Language endangerment in the Horn

by Graziano Savà

Several languages spoken in the Horn of Africa are now endangered as more dominant and economically important languages begin to gain ground in the speech habits of smaller communities. The adoption of another language passes from a stage of strong bilingualism in which the target language is used in economically and socially more important contexts and the local language in limited to internal and familial domains. In this situation, the local language acquires a negative image because younger generations tend to see it as “ugly”, “useless” and “difficult”. The decision to give up speaking ancestral languages is thus made by rising generations who may or may not decide to teach them to their children. Once the transmission to the following generation is interrupted, the language is no longer a mother tongue and is destined to become extinct.

The phenomenon of extinct languages is by no means limited to the Horn: it is now expected that in the coming years, half of the world’s languages will disappear. However, while strong languages used in trade, technology, administration, and media such as English in North America, Spanish in South America, and Russia in Siberia gain ground at the expenses of smaller tongues, the situation in the Horn typically involves local dominant languages. The spread of Somali in Somalia and Djibouti makes these countries linguistically relatively homogeneous.While the interesting thing here might be to see which Somali variety, or dialect, has become economically and socially more prestigious, one should not forget the small Bantu languages of Southern Somalia and minority Cushitic languages such as Afar and Saho, on the Ethio-Djiboutiborder. Sudan and South Sudan are more varied. Here it is mainly Arabic that puts at risk a number of minority languages, particularly those whose speakers have suffered forced migrations due to warfare. The social and economic role of Tigrinya in Eritrea is absolutely dominant. The Eritrean constitution states this, implicitly creating a danger for the dozen of minority languages spoken in the area. At the same time, Ethiopia is probably the country of the Horn with the greatest variety of languages and cultures in danger. Out of the about eighty Ethiopian languages, including the majority languages Amharic and Oromo, half are declared endangered by Unesco.

The Ethiopian situation is particularly interesting. The survival of the minority languages of Ethiopia is threatened by the exponential economic growth of the country, one of the fastest-growing in East Africa. New industrial products and technology create new “needs”, such as mobile phones, that affect the most remotes areas.

Rural people, typically the holders of traditional languages and cultural expressions, are more and more attracted to economic transactions around these new goods and want to be part of the market. Transactions are normally conducted in Amharic or Oromo, but there are areas in which smaller languages, still with thousands of speakers, are economically very useful and influential. The willingness to open up to the market also effects extremely small communities of hunter-gatherers, such as the Ongota. This tiny group of one hundred people living on the Weyto River in Southwest Ethiopia used to have its own language, which is presently known by just twelve elders. The endangered status of Ongota is the result of the adoption of a neighbouring endangered language called Ts’amakko (Cushitic). The choice of speaking this language and teaching it to their children is an indirect effect of economic globalisation: the Ts’amakko are those who organise the local market in which the Ongotas started taking part as they left the isolation of their bush. The Ts’amakko language, spoken by about ten thousand people, became the language of prestige and the Ongota language lost its importance.

Language endangerment both in Ethiopia and elsewhere can really be seen as a paradox. On the one hand, people stop speaking their ancestors’ languages because they find adopting other languages more useful. On the other hand, there is a growing concern of the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity, primarily caused by economic globalisation. Another aspect of the paradox is that while technologic development and its global diffusion contributes to language loss, the tide of language endangerment can be stemmed only with the use of computer and digital technology. Founding agencies devoted to support projects on endangered languages, such as the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, based at SOAS in London, and the DoBeS project founded by the Volkswagenstiftung and based at the Max Planck institute in Nijmegen, are creating extremely rich archives of audio and visual material on a great number of endangered languages. This material can only be collected and stored with the use of digital devices and computer technology, that will ultimately serve for the retrieval of this material for future analysis and revitalisation purposes by the speakers themselves. Those who know the endangered languages are normally involved in data collection and translation, and acquire the basic knowledge to create a spoken corpus on their language and make use of the material. Projects on endangered languages of the Horn have been realised and are on their way. All of them profit from the expertise of local Universities, such as Addis Ababa University, that has started MA and PhD’s programmes on the documentation and description of endangered languages and cultural expressions.

Graziano Savà is a linguist specialising on minority and endangered languages of Ethiopia. He is currently a Postdoctoral fellow at DOBES-Volkswagenstiftung, working on the documentation of the endangered languages Bayso and Haro, based at the Language, Langues et Cultures d’Afrique Noire (LLCAN) in Paris.


Filed under Ethiopia, Language, South West Ethiopia

2 responses to “Language endangerment in the Horn

  1. Pingback: Language endangerment in the Horn | Metaglossia: The Translation World |

  2. Vazir Mukhtar

    What are we to do now that many languages are threatened with extinction? One thing we won’t do is set up reservations for those speaking endangered languages, places where at least small numbers of people may be encouraged to speak their native languages and rewarded for doing so, whereas the rest of us speak variants of just a few languages and view those on the reservations as we might animals on exhibit in a zoo.

    Although it may be possible to “save” at least some of the languages nearing extinction, I don’t think that will happen as often as or in the manner some would like. Some of the endangered languages may survive among bilinguals: people who speak the endangered language and a more widely spoken language. Given the proper social environment there can be weighty reasons for people to retain use of the endangered language, though they are perfectly capable to speak another one. Other endangered languages may survive because their speakers are more or less isolated from competing languages.

    As to the languages that will become extinct sooner rather than later — they have relatively many speakers, they are not in immediate danger of being overwhelmed by a competing language, etc. — professional and volunteer, amateur linguists may succeed in recording large samples of many for later study.

    Ultimately some languages will be lost having left little more traces than did some of those spoken in the distant past. At least there are stone inscriptions that have made it into the XXI century; a few words of one language have been recorded in an extant text chiefly written in a second language. What will become of the digital recordings of languages spoken now but which will not be later on? Will our descendants have the equipment to play CDs? Will the intervening generations re-record the recordings of extinct languages, transferring the sounds and images to succeeding generations of reproducing devices?

    I suggest we not wring our hands but get busy making the best of the opportunities that present themselves. Careful, thorough work on fewer languages will doubtless be more appreciated by our descendants than hasty, sloppy work done on more languages.

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