Persistence of language
February 21, 2005 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of language survival for many generations among small groups within a larger mono-linguistic society.

The base case I have in mind is the survival of Dutch in the Hudson Valley after the English took over in 1664. In various rural pockets as well as among well-to-do people of Dutch heritage, Dutch continued to be spoken for close to 300 years. (In the 1800s, Martin Van Buren and his wife spoke Dutch in the White House; Teddy Roosevelt learned some Dutch from his grandparents who spoke it at the dinner table; Sojourner Truth grew up on a New York farm speaking Dutch only until she was 12 years old; there is evidence of Dutch surviving in the NJ Ramapo hills into the 1920s and in the Catskills until after WWII). I'm trying to get at what cultural factors enabled this survival, but I'd also like to know how unusual it is. For example, languages like German, Polish and Italian seem to die out among immigrant families within a generation or two, despite plenty of critical mass in immigrant communities and the survival of many other cultural attributes among them.
posted by beagle to Writing & Language (27 answers total)
How small a group? Are Catalunyan and Basque (for example) too large?
posted by briank at 2:02 PM on February 21, 2005

Indigenous Australian languages are still spoken by many Aboriginal people in Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.

Does Luxembourgish count? What about Flemish? Welsh? Low German?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:15 PM on February 21, 2005

posted by AlexReynolds at 2:19 PM on February 21, 2005

Response by poster: Basques, Catalunyans -- Are they a majority or minority in their regions? What I'm looking for is examples of small linquistic minorities, which the NY Dutch became rather quickly after 1664. Gypsies who speak Rom, as an extreme minority within many countries, would be an example -- the situation being that they interact daily with speakers of the majority language but still persist in maintaining their separate culture and language. Flemish etc. were majority languages in their areas until at least the 20th C. I'm looking for centuries of survival under adverse circumstances.
posted by beagle at 2:24 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: It really depends on the motivation of the people preserving the language. For example, the Hudson Valley dutch settlers were established before the linguistic domination of english, making language retention more of a pride point than a stigma. Later immigrants (like your aforementioned Germans, Poles and Italians) entered a situation where using their ancestral tongue indicated that they were unassimilated into a society that they had elected to join. The New York dutch felt pride in their language because it had the opposite connotation-- "we got here a long time ago."

Anther lingusitic example of this-- Pennsylvania "Dutch" german. My favorite example is welsh-- probably every single speaker of welsh also reads and writes english. And yet 250,000 people are fluent in Welsh. And it's the same situation-- they lived in one place, another culture and its language became the dominant force, and the result was a renewed reverence and prestige attached to knowing a language that no one really needed.

So while it's not that uncommon, it is indeed a really cool part of historical linguistics.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:24 PM on February 21, 2005

I was going to suggest Catalan also, perhaps not so much for Catalunya itself, but for the town of Alguer, in Sardinia, where the residents still speak Catalan while the rest of the island speak Italian.
posted by benzo8 at 2:26 PM on February 21, 2005

Mennonites in Mexico speak Dutch, don't they?

Also, there are still Yiddish-speaking populations in Brooklyn, and when they speak English, they have an Eastern European-like accent, despite being fifth- or sixth-generation Americans.
posted by mds35 at 2:35 PM on February 21, 2005

Cajun French? [warning: page uses comic sans]
posted by turbodog at 2:44 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: A very similar question was discussed on my blog a couple of months ago; there are a lot of interesting cases in the comment thread.
posted by languagehat at 2:58 PM on February 21, 2005

Yiddish in America?
posted by greatgefilte at 3:01 PM on February 21, 2005

Yiddish in America?

That was my first thought.

A little off-beat, but consider: Latin, preserved as the common tongue by scholars, in the Church and in Science, long after it had been abandoned by native speakers.
posted by SPrintF at 3:17 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: Generally, children learn to understand a language from hearing their parents speak it. As they get older, they model their speech after that of their peers. Generally a language is preserved from generation to generation if adolescents identify with peers from their linguistic group.

Most Francophones in Manitoba and Ontario are completely bilingual, though they frequently retain a French accent. Some communities have stayed in tact for generations, while others have anglicized. (This has to do with birthrate and economic prosperity, but I don't want to digress). The same is true of Russians in Alaska, where Russian is very much alive, due in part to Orthodox communities.

Mennonites are another good example of how religion and ethnic identity can preserve a language. In Russia, the Mennonites kept German as a primary language for two hundred and fifty years.

I'm fairly certain that many North American Mennonites still read the Bible in German, and make sure that their children learn the language of their faith. I am not sure what language the Mennonites in my home state speak at home, but they have heavy traces of German in their English. That was not true of the Mennonites I knew in Iowa.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:22 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: A few other languages the survive against improbably odds: Ruthanian in Ukraine and Slovakia, Hungarian in Slovakia and Croatia; Swedish in Finland; Sorbian (a west Slavic language) in Eastern Germany, and the many dialects of Roma spoken (but not frequently heard) accross Europe.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:27 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: Oh, funny I should happen upon this question when I've just finished reading this book, which you might find interesting. It deals specifically with endangered languages and how their speakers attempt to preserve them. Sort of like Douglas Adams's Last Chance to See but with languages instead of animals, and with fewer jokes. Sort of.
posted by calico at 3:40 PM on February 21, 2005

There are quite a few native american languages that have lasted a long time despite contact (and oppression, etc) from surrounding monolingual english/spanish/portuguese speaking populations - most of the ones I know are currently on the verge of extinction, but the fact that they've lasted as long as they have is still impressive. One case is Mohawk, which is on its last legs, but has withstood bilingualism for several hundred years until now. Ethnologue (which is what I linked to for Mohawk) is a good place to research this question.
posted by advil at 3:51 PM on February 21, 2005

Not a different language, but apparantly the inhabitants of Little Tangier Island in Virginia still speak English with an Elizabethan accent.
posted by thewittyname at 3:52 PM on February 21, 2005

Ladino is Judeo-Spanish--very close to medieval Spanish, but phonetically written in the Hebrew alphabet--and is basically what the Jewish population in Spain was speaking right up until the expulsion and Inquisition. Fleeing Spain and heading East, the Sephardic refugees brought the language to the lands where they settled, which is why up until 1944 there was a Spanish dialect being spoken in various areas of Greece and Turkey, particularly Rhodes, Kos, Salonika, and coastal Turkish cities like Smyrna (Izmir) and Bodrum.

In Rhodes, for example, most adults also learned Greek and/or Turkish to communicate with their neighbors--and potential customers, since the three groups shared the island with no clear majority. After WWI, Italy claimed the island, and Italian got added to the mix. Maybe all the battles over who owned the island and the lack of a monolithic larger community helped convince each of the groups to stick with their own languages. If anything, reliance on Ladino was strengthened there--Rhodes was one of the first communities to actually dump most of the Hebrew from their synagogue prayers in favor of Ladino translations, and even original Ladino poems. This is particularly unusual since they tended to import their rabbincal leaders direct from Jerusalem.

Oh, and how about the Gullahs in the Carolinas?
posted by Asparagirl at 4:06 PM on February 21, 2005

Yiddish in America?

Presently, there are 7,500 organge shmattes hanging in Central Park.
posted by ParisParamus at 4:22 PM on February 21, 2005

There is also Romanische in Switzerland. There are few speakers, and most work in French, German or Italian, but the language seems to survive.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:28 PM on February 21, 2005

Check the Assyrians (not to be confused with the Syrians). I met two yesterday who speak Aramaic at home.
posted by scarabic at 5:34 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: Cornish is a somewhat similar example to Welsh, but with a far, far smaller population who speak it. It hasn't been a first language for anybody for a century or so (unlike some Welsh speakers), with very small population who had any knowledge of it at all for many decades. It has limited institutional backing to maintain it as a language (less so than Welsh), with a revival coming about due mainly to individual efforts at a local level. It's an entirely artificial attempt to revive an effectively dead language, with (it must be said) a moderate amount of success.

I mean, Lisa Simpson speaks it...
posted by flashboy at 6:51 PM on February 21, 2005

Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, comes to mind.
posted by samh23 at 9:37 PM on February 21, 2005

First thing that popped into my mind are the welsh-speakers in Patagonia (Argentina) that preserve their culture against all odds.
posted by ruelle at 11:59 PM on February 21, 2005

Best answer: There is a very good article that details the stages of language death on the Ioway tribal library site, but it applies to a lot of languages going into their final stages: as speakers decline, family dialects become unintelligible and unacceptable to other families, and the various groups of speakers no longer use the language to communicate with each other.

My parents don't use Yiddish with any of the other five yiddish speaking families on their suburban New Jersey street. The Polish dialect used by the Orthodox family is considered too "hasidic" , and the next door neighbor uses literary Lithuanian dialect, and everybody makes fun of my family's Romanian Yiddish, so everybody chooses to use English.

New York Dutch had the advantage of being a "prestige language" for the so-called "Knickerbocker" elite. It was spoken by two old ladies in NYC in the 1970s who had attended the old manhattan Dutch language school which closed in the 1920s. Most endangered languages are not "prestige languages." In Romania, where Saxon and Schwabian German were prestige languages, most members of those minorities have either emigrated or chosen to speak Hungarian as a minority language alongside the majority Romanian language, since in Transylvania Hungarian is a "prestige language" even though it is a minority language.

Romani is another case entirely. While it seems endangered in terms of numbers, most Gypsy children in east Europe still grow up speaking it. In Hungary we are seeing the death of the Carpathian ("musician gypsy") dialect as children in these families learn the more widespread Lovari dialect, which has only recently become the "prestige dialect."

Sorry if I get long winded - this is what my years of anthropological linguistics have done to me....
posted by zaelic at 8:13 AM on February 22, 2005

Actually, all the relatives of Cornish are fine examples. You could have a good time in your research listening to the Breton hip-hop show!

By the way, the parameters of your question suggest that every single sign language in living memory, save for the now-extinct one on Martha's Vineyard, would qualify. For a special case, look at ASL within LSQ within French in Quebec.
posted by joeclark at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2005

Response by poster: Zaelic, got a source on those two old ladies?
posted by beagle at 11:51 AM on February 22, 2005

Maori, the indigenous Polynesian language of New Zealand, is alive and kicking (albeit somewhat feebly). Young children are now attending Maori-only preschools (kohanga reo, or "language nests"), and many primary schools now offer bilingual or full-immersion teaching. There's a Maori TV channel (complete with teach-yourself Maori lessons in the form of a soap opera).

According to the Maori Language Commission:
it is estimated that some 50,000 New Zealanders, almost all of Maori descent, are fluent speakers of Maori, while perhaps a further 100,000 understand the language. While such a figure exceeds the numbers of native speakers of many other indigenous languages in the South Pacific and elsewhere, the picture is far less reassuring when one considers the age profile of Maori speakers: about 40 percent are aged 55 and above, whilst approximately the same percentage are between 35 and 54 years of age. It is equally alarming that there are probably 10,000 fewer fluent speakers of Maori today than just 10 years ago.

Hence the drive to get to the kids now.

Why has it persisted at all? Mostly I think because it is regarded as an actual treasure ("taonga") by many Maori, and it has great symbolic value as a token of difference from the European/Pakeha majority culture; this is intertwined with the unceasing quest to regain land and sovereignty since colonisation. I think there's an underlying belief that to give up traditional culture is to give up all claims to being special, to sovereignty and to the land; and the language is the core of the culture.

Early in the 20th century, many Maori wanted their children educated in English. That view seems to have pretty much disappeared.

There's also a view tied into the self-esteem notions of the late 20th century. Maori are disproportionately represented in NZ's crime and poverty statistics (land loss was one problem, but urbanisation and the breakdown of tribal affilation in the cities is another biggie). Some policy makers (and certainly a lot of Maori) think that education alienated urban youth into traditional culture and language will give them the boost they need.

Also, Maori political organisation takes place at traditional events; you need rituals for those events; and the rituals can only be in Maori. Therefore even if english ultimately wins, I think you'll see Maori as a sort of liturgical language a la Hebrew for diaspora Jews.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2005

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