The Friday Fillip

…isn’t as light-hearted today as it usually is. But it’s interesting, important and not unrelated to law, because it’s about languages.

(One of the essays in my book-yet-to-be, 13 Ways of Looking at the Law, says that law is a language game — a skilled activity engaged in by more than one person according to a set of protocols etc. etc. — best played by those who have been immersed in the language and who are sensitive to as many contexts for its use as possible. We touch on this from time to time on Slaw when we raise the matter of translation.)

It’s actually about dying languages, here in Canada. UNESCO has just published its latest Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, and it locates 88 in our country. If you select “Canada” from the drop-down list of countries, you get the following map (click to enlarge):

Clicking on a pin brings up a small screen with information about the language in question. As well, there’s a list of all 88 languages beside the map, each keyed to a location on the map.

This is a large and sensitive topic in Canada, and a fillip can’t begin to do it justice: what if anything can society at large do to assist? does it matter if a language dies? what, if anything, will persuade young aboriginal people to learn their traditional language? does the internet hinder or help the attempts at preservation? And so on, and so on.

I noticed that the data for Canada are now out of date, depending as they do on the 2001 census (the UN moves slowly). Data for the 2006 census are available (Population reporting an Aboriginal identity, by mother tongue) though most languages are grouped into families and so don’t correspond directly to the UN names. Some signs are hopeful: the number of Dene speakers has grown from the 8,195 reported in 2001 to 9,700 in 2006; Dogrib reported 1,675 speakers in 2001 and 1,995 in 2006; Blackfoot, 2001: 2,000, 2006: 3,080; etc. Whether these numbers represent real increases in the numbers of speakers or simply different countings is hard to say.

You might want to listen to people speaking in these endangered languages. If so, First Voices is perhaps the best site to visit. This site is far more sophisticated than can be explained here, but there’s a quick start guide if you want to dig into it. For now, let me just tell you that you can choose a language from the drop-down list and explore some of the recordings you’ll see there. I think I’ll let a Nuxalk speaker say good-bye, now.

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