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The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages
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  • Cited by 31
  • Edited by Peter K. Austin, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London , Julia Sallabank, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
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Book description

It is generally agreed that about 7,000 languages are spoken across the world today and at least half may no longer be spoken by the end of this century. This state-of-the-art Handbook examines the reasons behind this dramatic loss of linguistic diversity, why it matters, and what can be done to document and support endangered languages. The volume is relevant not only to researchers in language endangerment, language shift and language death, but to anyone interested in the languages and cultures of the world. It is accessible both to specialists and non-specialists: researchers will find cutting-edge contributions from acknowledged experts in their fields, while students, activists and other interested readers will find a wealth of readable yet thorough and up-to-date information.


‘This handbook is an excellent assemblage of facts and ideas about the fast declining world's linguistic diversity. It is uniquely resourceful and comprehensive.'

Herman M. Batibo - Former President, World Congress of African Linguistics

‘This splendid handbook is an authoritative resource for those seeking to respond responsibly to ongoing loss of the world's languages.'

Nancy H. Hornberger - University of Pennsylvania

'The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages is without a doubt a welcome contribution to the field of linguistics and language preservation. One of the key aspects of preserving minority languages is public engagement, so the production of easy to read and highly accessible texts such as this is an important step in the process. It is authoritative and comprehensive, providing both facts and current academic theory to great and provocative effect.'

Zoe Bartliff Source: LinguistList (

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Page 1 of 2

  • 10 - Speakers and language documentation
    pp 187-211
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    Language shift can take place rapidly, over a generation or two, or it can take place gradually, but continuously, over several generations. Linguists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the rate at which languages are going out of use. Overviews of the study of language endangerment usually start with a list of statistics about the number of languages in the world, the proportion considered endangered, and so on. Politics also plays an important part in language differentiation. Following nineteenth-century philosophers such as Herder, language has been considered a crucial element of national identity, with 'one state, one people, one language' being seen as the ideal. But languages do not necessarily follow political boundaries. The causes of language endangerment can be divided into four main categories such as: natural catastrophes, famine, disease; war and genocide; overt repression; and cultural/political/economic dominance.
  • 12 - Archiving and language documentation
    pp 235-254
  • View abstract


    The field of language ecology studies the interrelationships between speakers and their languages as situated in their full (contemporary and historical) context. In its strong version, a theory of language ecology likens competition between languages to the competition between species and provides mechanisms for accounting for the survival of the fittest (languages). Language planning should take into account the overall language ecology of any group, which can be seen as a framework or model for analysing the relationship between linguistic practices on the context, or milieu, in which they are situated, that is, their ecolinguistic niche. Most linguists would argue that it is possible to place language vitality along a continuum, with languages which are vital and in no way endangered (e.g. English, Mandarin, and Spanish) on one end, and extinct languages which have no speakers and have vanished without descendent or daughter languages on the other end.
  • 13 - Digital archiving
    pp 255-274
  • View abstract


    This chapter addresses the issue of what makes endangered language speakers different, and why it should matter to be aware of the great diversity when working on the description, documentation or revitalization of endangered languages. The nature of endangered language communities is addressed by considering them through the lens of their geographic locations and configurations. It is considered from the perspective of different concepts of language and speech communities, in order to show how both concepts are intricately intertwined in endangered language communities. The issue of language endangerment in communities is approached from the perspective of the evolution of their level of consciousness and their evolving attitudes, in the context of recently developed discourse about the preservation of worldwide biocultural diversity. Linguists working on endangered languages often find themselves in challenging field situations that their academic training has done little to prepare them for.
  • 14 - Language policy for endangered languages
    pp 277-290
  • View abstract


    This chapter outlines the state of endangerment across the world's languages, based on two recent comprehensive surveys (Brenzinger 2007a, Moseley 2007). It discusses some widely used scales for endangerment including the current UNESCO standard. Various widespread issues are outlined using examples from the situation in China, Burma/Myanmar and Thailand, based on original language survey data, to show the limitations of wide-scale surveys and the need for more finely grained survey work using a consistent methodology. Languages displaced by long-distance migration as an outcome of colonialism or more recent events are not usually listed as endangered if they are not endangered in some community location. In some areas, available overview data is both more comprehensive and has been collected using a more consistent methodology. Finally, the chapter discusses the general strategies and procedures for surveying language endangerment.
  • 15 - Revitalization of endangered languages
    pp 291-311
  • View abstract


    This chapter presents some outcomes of language contact, and linguistic and social-psychological mechanisms operating in contact situations. It discusses notions of how contact-induced change is perceived by speaker communities and others, and the question of whether contact-induced change is inevitable. The chapter explains that new languages arising from contact might also be endangered and should be documented as valuable records of sociolinguistic processes. When languages come into contact and speakers of one language are learning another, a change in language use has already taken place. The prestige of a language may be viewed differently by different groups within the community; for example, younger versus older speakers, so use of a language or linguistic form may be evaluated differently among within-community groups. Speakers may be aware that their language is endangered but not aware of or confident about their own role in its maintenance.
  • 16 - Orthography development
    pp 312-336
  • View abstract


    This chapter addresses structural aspects of language endangerment from two perspectives: the contributions that the study of endangered languages make to typology and linguistic theory, and the structural consequences of language endangerment, including the kinds of changes that can take place in the phonology, morphology and syntax of endangered languages. Typology is closely associated with the study of linguistic universals, which can be understood as the common characteristics of the world's languages, usually with the goal of providing insight into the fundamental nature of human language. Though there are various ways in which languages can become extinct, the most typical is through language shift when a language gradually comes to have fewer and fewer speakers who use it in ever fewer domains until finally no one is able to speak it in any context. This process is sometimes called language obsolescence.
  • 17 - Lexicography in endangered language communities
    pp 337-353
  • View abstract


    This chapter discusses important strands of thought regarding the interrelation of language and culture, from the complementary perspectives of culture's influence on linguistic form and the role of linguistic form in social action and culture. It begins with a discussion of the conceptual relationship between the two elements of the dyad. The study of linguistic form can be surveyed either from the perspective of organizational components or in terms of identifiable theories, the study of the language-culture nexus defies comprehensive exposition based on such rubrics. The ethnography of communication (EoC) was the earliest effort to develop a framework for the description of linguistic behaviour in wider social and cultural contexts. Recent publications on language endangerment aimed at popular audiences implicate the shift from local languages to global ones in significant losses of cultural knowledge, especially detailed knowledge of local environments and resource use.
  • 18 - Language curriculum design and evaluation for endangered languages
    pp 354-370
  • View abstract


    This chapter contextualizes the notion of endangered languages in a model of language and society. For sociolinguists, language loss, except as a result of extinction of speakers by natural disaster or mass murder, is an extreme case of a normal ongoing phenomenon, language shift. The fact or belief that the language is appropriately used at a higher level may encourage the belief that it should be used at a lower level. Religion has a major influence on language shift and maintenance both because of the values it assigns to a variety and also as a result of the active management involved in the establishment of an educational system. Education, particularly under the control of national states, has become one of the main forces for language shift and one of the main causes of endangerment of minority-language varieties.

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