In 1994, University of Hawai‘i professor Donald M. Topping presented a paper at the Seventh International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics at a plenary session on endangered languages. It was the last session of the conference, held on a Saturday morning after some of the conference participants had already departed.
That presentation appeared posthumously in 2003 under the title Saviors of language: Who will be the real Messiah? in Oceanic Linguistics 42:522-527. Here’s a bit of what he had to say.
Linguists concerned about the fate of endangered languages appear also to be endangered, at least in terms of numbers. At the Sixth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics [in Honolulu in 1990], fourteen papers were given at prime time, about mid-way through the meetings. Here at the Seventh [in Leiden in 1994], we three—the last of our species?—have been relegated to the tail end. This is perhaps befitting, for issues of language survival may not be any of our business. Nevertheless, let me recount the experiences of one aging linguist who, earlier in his career, was convinced that he could make a difference….
In the early 1970s a group of us at the University of Hawai‘i felt, perhaps arrogantly, that linguists had not only a role, but a responsibility to help preserve the languages of Micronesia. Emboldened with this messianic complex, and a substantial source of funding, we launched a major project to ensure their survival….
How well has it worked? Let’s review some of the results. With the published reference grammars and dictionaries the results have been mixed. Aside from the Chamorro and Palauan reference grammars, which are being used as text materials in Palau and Guam, the others have been largely ignored. Of the twelve published dictionaries, four have been reprinted (Chamorro, Palauan, Marshallese, and Ponapean). Again, with the possible exception of Palauan and Chamorro, where the dictionaries are used in the education programs, most of the sales have obviously been to expatriates and tourists, and not to the speakers of the languages.
What became of the Micronesian linguists, some of whom took M.A. degrees in linguistics? Sadly, the majority of them have gone into other fields, especially politics, and have all but abandoned language concerns. Of the few who remained in Education, only two (one Palauan and one Chamorro) have maintained an active role in developing vernacular language education.
Of the 1,300 or so Micronesian language texts developed during phase 2 of the materials development project, few are to be found outside of the University of Hawai‘i library. Even though thousands of volumes were shipped to Micronesia as they were produced, they have all but disappeared.
The vernacular education programs in Micronesian schools, according to a 1989 report published by the University of Guam, are either nonexistent or very weak. The gradual loss of text materials, career changes by the Micronesian linguists, and parental pressures to teach their children English have all contributed to this decline.
Surprisingly, a major obstacle to the success of the Micronesian linguistics project is one that was unanticipated, and may be fairly assigned to the linguists themselves. That is the problems presented by the “new” orthographies. Mr. Leo Pugram, Coordinator for Curriculum and Instruction in Yap, made the following statement, “When the new orthography was established, it was a time for problems, confusion, and hatred for the new orthography. This still exists today on Yap.”
Obviously, the linguists left their mark: the “new orthography.” The complaint articulated so bluntly by Mr. Pugram was echoed by nearly every other Micronesian educator who attended the Guam conference. Although the University of Hawai‘i linguists involved made every effort to involve the community of speakers in the choice of orthography for the dictionaries and reference grammars, they are the ones who were blamed for the controversies that surfaced after the books were published.
On the other hand, the linguists probably had an equally positive influence by raising the awareness of the language issue in the various Micronesian communities where indifference had prevailed for so long. People began to talk about their languages and their importance to cultural integrity, albeit in a controversial frame. The publications themselves—bilingual dictionaries and reference grammars in nicely bound volumes—served to elevate the status of the Micronesian languages in the eyes of their speakers.
Still, one must ask the question: did linguists or linguistics really make a difference for the future of the languages? Did our work have any impact in preventing, or slowing down the linguistic adulteration and erosion that is seen today in many parts of Micronesia?
Perhaps the best way to address that question is to look at three communities in the Pacific where language erosion had progressed almost to the point of no return, and where we are now witnessing a linguistic and cultural renaissance: Guam, New Zealand, and Hawai‘i. Was it the linguists with their bag of tools that triggered the positive action? Or were there other more critical factors?…
What are the forces driving this renaissance? In my view, it is the real threat of cultural extinction more than anything else that gives it life. In all three of the communities, the indigenous people, many of whom are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, are vastly outnumbered by “outsiders.” There is growing resentment of the majority culture. And there is strong leadership emerging among the indigenous people who are demanding legal redress. These are probably the strongest forces behind the observed language renaissance.
Where then, are the linguists? Have they played a role? Do they now? Each of the three languages in question was described and lexified by nonnative linguists during the 1950s and early sixties. At the time of their work these linguists issued the call of alarm about the precarious status of the languages. Their calls, however, appeared to fall on deaf ears, for there was little response. It took the coming of another generation of young people who were not afforded the opportunity to learn their heritage language at home before the threat of total language loss became real.
Ironically, when the cultural/ethnic renaissance began to emerge with force, the “pioneering” linguists were often vilified for profiting from their published works, misinterpreting the language, or concocting an unacceptable spelling system. Nevertheless, their works are still used extensively for the development of language programs and materials that are having such remarkable success today.