By Susie Allen
Photo Courtesy of Lenore Grenoble

I became interested in ... the kinds of things that happen when a language is lost: the linguistic changes, the social changes, the factors that drive people to speak one language over another.”
—Prof. Lenore Grenoble

How do you save a language?

That question has occupied linguist Lenore Grenoble since the early 1990s, when she made her first trek to a remote area of Siberia to study Evenki, the rapidly disappearing tongue of a Siberian indigenous group.

A Slavic linguist by training, Grenoble had been studying languages like Russian, Polish, and Old Church Slavonic for years. But she wanted to apply her expertise beyond the academy.

“I decided when I got tenure that I would take my expertise and do something that was also socially meaningful,” says Grenoble, the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics.

Grenoble’s work on Evenki launched a new phase in her career. “I became interested in not just Evenki, but the kinds of things that happen when a language is lost: the linguistic changes, the social changes, the factors that drive people to speak one language over another,” she explains. “I started looking at the broader picture globally.”

Today, Grenoble is an internationally respected expert in the study of endangered languages and the author of several books on the topic.  Although much of her work focuses on the indigenous languages of the Arctic, she has conducted fieldwork on other languages such as Māori in New Zealand and the Wolof language in Senegal.

She is also taking an active role to protect indigenous languages as coordinator of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Indigenous Languages Vitality project.

On Saturday, Oct. 18, Grenoble will discuss her knowledge of language endangerment at the University’s annual Humanities Day. Grenoble’s keynote address, “Languages in Danger: Why Should We Care?” is one of the 54 talks throughout the day. Other presentations will focus on the role of linguistics at the Supreme Court, artist Wolf Vostell’s sculpture Concrete Traffic, and the golden age of Jewish film music.

Languages in danger

UNESCO estimates that half of the world’s more than 6,000-7,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century. This devastating loss results from a variety of political, cultural, and environmental factors.

In many countries, including Russia and Greenland, colonization and forced re-education gave minority groups little choice but to adopt the language of the majority population. Climate change also has forced indigenous groups out of their traditional homes and into closer contact with majority populations and languages.

Endangered languages often are associated with marginalized communities, adding to the social and economic pressure to conform. “In many parts of the world, parents fear their children will suffer if they know the indigenous language, or they don’t see any value in it, until it is too late,” Grenoble explains. “They often live in societies that favor monolingualism.”

As parents stop speaking the language to their children, it is replaced by a major language and disappears. “In many cases, we’re finding it happens over the course of a generation,” Grenoble says.

For that reason, Grenoble’s work in the field is focused on documenting and analyzing the features of endangered languages.

This summer, she and a graduate student spoke with indigenous populations in Greenland to learn how they describe spatial relations, and how these systems intersect with directional systems, landscape topology and place names in the Greenlandic language. These systems are changing now because of the influence of Western culture and, perhaps surprisingly, because of climate change.

The loss of these rare languages represents a scientific tragedy for the field of linguistics. “A lot of them have features not found in the languages most commonly spoken,” Grenoble says. “We care because of what those languages tell us about the capacity for languages and the mind.”

Without them, she explains, “we won't know the range of human possibility.”

Yet the impact of language loss is more than academic. For speakers of rare languages, language is intimately and inextricably tied to identity. When people talk about language loss, “they talk about trauma,” Grenoble says.

What’s more, language loss often comes alongside other disruption to the social fabric. On Native American reservations, the arrival of video rental trucks not only introduced more English to the community, but also interfered with the traditional practice of communities spending their leisure time talking to one another.

For linguists, language loss is often the canary in the coalmine. “If the language is being shifted, there's usually a nexus of other social problems,” Grenoble says.

‘Speak Sámi to me’

There is hope for communities and governments that catch language loss in its early stages and take protective measures. In Greenland, the government is removing Danish place names and restoring Inuit names, most with meaning that is transparent to speakers of the language; for example, the name of the airport Grenoble flies into—Kangerlussuaq—translates to “Big Fjord.”

Some of the most energetic campaigns are community initiatives. Evenki have instituted a system of nomadic schools, bringing education to children who stay with their families to herd reindeer, rather than attending boarding schools where only Russian is taught. The initiative keeps children with their Evenki-speaking parents while also providing regular education in Russian. This model is now spreading throughout Siberia.

In Norway, a group of teens and young adults organized a “Speak Sámi to me” campaign that invited their peers to use the indigenous Sámi language. The campaign offers buttons and bracelets with phrases in four different Sámi languages, and participants are encouraged to use Sámi on Facebook.

The Sámi campaign is especially encouraging for Grenoble. “If you want to catch a language when it's shifting, it's better when you have more speakers, and better when you have younger speakers,” she says.

Her studies have given Grenoble a sense of mission.

Among linguists studying endangered languages, “it's very common to have a sense of advocacy. It’s hard to do this kind of work without it,” she explains.

The work has a personal dimension, too. “When I’m in a village in Siberia, it’s not like I’m staying in a hotel—I'm living with people,” Grenoble explains. “The people I’m living with become my friends.”

Ultimately, linguists care because “it’s the speakers themselves who care.”

Originally published on October 13, 2014.