Lately I’ve been browsing through a library copy of the Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, which is full of information about specific endangered languages followed by a profile of a project that is working to revive that language. It is really beautiful, and thoughtful, and hopeful.
The term “Green Book” was chosen to contrast with UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages (which has since been replaced by their Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger). The color metaphor is fairly obvious: the color red signifies danger, and stop. Language activists fight to counteract this by looking for hope and forward progress, which is exactly what the Green Book documents.
Sometimes I come across things on the internet that seem to fit pretty well with that mission, so I’d like to use this little blog space here to document some of the interesting, creative, exciting, and optimistic ways that endangered language communities are fighting back against the forces of obsolescence. My own little Green Book.
A few weeks ago I came across this video on youtube:
In it a student of the Ojibwe language program at the University of Minnesota raps in both English and Ojibwe about the need to revitalize his language and the difficulties that language-learning entails, even for “native” speakers. The program at U of M is very exciting and is rightfully celebrated. But of course classroom learning can only go so far, and learners have to take it a step further to become true speakers. In case you don’t catch the lyrics, here is an excerpt from the second verse:
“My first tongue’s in need of a facelift
Deciphering conjugation’s like trying to find my way through a maze in the matrix
So I use it in a way that relates to my life and vocab
Bring some entertainment to it
Spit it on the track and I take it out the class”
This reminded me of another video, this one filmed by K. David Harrison for his Enduring Voices Project:
Aka, which has a few thousand speakers in India, is categorized by UNESCO as “Definitely endangered” while Ojibwe in Minnesota and Wisconsin is “Severely endangered”. But here you can see so much vitality in these supposedly moribund languages! Part of the reason I love these videos is that it shows young people using the language, which is one of the traits of a vibrant living language; when the youth cease to know the language, the situation is dire. But not only are they using these languages competently, they’re also using them playfully. Language play is a great sign of language health.
Of course one rap can’t completely save an entire language. But these videos demonstrate that this generation cares about their ancestral tongues, is concerned with preserving them, and takes genuine pleasure from using them.