Osaka variant were seen as funny, tight-fisted, vulgar; speakers of the southern Japan variant were regarded as masculine, abrupt, etc.). But the situation gradually changed; not only did the speakers of regional dialects begin to master the standard language thanks to a mass media campaign, but social attitudes to regional variants started being more positive. Lately, these variants have even become ‘trendy’ with the younger generation, with the media often discussing the dialects issue; dialect conversation guides are available to buy, and ‘famous’ young men and women who would never have dreamt of speaking their dialect to the media twenty years ago are doing it now. In fact, some words or expressions from the various dialects ― especially those spoken in Osaka because of the success of the comedy culture there ― are being used by the younger generation to communicate with each other, even though they may not be speakers of these variants. So, dialects have become a kind of entertainment in which people choose a particular one according on the image assigned to it and ‘virtually transform themselves’ by speaking it. We do need to remember, though, that these words or expressions used by young people are not necessarily based on those that have become part of real everyday life, but that they frequently contain ‘virtual dialects’, in other words, dialects associated with their images. Yukari Tanaka, a Japanese dialectologist, has called this phenomenon ‘hōgen cosupure’ (costume play of dialects), meaning that these young people dress up in the dialect rather than in clothing. The ones who do not have their own dialect ― especially people from Tokyo or the surrounding areas where the difference in dialect is barely noticeable ― are envious of the ‘native’  dialect speakers and often become ‘false speakers’ of the dialect they like. As a consequence, regional variants have left their inferiority complex behind and acquired a kind of prestige with added value.

As we have seen, Japan’s linguistic diversity was not accepted because of the huge respect for uniformity and an ungenerous attitude towards heterogeneity. It is quite ironic that both ‘kikokushijo’ and speakers of regional variants have gone from being objects of disdain to being objects of admiration.

11. The Assyrians and Aramaic: Speaking the Oldest Living Language of the Middle East

Eden Naby
Harvard University


Abstract: Far too many people are surprised when they hear that a substantial community exists worldwide that still speaks Aramaic as its mother language. But in another 50 years, will today’s surprise be the reality?  Can Aramaic survive as a living language if its speakers are driven into diaspora and scattered worldwide?

In the following article I will address three issues:

  1. How have Assyrians retained Aramaic into the 21th century?
  2. Will they be able to continue the language?
  3. Under what circumstances can Aramaic survive?


Changing Language Use Patterns

In this ever more global cultural environment, language has ceased to be associated with a region or country. Instead, the rise of English as an international language of business is creating a new paradigm for global language use different from French when used for international diplomacy, and Latin or Arabic as used in the past.

English today (and some posit, Chinese in the next century), serves to connect people whose schooling language is not English. In China today, teaching English is big business.

Where does this switch to English leave the speakers of small languages, some of which, like Aramaic were the international languages of their day (8th c BCE – 8th c CE).

Aramaic speakers face a dilemma: to what extent can they embrace multi-lingualism? Through what means?

For speakers of  small languages multilingualism is an absolute necessity. Managing three languages on a written and spoken level, people like the Baluchis, Lezgin or Assyrians is a major challenge. Depending on circumstances, the written form of the native language of small groups often gives way, even if the spoken language is retained. Will this scenario explain Aramaic retention?

Who and Where are Aramaic Speakers?

Nearly three thousand years ago, Aramaic speakers were concentrated in the Near East, with their heartland in Mesopotamia.  Writers and readers of Aramaic, an elite group trained specifically for political, commercial and religious employment, centered in the areas covered by Iraq, Syria, and adjacent areas.

Aramaic is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East, preceding Hebrew and Arabic as written languages. Equally important has been the role of Aramaic as the oldest continuously used alphabetically written language of the world.  Aramaic influenced both Arabic and Hebrew, sister Semitic languages, and even contributed to the writng of Mongolian and Uighur, in terms of alphabet development, lexical borrowing, and cultural habits like alphabet numbering.

The influence of Aramaic is widely studied by ancient historians. Aramaic inscriptions have been found from the central mountains of Afghanistan (Kandahar and elsewhere) to Egypt, and second century CE Palmyrene. Aramaic is found in northeast Britain on a tombtone associated with Hadrian’s Wall.

Aramaic is easily recongnizable in the lowest line, below the Greek inscription. It is dated to 129 CE.


With the Christian period, the form of Aramaic adopted for Christian texts became the Syriac of Urhoy(Gr. Edessa). Classical Syriac as the advanced language of science, medicine and philosophy east of the Greek world, provided the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) in Baghdad with a ready source of knowledge that was reborn in Arabic while Syriac withered as did the churches that had tended it.

At the start of the 20th century, modern spoken dialects of Aramaic survived chiefly among Christian Assyrians and to a lesser extent among Mandeans and Jewish Aramaic speakers (the Nash Dedan).

The number for the world Assyrian population varies but the general agreement is that fully half of this population now lives in Diaspora outside the Middle East. Persecution of Assyrians, beginning with Kurdish attacks during the mid-19th century, followed by Ottoman Turkish genocide attempt during World War I, and culminating a hundred years later in the anti-Christian expansion of radical Muslim extremists, have displaced and driven into refugee camps a large number of Assyrians.  The largest Diaspora lives in English speaking regions – the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK – possibly as high as one million – while large numbers live in the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria.  This latter group constituted about 500,000 at the start of the 21st century but Diaspora numbers have been growing with the increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

The largest Diaspora,  or a significant portion of modern Aramaic speakers, live in English speaking and writing environments, while another large percentage is exposed to English through schools in Europe, South America and Russia. In this single fact of Diaspora may lie the seeds for the retention of Aramaic.

All sources agree that knowledge of modern Aramaic, in whichever dialect, has declined in Diaspora. The communities in Diaspora face major roadblocks to language retention:

  1. strength and attraction of the state language no matter where they live
  2. educational institutions use of the state language or bilingualism with narrow definitions prejudicial to smaller languages
  3. broadcast and entertainment use of the state language




Aramaic in the Middle East

In the Middle East, the situation of modern Aramaic is in turmoil. Most specifically in Iraq, the status of modern Aramaic is both hopeful and desperate.

Northern Iraq has the largest concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world. Largely located in villages scattered north, east and southeast of Mosul, many of these villages have been depopulated and destroyed over the course of Iraqi history.

In the era of Saddam Hussein, when Assyrians were dropped from the 1977 census in favor of the sectarian name Christian, some 200 villages were systematically razed. Their survivors sought shelter in larger cities – Dohuk, Arbil, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra.  For many, these urban centers served as the stepping stones to emigration from the region.

The breakdown of ancient villages, coupled with the virulent nationalism that came to fruition in the mid 20th century in autocratic Middle Eastern States from Turkey to Iran to Iraq and Syria, devastated use and knowledge of Aramaic.

In Iran, on the contrary, prior to World War I, Aramaic expanded into strong educational institutions as well as print media, no less than four Assyrian periodicals were published in Urmiah (northwest Iran), all under Western missionary tutelege.  After the “cleansing” of the area of its Christians, no books, no periodicals, no publications reappeared at all.

A similar demographic downturn is seen in Turkey – despite current hopeful signs – in the West Bank, and in Lebanon.  Syria and Iraq remained the possible islands of hope for Aramaic. But these countries have dissolved into chaos as have whatever institutions such as Aramaic teaching schools that had existed.

The Effect of State Languages on Aramaic

Throughout the world where Assyrians live the rise of nationalism and national languages has broken down knowledge of Aramaic.  In Iran after 1934 when foreign mission schools were forced closed, literacy in Aramaic dropped by about 90% in one generation.

Iraq and the Preservation of Aramaic

Out of the chaos of Iraq grows the hope for Aramaic.  Out of the immigration to English dominant countries may come the hope for Aramaic retention in Diaspora.

In Iraq, an embryonic system of elementary and secondary Aramaic instructional schools was developed in the north mainly on the Nineveh Plain, that area southeast of Mosul where a substantial number of Assyrian villages such as Alqosh and Baghdeda provided concentrated numbers, perhaps as high as half a million persons. They functioned under the guidance of Mr. Yonan Hozaya who served as the cultural pivot of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) during the late 1990s and into the early decade of the 21st century.

The preservation of Aramaic has also made halting progress in English-speaking areas of the world.  In Sydney Australia, an elementary school appeared in 2002.  At the same time, another school appeared in Los Angeles under the aegis of the Assyrian Church of the East. But the communities in Los Angeles are scattered geographically and drawing a core student body has proven difficult. The school closed after a few years. Another church affiliated school has come into being in 2012 among the large Assyrian community of San Jose in Silicon Valley. Some hope exists for a charter school in the Chicago area.

For the first time, spoken Aramaic has been offered to students during the 2015-16 academic year as an elective at San Jose State University. This offering differs considerably from the academic study of Talmudic Aramaic, Empire Aramaic and other highly specialized but dead languages that relate to either Biblical or ancient studies.

The most systematic and institutionalized schools for Assyrians were established in the former Soviet Union because Aramaic, as spoken by Assyrians was one of the 100 nationality languages recognized by Moscow, and therefore funded on a cultural and educational level. With the breakdown of the Soviet cultural system that sponsored “nationalities,” these Assyrian schools have decreased or disappeared except in locations such as Urmiah (sic) an Assyrian enclave in Krasnodar.

In many respects, Aramaic may be more easily preserved in English speaking areas due to the fact that it need not be studied as a third language, but as a second or first language.


The obstacles in the the preservation of Aramaic are many: immigration from concentrated areas like Urmiah, northern Iraq, the villages of Tur Abdin, Qamishly and Hasake is just the most obvious reason.  Added to this is the decline in vocabulary, spoken dialects, the loss of prestige to state languages, and the lack of recognition of its cultural role in the Middle East.  Some of these reasons are tied to the general decline and abuse of Christian populations in the Middle East.

But the trend may be partially reversible in Iraq under the following conditions:

  1. Establishment of an Aramaic using cultural and administrative zone
  2. Support for the elevation of Aramaic, Syriac and the spoken language of the Iraqi Assyrian community at institutions of higher learning not just in Mosul, but also in Arbil, Dohuk, Baghdad.
  3. Support of internet language teaching programs for the diaspora

Many factors mitigate against the preservation of small languages. In the case of Aramaic, many historical factors work for its preservation.

10. The Ainu in Japan

Tjeerd de Graaf
Fryske Akademie, Ljouwert


Originally the northern part of the Japanese main island Honshu was inhabited by Ainu people, whereas there are indications that they also lived on the southern tip of Kamchatka. Traces of the Ainu on Honshu are found in geographic names, but as a result of historical developments the Ainu also disappeared from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands.

In the sixteenth century many Japanese immigrants began to settle on Hokkaido and to engage in large scale fishing and trading. The Japanese area (‘Wajinchi’) was located in the southern part of the island (‘Matsumae’), while the Ainu people lived in the areas called ‘Ezochi’: the rest of Hokkaido (the name of the island since 1868), ‘Karafuto’ (Sakhalin) and ‘Chishima’ (Kurile Islands). The original inhabitants southern of the islands of ‘Etorofu’ and ‘Kunashiri’ were also the Ainu.

On Hokkaido the Ainu fell completely under the control of the Japanese, who claimed these territories as part of Japan. As a result of Japanese-Russian conflict and the establishment of political boundaries, a large number of Ainu from Sakhalin had to relocate to Hokkaido. They suffered from the abrupt change in lifestyle and the prevalence of diseases, and many of them died. Later resettlements of the Ainu would follow and the result is that their number has decreased and that at present they can only be found in Japan, mainly on Hokkaido.

The modernisation of Japan caused the central government to pay serious attention to the exploration and economic development of Hokkaido. For this purpose the Hokkaido Settlement Mission (‘Kaitakushi’) was established as an administrative organisation to rule the region, and a large number of former samurai and farmers emigrated from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido. ‘Ainu mosir’ (“the people’s land”), where the Ainu had freely hunted and gathered food, became part of the territory of Japan and was given to Japanese immigrants.

The government forced the Ainu to assimilate, and the ‘Kaitakushi’ prohibited the traditional way of hunting and fishing, and confiscated their lands. Under state-sponsored assimilation policies, discrimination and poverty relegated the Ainu to the lowest ranks of Japanese society. With the introduction of the Japanese way of life and special compulsory education, the traditional system of learning from one’s elders was broken down and the original social and cultural patterns of the Ainu population were destroyed. As a consequence, the Ainu language, together with the traditional lifestyle almost completely disappeared within a couple of generations.

According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the Hokkaido government, the Ainu population of Hokkaido then numbered 23,782 people. Many Ainu and people of mixed origin were eager to forget about their Ainu origin and until the present there are many of them who fear discrimination and prefer to hide this origin. Therefore it is rather difficult to estimate the right number of people having the Ainu ethnic background. At present, the number of Ainu living mainly in Hokkaido is estimated at between 24,000 and 50,000, but only very few of them still speak the language.

Laws and linguistic rights for the Ainu

The Ainu have lived in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands and Honshu since ancient times, and have built their own history, language and culture. When the government enforced its law in Hokkaido, it incorporated the land of the Ainu, basically confiscating their land, forcing assimilation policies, and denying the Ainu people their traditional culture. In this process, discrimination and prejudice toward the Ainu were strengthened.

In 1946, the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established with the aim to provide better education for the Ainu and to create social welfare facilities. This association is actively engaged in solving various problems experienced by the Ainu. In 1984, the Hokkaido ‘Utari Kyookai’ (Association) has conducted an active campaign to demand that the national government enact a law on the promotion of Ainu culture as soon as possible. Furthermore, various activities have been promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies.

The ‘Law on the Promotion of Ainu Culture and Facilitation of Popular Understanding of Ainu Tradition’ was passed in 1997. Regretfully, it does not mention the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people anymore, which would allow for the provisions related to the United Nations’ ‘Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (2007). However, in this law the Japanese government acknowledges for the first time the existence of a separate ethnic group inside the country and calls for respect of its culture and traditions.

The Ainu then have become an internationally recognised indigenous population. In July 1997 the Japanese government finally introduced the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ (New Ainu Law). The purpose of this new law is “to realise a society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in the country, by the implementation of measures for the promotion of Ainu culture, the spread of knowledge related to Ainu traditions, and the education of the nation, referring to the situation of Ainu traditions and culture from which the Ainu people find their ethnic pride”. According to article 3 of this ‘Ainu Shinpo’, the national government should make efforts “to promote measures for the nurturing of those who will inherit Ainu culture, the fruitfulness of educational activities concerning Ainu traditions, and the promotion of the study of the Ainu culture”.

In 1997, after the preparations for the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ were made by the Hokkaido government, the Hokkaido Development Agency approved the establishment of the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’ (FRPAC) as a public service corporation. One of the tasks of the Foundation is to preserve and promote the Ainu language and traditional culture and to disseminate knowledge on Ainu traditions to the nation. The Foundation promotes comprehensive and practical research on the Ainu, the Ainu language, and material culture, and disseminates knowledge on Ainu traditions.

Teaching of the Ainu Language and Culture

The language is unique to the Ainu and forms the core of their ethnic identity. Because the number of people who use the language has been decreasing yearly due to the aging of native Ainu speakers, Ainu language education is in a very difficult state. For the improvement of Ainu language education, the FRPAC provides learning opportunities to train Ainu language instructors in cooperation with Ainu language researchers.

Ainu language classes are offered in various community centres on Hokkaido and in the ‘Ainu Culture Centre’ in Tokyo. These centres are very well equipped with modern facilities and often offer interesting expositions related to the Ainu culture. In order to disseminate the Ainu language to the general public, the FRPAC provides opportunities for many people to have contact with and to learn the Ainu language. Language textbooks are provided free of charge and special books on the Ainu history and culture are edited for primary and secondary schools. People who want to practise the language can take part in special speech contests and storytellers of traditional oral Ainu literature, such as ‘yukar’ (epics of heroes), ‘kamuy-yukar’ (stories of deities) and ‘uwepeker’ (old tales), give direct instruction to train their successors. Special attention is paid to the remnants of the Ainu language in the local culture, in particular the interpretation of geographic place.

Since the 1980s the Ainu cultural and ethnic movements have created a public awareness of Ainu heritage, and popularised Ainu culture. The purpose of teaching Ainu history and culture is to promote understanding of the Ainu and their culture, and to refute the Japanese stereotype of the Ainu as uncivilised people. The Hokkaido Board of Education and the Hokkaido University of Education have taken the lead in funding Ainu studies and education. The Hokkaido Board of Education prepared teaching materials for Ainu history and culture in 1984, and in 1992 it produced a handbook, ‘Guidelines for the Teaching of Ainu History and Culture’, for every high school in Hokkaido.  In 1987, the ‘Utari Association’ requested that the Hokkaido University of Education teach a course in Ainu history and culture, and in 1991 the five campuses of the University offered seventeen courses wholly or partially devoted to Ainu history, culture, and language. The Ainu themselves, as well as several scholars, are actively researching and writing about Ainu history, language and culture.  The 1997 ‘New Ainu Law’ provides public funds to museums, performance theaters, research centres, and community cultural centres.

Japanese students learn about Ainu history and culture as part of the social science curriculum in elementary, middle and high schools. Ainu issues first appeared in the social studies textbooks in 1961. In addition to textbook-centred instruction, elementary school students and preschoolers become familiar with Ainu culture by making handicrafts, reading folktales, and performing music and dance. Watching a documentary on the lifestyle of the Ainu can also give students a sense of Ainu culture. Since 1978, middle school textbooks have included chapters on Ainu history and cultures. A popular history textbook portrays the Ainu as the victims of Japanese exploitation and prejudice. It refers to Ainu revolts as justifiable resistance against exploitation by Japanese settlers and merchants prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration. ‘Shakushain’, one of the leaders of the resistance, is portrayed as a hero.

More recently, in 2007, Hokkaido University opened the Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (CAIS) with the aim of promoting comprehensive and interdisciplinary research activities concerning indigenous peoples with a special emphasis on Ainu. It also strives to establish networks connecting various organisations at home and abroad with the aim of promoting research programmes on Ainu and indigenous peoples.

The CAIS collaborates with the Ainu people and Ainu organisations such as the ‘Ainu Association of Hokkaido’ and the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’. Together with these organisations research activities and administrative matters are planned and this will serve as a bridge that connects the university with the Ainu. These activities result in symposia, public lectures, social surveys, museum exhibitions, lecture tours, ecotourism and overseas fieldwork. This will encourage widespread understanding and support among members of different ethnic groups.

An important aspect of the Centre is its emphasis on education. Currently, at Hokkaido University, the Centre offers courses that help students develop interest in and gain an accurate understanding of the Ainu people and other indigenous groups throughout the world. Furthermore, an ambitious project for developing teaching programmes and materials for junior and senior high school students in collaboration with local school teachers is being realised. Through such educational efforts, social justice will prevail in Japan, which increasingly is becoming a multi-ethnic and multicultural country.

Education for the Ainu about the Ainu is as important as education for young Japanese people. The Centre has a positive role to play in this regard. The Centre takes as its responsibility the creation of a space in which the Ainu people are able to learn about themselves in both academically and socially useful ways.

9. Finding the right place for languages in the community landscape: language conservation in interdisciplinary projects among the Kubeos in the Northwest Amazon

Thiago Chacon
University of Brasilia


It is past 5pm in the house of Ricardo, a 60 year old Yúriwakɨ man, living in Açaí – a village of the Kubeo Indians at the Vaupés river in the Brazilian Northwestern Amazon. Roque, an older Yúriakɨ, is telling Ricardo and me about how the ancestral group of all humankind came into existence in the rapids of hipana in the Aiyari river, “the center of the world”. After the demiurge Yúri pushed humanity out from a hole in the rapids, he blew them with the sacred tobacco and each human group was set off into a journey in search for land, ceremonial power and spiritual nourishment (opeko ‘breast milk’). The journey is a process of transformation from a pre-human state in the aquatic world (moawɨ “fish-people”) to true people in the terrestrial world (põewã “humans”). For the Yúriwawa and brothers-in-law, the Yuremawa, the final point in their journey was Wakaipani, the rapids from a small tributary of the river, the unique ancestral birth-place of both groups.

Map of South America and the Upper Rio Negro Region where the Kubeos are located

Map of South America and the Upper Rio Negro Region where the Kubeos are located

Roque has never been to the Aiyari river; he has never seen most of the places of the journey he was describing. His voice, however, is firm, his memory is vivid and his words are galloping in a characteristic rhythm as he talks about places, events and make connections between mythical happenings and present affairs. As he speaks, Kubeo grammar makes it clear to the audience that Roque’s knowledge comes from retellings by his ancestors and from his own mind-travels to the places holding particular mythological significance.

Seven years have passed since I first heard the Kubeo creational myth. I was just starting my PhD, eager to document, learn and preserve the Kubeo language. As a linguist, who enjoys everything the linguistic code can teach about the Kubeos and their language, I started to think that language conservation should be more of a secondary objective, and that the emphasis should instead be on themes transversal to a number of aspects of community life. Since languages are “incidentally” also transversal to culture and society, it makes sense – at least in sociolinguistic situations like those of Kubeos – that language conservation should focus strategically on promoting community-based experiences of language use.

In our case, the Kubeos chose general traditional culture, sacred landscapes, territory and the environment as transversal themes. This text describes our initiatives related to these topics and considers the broader issues related to language and indigenous groups.[1]

Sociolinguistic situation of the Kubeos

The Vaupés is a unique multilingual region of the world, predating the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Speakers of about twenty-two languages from four different linguistic families co-exist in a complex network of sociocultural exchange, embedded within a system of social and linguistic exogamy. In the twentieth century, and increasingly in the past decades, however, there have been dramatic changes that made an impact in language vitality. The most notable changes have been related to the presence of Christian missionaries, national armies, guerrilla wars, intense urban migrations, schooling, television, monetization, and diminishing supplies of fishing and game.

There are about eight thousand people who speak the Kubeo language; they are agriculturalists and rely heavily on fishing, as well as hunting and seasonal gathering of wild crops. Villages typically have about ten families (bigger ones can go up to one hundred families) and are dispersed along the banks of the Vaupés, Querari and Cuduyari rivers. In these villages, one usually hears, in addition to Kubeo, Kotiria, Tukano, Desano, as well Portuguese and Spanish. Most people are at least bilingual and others speak more than two languages. However, there has been a considerable break of language transmission to younger generations in certain areas of the Kubeo territory, not to mention the typical loss of specialized vocabulary and traditional linguistic performances. Nevertheless, although Kubeo can be regarded as a threatened language, its situation is not the most critical in the Vaupés, where smaller language groups are facing greater threats.

Landscapes and the right place of language for the Kubeos

My work with the Kubeos started with a series of workshops for an encyclopedic dictionary in 2008. Kubeo teachers from the local school requested that the dictionary should include translations from Kubeo to Kotiria, Tukano, Portuguese and Spanish. From the start, the connection of language and worldview, embodied in the native conception of an “encyclopedia”, has always guided the direction of our work. Workshops were thematically organized (natural world, human world and metaphysical world). They have proved very successful in engaging the entire community with an average attendance of 70 people from several distinct villages and ethnic groups. Besides the workshops, we also invested in the training of a group of young native speakers in the use of audio and video recordings, transcriptions and translations.

A group from the first workshop of the Kubeo encyclopedic-dictionary

A group from the first workshop of the Kubeo encyclopedic-dictionary

However, Kubeo community had many other needs in their daily life than “just” working with their language. While we could never tackle all the problems at once, there was a clear demand that future projects should bring more tangible components and resources. As a response, we came across with the idea of “sacred landscapes”, which then expanded into a project of territory and environmental management research.

Landscapes – as we realized after the research of anthropologists in the area, including Robin Wright, Geraldo Andrello, Ana Gita and my colleague Luís Cayón – are a central component for the understanding of how local indigenous groups relate myth, collective memory territory, the environment and the “mundane” present life. In fact, every piece of the landscape is a stronghold for Kubeo tradition and identity. One particular place is part of a complex network of mythical and mystical power, relating physical and metaphysical worlds, past events with current cultural practices. Shamans manage the substances that are utterly related to the evolution of the universe and humankind, bringing harm or well-being to the current world. Petroglyphs, topographical features and taboos to the “unprepared” persons are evidence of the active forces of certain places overtime. Means of subsistence too, such as fishing sites, hunting spots, agricultural areas, are all regulated by the power that flows from place to place. Several petroglyphs standing in different rocks along the rivers were made by the demiurges when the world was still in its genesis. Entire rivers and mountains were also the product of mythological events, such as the wanderings of the Sun in persecution of the Kubeo ancestors who have gotten the Sun’s daughter pregnant.

Language is, to a large extent, the key to every place. Comprehensive access to any place is only possible by knowing the true name of a place (not only some “nickname”), by the proper use of ceremonial dialogues with the mythical forces of that place and by knowledge of the correct position of a place within the chain of verses in a healing monologue or mythological narrative. Metaphor, metonyms and euphemisms abound in toponyms, which are also interrelated by a “grammar” of naming practices and hypertexts. It is only natural that the loss of language or particular linguistic skills by the younger generations could threaten not only a specific state of knowledge related to geography and territory, but also – and more profoundly – the entire conception of life and self for the Kubeos.

This kind of approach, where language is at the background of more tangible cultural practices and values, seems to be the right place for language programs among the Kubeos. In this framework, we are now experimenting a process that let us tackle several issues in Kubeo life, namely:

  • intergenerational gap in cultural and linguistic transmission
  • school curriculum, teacher training and integration between formal education and community education
  • knowledge about fishing, gardening, hunting, income generation and sustainability
  • discrepancies between traditional and modern life
  • political and economic situations of the Kubeo community and the supra-local scenarios for indigenous peoples
  • production of linguistic and cultural resources on toponyms, cartography, mythology and collective memory

Community-based research on Kubeo landscapes

In an evening of May 2013, a group of 30 people, comprised by schoolteachers and students, parents and other folks from the Kubeo communities in Brazil, arrived at Wakaipani, after a one-day trip through the jungle and the Marakarĩya river stream, a tributary of the Vaupés. The group arrived exhausted after wandering in the jungle in search for trails that have barely been used in the past decades. Those trails used to be the very source of game two generations ago, when the Kubeo Yúriwawa were still living in longhouses at the tributaries of the Marakarĩya stream. The culmination of the project was the trip to Wakaipani, a rocky flat area of the size of a football pitch, with several petroglyphs representing mythological events. The clear waters cut the rock in half along a North-South axis. The place is guarded by ancestors who take the form of shaman-jaguars (jawi) and harpy eagles (mi yawi ‘jaguar bird’).

As their graduation project, students from the last years of high school and mid-school had to do a research about the origins of the Kubeo clans Yúriwawa, Yuremawa and Betowa. They participated in a weeklong workshop with the elders, who narrated and chatted about events that occurred at Wakaipani just after the clans have emerged from the mythical aquatic journey. Students also received training in audio, video and photographic documentation, as well as in techniques of interviewing, ethnographic annotations and transcription.

Students were able to “feel” the Wakaini place to the fullest. They cleaned the lichens and grass from all petroglyphs; prepared fish and game locally caught; heard the long story about how the Kotirias and the Kubeos met at Wakaipani, how the territory was passed from the Kotirias to the Kubeos, and how the Sun demiurge was finally defeated by the Kubeos. Cameras, voice recordings and notebooks in the hand of the students documented everything, which resulted in a “home-made” documentary film about their experience.

A petroglyph representing Piaða – the chief of the ancestral cult among the Kubeos

A petroglyph representing Piaða – the chief of the ancestral cult among the Kubeos

More important than concrete results, the Wakaipani project has proven as a fruitful process of learning and dissemination of ideas and practices by all participants. However it only happened once. Lack of funding and lack of initiative from school members for conducting similar graduation projects without direct participation of outside researchers prevented it from perpetuation. If such a project is disconnected from subsequent collective actions, it will become just good memories in the minds and hearts of those 30 people who were part of it, but nothing more lasting.

It did, however, spread valuable seeds. One of them is a new momentum in Kubeo schools, supported by recent educational policies more open to indigenous way of life, where traditional knowledge is being more explicitly demanded in the curriculum. Some interesting ideas being discussed include hiring elders as regular instructors in the schools, locally produced pedagogical materials, and making graduation projects similar to the one in Wakaipani as a regular activity in the school calendar.

Another important consequence of this project was a subsequent project on territory and environmental research, whose general goal is to create local knowledge of the territory and its sustainable use for the future. This ongoing project is funded by the Ministry of the Environment in Brazil, and is conducted by the Kotirias and the Kubeos, engaging fifteen villages and ten local researchers, plus an interdisciplinary research team composed by a linguist (me), a biologist (Igor Richwin) and three anthropologists (Pedro Rocha, Diego Rosa and João Pimenta da Veiga). The project expands the focus from sacred landscapes in order to cover knowledge and management of the space regarding economical and technical use of the territory, history and demographic information of the villages, traditional knowledge about the environment and ongoing transformations, as well as the mythological configuration of the landscape. It also raises several issues about the current life in each village and the region as a whole, demanding collective discussions and further organization of local society.

The project lasted for 2 years and used a varied methodology, such as workshops, community discussions, mental maps and GIS, census, a log about local daily practices completed by local researchers, and documentation of traditional texts. As a result, we are currently writing a trilingual book (in Portuguese, Kotiria and Kubeo) that will cover chapters including geographical and environmental units, local cartography, sacred landscapes, demographic and sociolinguistic diagnosis of the communities, etc.

A conclusion of an ongoing work

After eight years working with the Kubeos, we feel that this is the moment to start something that could render more lasting results. Probably this will be true in ten years from now. Life never stops and the struggle of indigenous people is getting tougher every day.

Several challenges lie ahead of us. The most important from a language conservational perspective is keep the use of the Kubeo language vibrant in every way, in the digital world, in small talks and jokes, in rituals and in profanity, in writing and speaking, in thinking about the world and dialoguing with all kinds of social groups the Kubeo are open to.

Grants and thematic projects are still the best strategy for raising language awareness and reinforcing language use in threatened domains. A sociolinguistic survey followed by language planning is likely one of the next projects we will develop. In the meantime, I will go back to listening to Roque’s story about the creation of humankind by the Yúri god, the story that this note opened:

– ‘Hipanaka põewamu maha arehame. Mahãrẽ mahẽ ñekũ Yúri batekemawɨ̃ arehame’.
“We are from the Hipana rapids”, “For us, Yúri is our grandfather”, grampa said.

– ‘Yúri buçibɨre kɨwatekemawɨ̃ arehame. Buçibɨre kɨwarĩ, mahãrẽ mahẽ põe eta kobede buçibɨre nurĩ hapukemawɨ̃’.
“Yúri had a certain cigar”, he said. “With his cigar, he was blowing smoke into the hole from where people were created (born)”.

Yúriwawa men talking in their longhouse: Roque is the little one in red

Yúriwawa men talking in their longhouse: Roque is the little one in red

[1] This is what I could learn working with the Kubeos and seems to be a valid conception for several other sociolinguistic situations. Besides the Kubeos, I would like to give the right credit the institutions which supported my research on language conservation: the University of Brasilia where my colleague Luís Cayón and I are running a comparative project on the languages and groups of the Northwest Amazon; the University of Utah and the University of Hawa’i, where I finished my PhD; the University of California in Santa Barbara where I was a post-doc fellow; and Unesco and Iphan (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional) where I worked as a consultant for language policy issues in Brazil.

8. How do adoptees and the children of immigrants become Catalan?

Susan Frekko
Goucher College, Baltimore, United States


“Does speaking Catalan allow children whose physical appearance differs from that of other Catalans to be accepted as Catalan?  Through what processes can they become Catalan?  In which situations is their Catalan-ness questioned, and in which might they themselves choose not to be Catalan?” I sought to answer these questions in an anthropological research project that I carried out in the Barcelona area from 2011 to 2015.[1] In the project I spent time with two sets of people who are negotiating access to Catalan-ness: immigrant families and transnationally adopted children. Children from both groups in theory have access to the Catalan language, either through the school or through both the school and the home. Do both sets of children have equal access to “counting” as Catalan?

This research project grew organically out of my previous research project. In that body of work, I try to understand what it means for Catalan to have become a public language again after its exclusion from the public realm during the Franco dictatorship.  I argue that while in many ways, Catalan is now seen as a neutral public language available for all to use, many speakers still view it as a language with strong ethnonational ties that keep it from acting as the taken-for-granted language of public life.

My interest in adoption began when participants in my first study as well as other friends and acquaintances in Catalonia began to adopt children from abroad. I realized that I was witnessing a major social phenomenon, one that would permit me to continue to ponder the Catalan language.  If Catalan is a public language and Catalan-ness is an identity available to all, adoptees should have the same opportunity to “become Catalan” as children born to Catalan families. The fact that the boom in international adoption coincided with the boom in immigration—often from the same countries—allowed me to design a comparative study that would tease apart place of origin, physical appearance, and home language and culture.

Kids imagining themselves at age 30

From summer 2011 to spring 2015, I used a range of anthropological techniques for collecting data, including spending time with participants informally, observing them, asking questions and conducting formal interviews and focus groups. Here I will describe a technique that I used to compare the experiences of adopted and immigrant children. I wanted to know about young people’s experience of Catalan-ness, but this is not a question one can easily ask directly, especially of children. Instead, I devised a focus group activity in which participants drew a response to a series of questions and then explained their drawing to their peers. This approach gave children the opportunity to express themselves in two different modes, providing a richer set of data and also accounting for the needs of children who might be more comfortable in one mode than the other. For logistical reasons, for the adopted children I conducted four small focus groups of three children each.[2] For the children from immigrant families, I conducted one larger focus group with eight children. The participants ranged in age from 9 to 16.

I first carried out the activity with adopted children. The children were all from upper-middle class families from a Catalan-speaking neighborhood of a city in the Barcelona metropolitan area and they lived their lives in Catalan. I brought colored pencils, markers and blank paper to the sessions. I invited the children to draw a picture that would answer the following questions, “When you are 30 years old…What will you be like? Where will you work? Where will you live? With whom will you live?  Anything else?” I let the children draw for 15 or 20 minutes, emphasizing that artistic skills were not important. Children drew themselves in professions such as SWAT team member, banker, hotel manager, computer programmer, nuclear engineer and musician, and many drew themselves large detached single-family homes. Then I asked the children to interview each other about their imagined life stories and how they had come to this point in their lives (the imagined age 30).

Autoretrat a l’edat imaginada de 30 anys per una adolescent adoptada de la Xina. Llegenda de l’exemple 2: autoretrat actual i a l’edat imaginada de 30 anys per una adolescent immigrada del Pakistan.

Example 1: self-portrait at the imagined age 30, by an adolescent girl adopted from China

In setting up the activity, I did not mention adoption, physical difference, the Catalan language, or Catalan-ness; I wanted to see if these things would come up on their own. They did not. Not a single child mentioned his or her own adoption as an important life event (or in fact, at all). The adopted children participating in this activity were of Chinese and Moroccan origin. People of Moroccan origin and people of Catalan origin are not necessarily distinguishable by their physical appearance, but people of Chinese origin obviously are. Still, nothing in the drawings of children adopted from China marked a phenotypic difference. For example, none of them depicted themselves with almond-shaped eyes and one child drew decidedly round eyes (see example 1). Relatedly, these children took the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted. Catalan is the only language that they used for the activity and the fact that they had begun life as something other than Catalans never surfaced. Of course this is unsurprising, since they had all been adopted at a young age. Only when I specifically brought up the issue of adoption or physical difference did the children mention limits on their ability to receive social recognition as Catalans—for example a child of Moroccan origin with darker skin and curlier hair than is common in Catalonia reported being called the racial epithet “Moor” by classmates.

When carrying out the activity with the children of immigrant families, I modified the technique slightly to account for the fact that I didn’t know these children as well as the adopted kids and I needed information about their current lives. I had them divide their paper down the middle. On the left they drew themselves now and on the right at age 30. The participants came from working and lower-middle class families from Morocco and Pakistan. Some of the children had been born in Barcelona, while others had immigrated.

Frekko ex 2 small-web

Example 2: self-portrait now and at the imagined age 30, by an adolescent girl immigrating from Pakistan

As with the adoptees, these participants did not mark themselves as different in their drawings, with the exception of a teenage girl who drew herself wearing a headscarf (see example 2). Their aspirations for themselves at age 30 were also quite similar; professions included included FBI/Guardia Civil, marine biologist, social worker and banker—the children did not see themselves as emulating their parents’ roles as grocery owners, taxi drivers, cleaners and housewives. Catalan was not taken for granted among these young people. Their drawings and speech showed a range of uses, with some of the kids using almost exclusively Castilian, one using exclusively in Catalan (because he had arrived two years previously and had not yet learned Castilian), and some speaking both languages comfortably.

At the end of the session, I asked about advantages and disadvantages of having parents from elsewhere. Most kids pointed to advantages, such as getting to travel and know other cultures. The only disadvantage was given by a 10-year-old girl who complained that her mother asked her to do her Castilian homework for her! When asked, the kids reported instances of racism—from being called “Moor” to being told to “go back to your country.” When asked if he felt Catalan, a 14-year-boy born in Morocco who immigrated to Spain at age five said he felt Moroccan but not Spanish or Catalan. A girl of Moroccan origin born in Catalonia said she felt Catalan and a little bit Moroccan, but not Spanish. Other kids reported feeling all three. And a teenage girl who was born in Pakistan and moved only recently to Catalonia Pakistani and not Catalan, but then added, “una mica sí perquè sé parlar el català.”

In fact, when I asked explicitly, “Què vol dir ser català?,” the teenage daughter of a Moroccan mother and a Spanish father responded, “Parlar català.” When I asked if anyone had helped them to feel Catalan, the ten-year-old Moroccan girl responded, “Sí, a l’ escola ensenyant-nos a escriure el català.” These kids clearly see becoming Catalan as a process and identify access to the Catalan language as key. These data also point to the apparent success of the public school system: the kids seem to identify it as an institution that facilitates rather than impedes their ability to belong. Also, their aspiration to middle-class professions indicates they believe (correctly or incorrectly?) that they have a chance at upward mobility. The adopted kids, on the other hand, are not “becoming Catalan.” They take the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted, although they do experience instances of racism and privately some of their parents shared their worries about what will happen to their children when they leave the protection of their schools and neighborhoods and engage with the world of strangers.

What I have described here are early findings and observations. As I undertake a more detailed analysis, it will be important to pay attention to nuances related to gender, country of origin, social class and locality. My hope is that this analysis will help social scientists think about the relationship between language, difference and belonging in Catalonia and beyond.

[1] Of these children, three were non-adopted friends or siblings of the adoptees. The present analysis focuses on the responses of the nine adoptees.

[2] This research was supported by summer funding and a research leave from Goucher College, as well as a grant from the Reed Foundation’s Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund.

7. Remembering

Joan Miralles i Monserrat
Universitat de les Illes Balears


Working with oral history is both rewarding and enjoyable, as it gives knowledge, information and good vibes. I started doing interviews in 1969 – AD, of course – with people who would now be a century and a half old. The oldest person, who was from Llubí, was 103 and she was from the tribe of the wife of Gabriel Janer Manila, the writer. This tribe thing is absolutely true and correct. We’ll be judged by tribes, already we often are. My colleague at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans and friend, Joan Argenter, asked me for an article on something connected with my work on oral history or on popular culture. Straightaway I thought it might be good for me, and quite fun, to share some of the experiences that I’ve rummaged around for in the depths of my memory for this piece. They are anecdotes, in fact, about people who are often illiterate but frequently incredibly powerful, and it seems to me that their experiences, what they’ve lived through, could be turned into a fantastic life lesson. Such people would never have read Sartre or Camus, not to mention Marx or Mao’s Little Red Book (and what’s more they couldn’t care less), because their culture has been adjusted to suit their needs, like a skin-tight stocking.

Once, in Sant Joan de Sineu, I was trying to get to interview an old priest, the former parish vicar. It was a baking hot summer day in the early 1970s. I hadn’t learnt to drive a car back then, so my youthful body had to lug around the wonderful eight-kilo Grundig TK 14  tape recorder, which I’d bought on the never-never for 100 pesetas a month. The priest lived on the outskirts of town. It was harvest time. I didn’t know exactly where he lived. Suddenly, on the edge of the town, I could just make out a long cart coming towards me, loaded with bundles, all spilling over, like in a Botero sculpture. The cart slowly trundled towards me. Astride the driver’s seat was an anthropological Mallorcan specimen, chubby, hatted, ruddy-skinned, pensively smoking his pipe, sitting on his throne. A few metres before coming alongside me I gave him a friendly greeting: “Good day to you, sir!”. From the entrails of this example of ‘pithecanthropus maioricensis’ came a primeval, cosmic, full-on “oooou!”. The bundles made the cart swing alarmingly.  “Good day, what’s up?” “Would you be able to tell me where Father Bauzà, the old vicar, lives?” “I’ll tell you. You follow the road straight on, then you take a left turn, you go downhill and you cross a little bridge. Afterwards, when you get to a barrier, go left, you’ll see a path, don’t take it, go straight on, to the right, and after fifty paces, more or less – I’m not being exact here – you’ll find the house!” “Thanks very much, sir!” I followed his directions as best I could and after walking maybe two hundred metres I could hear the sound of animals, things and people. Turning round, I caught a glimpse of the cart coming straight for me at high speed, like a war chariot, with the driver standing on top, eyes glittering, face aflame and sweating. The road was narrow and it wasn’t going to be easy to shake this thing off. Defenceless, I saw that life’s too short, with all the things I still had left to do. I felt like Verdaguer’s worm.  I was asking myself what on earth I could have said to that little man to provoke such a reaction. Suddenly, when the war chariot was four paces away from me, I could see Ben Hur standing up with the reins in his hand yelling “oooooou!”, and once again I could see how flexible that war weapon was, as it swung back and forth but with its parts rigid. It turned out that it wasn’t a war cry and the man, by using these words, couldn’t have been wiser, kinder and more generous: “I’m so sorry, sir. I got it wrong. I told you to go left and you have to go right!” Dear reader, I was stunned, shell-shocked and rooted to the spot. As God is my witness, if that man had been Marilyn Monroe I’d have given him a kiss full on the lips.

One of the most interesting families or clans in my village is that of Can Rei. One of the members of this family married a girl from Montuïri who I was able to meet and interview.​ The couple got married by proxy because the man was in Mendoza working as a doctor and she was in Mallorca. When the bride went to Argentina to join her husband, she met the poet Josep Carner on board the ship and apparently she made a huge impression on him. Carner dedicated a piece to her, “Casadeta de Montuïri” (little bride from Montuïri), which is a good example of his humour. Later on, the doctor ended up going funny in the head and became a recluse in his home town. I had the opportunity to talk with the little bride and also with a brother of the doctor who ended up crazy. The experience shows you, I think, the flexible nature of memory and how memories from our childhood and our youth stick in our subconscious, unlike other memories formed closer to the present. This man, Joan Mateu ‘Rei’, told me various stories from his childhood, one of which was that his father had given him a bicycle when he was a child. He told me this apparently trivial anecdote in the early 1970s, when he was in his nineties, so it must date back to the late 19th century. Anyway, after two days his son, who worked in the Town Hall, turned up at my house and said: “Joan, you have to come to my house urgently and place the tape in front of my father!” “What, just like that, what’s happened?” “Nothing, but he hasn’t slept for two days because he says he told you his father gave him a bicycle when he was a child and he’s worried that his brother, who’s still alive, is going to get jealous.” (!)

This story is a reminder of the scope of historic memory. I’ll tell you another. Around thirty years ago the residents of our block of houses were summoned to a meeting at Montuïri Town Hall so they could tell us about the project for a road extension that would run through the middle of our properties. There were about a dozen of us altogether. At some point in the meeting, Joan Vermell, already an old man, launched an impassioned defence of the advantages of opening up the road. Suddenly, the chap next to me, Moreno, leapt up from his chair, strode up to Vermell and blurted out: “Look here Vermell, now you’re telling us it’s a really great idea to have this road coming through! You weren’t saying that in 1932, in the Republic, when we met right here. This is no time to change sides!”

Each interview is an unknown and we can always learn and have fun. I remember very well an interview in a farmhouse in Petra, on the outskirts of town. The old, old-fashioned house was inhabited by an elderly couple who had that typical wisdom for practical stuff coupled with a pretty sceptical view of the human condition. After the interview they showed me round the house, disparaging the old and singing the praises of modern life. At some point, they led me down a dark passageway: “And now we’ll show you something we think you’ll like”. As the old man said this, he stopped, pulled a large key from the depths of his trousers and opened the door… “Look, sir, this is called a bathroom. We had it done for our granddaughter when she got married two years ago. We’ve never needed it, thank God!” I don’t need to tell you that the bathroom fittings still had the polythene from the factory on them.

Another time, in Porreres, a tall, lanky old man with a hooked nose, a reincarnation of Quevedo’s Dómine Cabra, showed me the formula for curing warts and gave me the list of the town’s Falange members during the Republic, plus a lengthy account of the Republican disembarkation on the eastern shores of Mallorca by Captain Bayo and his troops in 1936. It appeared that this guy had had both the time and the inclination to get married three times, and in fact he had enthroned all three wives, like a Holy Trinity, over the sewing machine. He went on to introduce them to me post mortem: “Look, sir, this is Maria, a good woman, 130 kilos. This other one was called Antònia. She was good too… She weighed 120 kilos at her heaviest. And this other one, the last one, Aina, she was a bit skinny but she still made 100 kilos.”

For many interviewees, the tape recorder was a completely unknown tool, but some of the old people had clearly heard about these machines that recorded your voice. In Vilafranca de Bonany I interviewed a woman who was reputed to be a witch. I remember that it was the time of year when almonds were picked and cracked open. On summer evenings in the streets of Mallorcan villages it was normal to hear the sound of hammers striking stone as people cracked almonds open and extracted the nuts. The interview meandered through increasingly tricky but fascinating terrain, and we soon got onto taboo topics, like the Spanish Civil War, smuggling, intimate hygiene, witchcraft and the evil eye. At one point, the tape ran out and the recorder I was using at the time gave a rather loud “click!” Then the woman realised that I had been recording her voice. She hadn’t realised the purpose of the machine up to that point and she began to complain, then started to issue threats: “And what was that noise. Isn’t that one of those machines that takes your voice. Watch out, lad, I’m not joking and it’ll be the worse for you, you’ll pay for this!” I quickly came up with something for maximum dramatic effect, personally I think it was a master-stroke. On hearing these words, I quickly grabbed the hammer the old woman was clutching in her right hand, pulled out the used tape, threw it in the hippy basket on the stone block and took out a clean tape from the same basket. Wearing a furious and tragic expression, I then proceeded to hammer the clean tape to pieces on the stone block. It only lasted a few seconds and before the crone realised what was happening the tape was in bits. After my performance, her attitude changed completely: “Oh, oh, oh, now what have you done, lad? That’ll have cost you a lot. These things must be very expensive, you know. Look at it, good heavens and now what? Look, look…!”. So I now went on the attack: “Now you’re saying that, good woman, after you scolded me unfairly. I wouldn’t have misused what you told me, don’t worry…”

Other times, the experience involves new sensations. Anyone working with oral history needs to be prepared to put up with anything. For example, the place and the conditions in which the interview takes place. I think things are a bit better nowadays, but in those days it was quite common to find that the tanks where all human and animal excrement ended up would be located in the same courtyard where people stayed. I remember an interview I did with a poet and musician right alongside the privy or toilet and the resulting effluent flow. To make matters worse, the guy was reciting ditties about the healthy outdoor life. The sanitary conditions our old folk were living in were sometimes woeful too. Whenever I talk about this, I always remember the experience I had once on the outskirts of town with an elderly man who lived alone with his mother, aged nearly a hundred, a fountain of wisdom and good humour, and of patience too. She had a hole in her nose from a tumour and you could see the raw flesh through it, and the wound was always being sucked by a bluebottle. Every so often the poor woman raised her hand patiently and waved the beast away, but it was futile. After a moment the insect would be back making her life a misery. Back then, I used to wear Kissinger-style black rimmed plastic spectacles, and I had to invent something so I wouldn’t have to see the damned thing. The invention was simply to position my glasses so I couldn’t see the pierced nose and the invasive fly. Another experience: In Algaida I was interviewing the oldest woman in the town. It was extremely interesting. It lasted three and a half hours. My bladder was demanding to be emptied. It was no use. Whenever I tried to get up, the old woman would grab my arm with a strength I had no idea she could muster and keep me firmly at her side.

I think I’ve said enough for now.

In Montuïri, on 23 August, eve of the festival of St. Bartholomew, surrounded by the aroma of lavender and waiting for the medieval ‘cossiers’ dance to start.

6. Etundi Etundi Ambroise

Lluís Mallart i Guimerà
Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (CNRS – Paris X)


The Spokesman of the Evuzok (Cameroon) and other Masters of the Spoken Word

Etundi Etundi Ambroise had been chosen his country’s ‘zomolo’ or spokesman. He was called e ‘dzomdzomo dzal’, the equivalent of «the nation’s most important figure». He presided over all the clan’s daytime rituals, with Akoa Ignace and Atangana Dominik as his assistants. He opened up many doors for us, teaching us many things at a time when his authority and prestige were acknowledged by all. He gave us his blessing on several occasions. In the midst of a conversation at his home about certain plants’ social and symbolic connotations, he moved us by suddenly interrupting the conversation and starting to sing, improvising lyrics in which he thanked us for our visit. Indeed, many were the occasions on which I heard him improvise a song in the middle of a speech, at rituals to reconcile family members or clans, or at farewells and funerals. He was a discrete figure who lived in simple style in a mud house in a clearing by the Kpwa.

I shall only recall him here in his capacity as a superb speaker, although, through him, I would also like to remember all the Evuzok who so impressed me with their gift of speech, particularly when talking in public. I refer here to men and women. Obviously some were better than others, but generally the Evuzok had a command of the spoken word far greater than ours, here in the Western world. They knew how to improvise without stammering or getting nervous. They knew how to be coherent, to follow the thread of conversation or discourse, and to put forward arguments when proof was needed. And, if necessary, in their demonstrations, they would recall the words of their ancestors, quoting sayings or proverbs. In important speeches, the speakers would resort to established forms of speech in which a kind of dialogue was forged between the speaker and his or her audience. The latter would respond in unison by giving short or onomatopoeic replies, which I found spectacular. To cite an example:


The most conventional wordings are shown in bold.



Etundi Etundi Ambroise

On track 15 of the CD ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’)[1], I give another example. We are in Aseng-Bede. It might rain (or the recording come out badly). We are at a farewell gathering. The following day, I am going to Europe. Etundi Etundi Ambroise begins to speak, displaying all his oratory expertise, this time in a somewhat entertaining way. He is a true showman. I had heard him many times at important rituals – in the midst of a gathering, generally badly dressed, perhaps to insinuate that he did not profit financially from the position that he held (I think that was the reason), allowing one group and then another to take the floor, picking up the thread of the discussion or discourse, inviting everyone to join him in agreeing or disagreeing, defying criticism, invoking ancestors, bestowing a blessing with his saliva, anointing a body with the blood of sacrificial goats etc. He was not the only one. Other Evuzok were skilful at doing the same, men and women. Although I have seen it less frequently among the women, it is also true of them and indeed everyone. Boys and girls are taught and encouraged to speak in public on evenings when stories and folktales are told. On such occasions, it might be the women who speak more and it is perhaps then that riddles come to the fore, when the children learn the language of metonyms and metaphors.

Instrument mvet

‘Mvet’ harp-zither

Having said that, the true maestros of the spoken word are the troubadours of the ‘mvet’ harp-zither, like the ‘griots’ of other parts of Africa, western Africa. This must be why on one of my returns to Europe, I spent the whole time carrying a ‘mvet’ round with me, like the bearer of a much valued gift. It had been presented to me by Ekundu David, a man from Zok. He was not a troubadour but a craftsman. Thank you Ekundu David, although the people that I would like to thank, if possible, are Owona Apollinaire, Ngul Zamba and Amugu Pancrace, troubadours who specialize in playing the ‘mvet’. It was them that I was no doubt thinking about when in ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’) I wrote:

«The epic deeds of the genre known as the mvet were sung in exceptional style by poets of a kind relatively comparable to our troubadours.
Such evenings’ aesthetic enjoyment did not necessarily reside in being able to understand the sung or recited texts. On most occasions, I only understood less than half. I found the literary language, particularly when sung, very hard to catch. I was fortunate to have a tape recorder and time afterwards to listen, transcribe and translate them. The aesthetic enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere that was created. Mvet evenings were a genuine delight. In a clearing in the open air, under a well-lit moonlight sky, the audience formed a circle around a man seated on a chair, the troubadour, dressed in a grass skirt, with a bare chest and bunch of feathers on his head. His arms and legs were hung with bells and he held a harp-zither in his hands. A mvet troubadour’s instrument is made of a slightly curved raffia palm branch with four strings made from its fibrous middle and half gourds, forming a sound box, fixed to the outside of the other side of the branch.
On such evenings, the atmosphere was filled with a certain exoticism. Everything was foreign, different, strange and incomprehensible to me: the rhythm; what were almost certainly complex chords from a series of seemingly very simple musical instruments; long semitonal tales that recounted the epic deeds of Akom Mba fighting against imaginary beings and peoples; melodies sung by the troubadour and taken up by the audience to create an exultant dialogue; the poet’s gesticulations; the expressive acoustics of his onomatopoeias, the audience’s ingenuity when it came to the tale’s heroes, the encouragement, the lamentations inserted into the story to recall the unfortunate life of the troubadour, initiated in the art of singing and playing the mvest. Books on anthropology say little of the fascination that spectacles like this can arouse. When we talk of Others, we forbid ourselves from expressing anything emotional, subjective or impression related as if the Other should only be regarded from a rational scientific perspective and as if, at no time, should we reveal our feelings or emotions ».

But these two things are not mutually exclusive.

During that same period, in another corner of the Equatorial jungle, in Gabon, close to the border between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, a ‘mvet’ troubadour, Zwè Nguéma, sang an epic ‘mvet’ song that lasted one whole night long, recorded, transcribed and translated into French for the ‘Classiques africains’ [2]. I set out to study a specific theme of this ‘mvet’: the interludes and troubadour’s lamentations [3]. In this case, they allude to another epic: that of the troubadour, who compares his life – the life of a ‘mvet’ poet – to a struggle with the world of the spirits-of-the-dead from which he gets his inspiration.

I continue my research into this ‘mvet’. I have written a summary in Catalan, some fragments of which are shown below in English [4]:

“The people of the Engong or the Immortals are made up of thirteen big settlements. The troubadour mentions them one by one, indicating their location as you travel from the border that separates this group of people from the group known as the Mortals. Likewise, he mentions the leading figure for whom each group is known [5].
All the men of the Engong, without exception, leave their settlements to gather at the meeting point. The women leave their fields, watching as their warriors respond to the summons in all their magnificence, as if they were birds flying across the valleys, climbing the jagged high mountains, armed with spears that might touch the endless skies.
The people know the war drum only sounds with good reason. Some ask what has happened. Others comment that a brainless mortal has dared to defy Angone Endong Oyono and plans to kill him. The more levelheaded troubadour reminds them that «a tree is never disbarked on just one side», since if, on the one side, there are the Immortals, on the other the Mortals can be found.
Then, the troubadour invites them to contemplate that gathering of forces, which he describes in grandiose in-depth style.
The men, in their warrior gear, gather to form a single body. Along the way, the members of one clan or settlement meet up with those of another in response to the war drum. Some arrive like lightning or else they fill the esplanade like thundering drops of rain. The warriors proudly display their tattoos on their chests, backs, arms and legs. The so-called “Terrible Ones” arrive, the most powerful leaders, giving the impression of beings from another world. The people gaze at them, commenting on and approving of them, discussing things among one another as more warriors keep arriving.
The troubadour then begins a long soliloquy. The audience follows it, entering into dialogue with him. There is an exchange of sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour says that singing a mvet is like dying.
People continue to arrive. Medang arrives, making a spectacle of separating the clans when they argue. The voice of Mfule Engbang, a member of one of the three big families that make up the Engong, can be heard from the big river that acts as a frontier between the Immortals’ country and that of the Mortals. The troubadour describes this important figure. His long body swings from one side to another; his neck moves like a water snake; the pupils of his eyes look like those of a curved yellow-beaked hornbill. He is the strong man of his village, able to carry out work in a large piece of jungle all on his own. He arrives, passes in front of everyone and stops, he is here.
Now it is the turn of Otuang Mba, another leading figure from the country of the Immortals. He is an old man with a long white beard. He is bedecked with necklaces made of leopard’s teeth round his neck, forehead and ears. When he moves his head to one side or the other, the teeth jangle …kpazang, kpazang...
Suddenly the startled hens begin to cluck behind the houses. The lambs flee. The hairs on Otuang’s chest stand up. The earth trembles. A big din can be heard and the people jump. The elephant-contraption sounds loudly. The goats take fright. It is Angone Endong, known as «The iron bellows that smelt the iron » and «The odzam mammal from the rainy season that has thousands of lairs». He arrives with his elephant-contraption. Everyone draws near to see the great war machine arrive. The warriors form in three rows, raising their swords and piston-driven guns. Angone Endong says all of them must fear him, whether they are relatives on his mother or father’s side. And to ensure this, he lunges at them with his contraption. They dodge him and ring a magic bell that raises a big dust cloud. But the elephant-contraption comes at them once again. Then Elang Suga calls Mone Ebo and, with a tremendous leap, the latter lands in front of the elephant-contraption. He takes out his long, powerful, flexible sword and, as if it were a whip, he encircles and immobilizes it. Angone Endong gets out of the machine. «He is one of our leaders», exclaim the Endong people and silence falls.
Akoma Mba, the head of all the Immortals, stirs in his locally made bed like a wild beast. He gets up. He opens the door and gazes at all those people. Akoma Mba is bald with huge ears. He regards the throng of people and instructs them to wake up Engbang Ondo, the person responsible for keeping an eye on everything that happens in Engong, and to get him out of his house.
Everyone wants to see him come out of his house. His wife takes it as a joke, Akoma Mba insists. Then Akoma Mba’s order is transmitted from mouth to mouth until it reaches Nseng Ondo, a girl of outstanding beauty, with a long face, full cheeks and slender neck. «Women are beautiful in many ways», says the troubadour. In Nseng Ondo’s case, her skin is shiny like palm oil or the fruit of the adzab tree and of a colour like the branches of the raffia palm. She is a woman whose cheeks grow round when she smiles, and whose smile and words become one and the same when she talks. Her calves are big, as are her thighs. She has round knees like a fist, a navel that sticks out of her belly. She is a little shy and seems to be afraid of the men. She shines like the sun. She is more beautiful than anyone else and what makes her more beautiful than the other women is the luminous crevice that separates her right breast from her left one: a clear line like the vein of a banana leaf. Her hair shines so much that you might think she polishes her body with the rough leaves of a fig tree.
They ask her to wake up Engbang Ondo and to tell him that Akoma Mba has summoned him. She goes into his room. She pulls his legs, she touches his thighs, she shakes him but Engbang Ondo does not react. She pulls his legs again; she touches his thighs again, she takes him by the waist and shakes him again, saying: «I don’t like you when you are smug or play about with me. I know you are awake and just pretending to be asleep…» And she adds: «Some say you are cruel, bad, brave, astute and a liar; others say no one is better than you. I, on the other hand, find you feeble. How can you spend all day sleeping? Can’t you hear that Akoma Mba has summoned you to transmit great news to our country, that the wooden drums are sounding all around and that all the men are here?» Engbang Ondo takes a big leap and, all at once, he can be seen standing on the roof of Akoma Mba’s house, dressed in his warrior’s clothes with a bag full of magical objects under his arms. The men of the Engong watch open mouthed, without saying a word. He says: «Why did you call me?»
At this point, the troubadour embarks on a long soliloquy. The audience follows him and enters into dialogue with him. They exchange sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour recalls the more serious moments of his initiation and how he planned to reject the precious art of singing mvets….”

With this extract of this ‘mvet’ song that I am studying, I would like to pay tribute to these maestros of the spoken word, who are capable of spending a whole night singing and reciting the marvellous adventures of their heroes and entertaining their audiences [6].



1. Published by La Campana (2004, 3rd edition).
2. A ‘mvet’ by Zwè Nguéma. ‘Chant épique fang recueille par Herbert Pepper réédité par Paul et Paule de Wolf (Armand Colin, 1972)’.
3. Les interludes du mvet de Zwè Nguéma” in ‘Journal des Africanistes’, 79-1, p. 209-240.
4. A summary of the initial study, published electronically by URV Press (Servei de Publicacions de la Universidad Rovira i Virgili): ‘Un cant epic africà. Una crítica al poder absolut’ (2014).
5. The fragments written in normal print have been summarized, whereas those in italics have been translated more literally.
6. Oral archives. Lluis Mallart Guimerà Collection, Bibliothèque Enric de Dampierre, Université Paris X (Nanterre). http://www.mae.u-paris10.fr/index.html: CD 2.3.1. – 2.3.7. (troubadours: Owona, Amugu, Bikoe, Baana and Ngal Zamba).

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 < http://www.emmaus-international.org/>)

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 <http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/285359>.

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: http://oobrien.com/2014/11/tube-tongues-the-ward-edition/. 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 http://www.fastcoexist.com/3037778/visualizing/this-map-shows-which-languages-are-most-common-at-every-subway-stop-in-london, 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, http://www.gela.cat/doku.php?id=llengues. 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.