Matthias Brenzinger (University of the Free State, South Africa) and Sheena Shah (University of Hamburg, Germany; University of the Free State, South Africa)
SiPhuthi is spoken by a few thousand ebaPhuthi, most of whom reside in southern Lesotho. Intergenerational language transmission – in which children acquire siPhuthi from their parents and grandparents – is confined to two remote river valleys, Daliwe and Sinxondo. Even in these two valleys, when ebaPhuthi marry Basotho or amaXhosa, siPhuthi is often no longer used in the home environment. In these mixed marriages, children grow up speaking Sesotho or isiXhosa as their main languages.
For over a decade, we have been pursuing our passion and have been working as a team in supporting marginalised communities in documenting and revitalising their threatened languages. Since 2016, we closely collaborate with ebaPhuthi in Lesotho and South Africa. Over the last six years, we have been recording siPhuthi narratives, conversations, interviews, folktales, oral histories and poems for present and future generations. We also support the production of materials in siPhuthi, such as COVID health awareness posters. Together with siPhuthi speakers, we are producing a quadrilingual siPhuthi-Sesotho-isiXhosa-English dictionary, which we hope will serve as a basis for the development of learning and teaching materials for siPhuthi.
We regularly facilitate language documentation workshops for community members, since we strongly believe that the speakers should have agency to decide on how and by whom their languages are being documented. From 17th to 22ndNovember 2021, we trained six young ebaPhuthi from Daliwe and Sinxondo in language documentation methods and techniques. These young fluent siPhuthi speakers might well be considered key guardians of their threatened language and culture.This workshop took place in a Corona-safe environment at the Bethel Business and Community Development Centre (BBCDC), a vocational training centre in one of the most marginalised parts of Lesotho.
During the workshop, the participants had the opportunity to familiarise themselves not only with recording techniques, but also with ethical practices in language documentation, metadata creation, archiving standards, etc. They applied their skills by recording the most important annual event in the Phuthi calendar, which is the commemoration of the death of their king Murena Moorosi. Among the ebaPhuthi this event is known as Sikhubhuto sa Murena Moorosi.
The Covid-19 pandemic not only made it difficult to travel but also posed challenges for our language work. Since the workshop took place during the pandemic, we made sure to follow the precautions recommended at the local, national and international level. We were PCR-tested before entering Lesotho and all participants were tested using rapid lateral flow tests at the beginning of the workshop. Daily temperature measurements were taken and documented, and social distancing was practised. Most hands-on activities were conducted outside. At all times, everyone wore FFP2 masks, as stipulated by the Government of Lesotho. At the public gathering of the commemoration day, the workshop team volunteered to enforce Covid regulations by checking the body temperature of all attendees, by handing out FFP2 masks and by providing hand sanitizer wipes and liquid.
For early 2022, a follow-up workshop is planned at which the participants will be taught more advanced techniques in order to enhance their recording skills and to prepare them to carry out their language documentation activities with minimal support and guidance from us. In the meantime, we continue to support these community members remotely.
This week we posted our last word of the twenty-six that make up Living-Language-Land – Yii a Khwedam word shared with us from Namibia. The last several months have been so busy, that now seems the right moment to reflect on what the experience has been for me personally. I think of everything we have experienced and the amazing conversations we have been privileged to have with people from around the world. It has been a profound lesson in the joy of listening.
Gregory D. S. Anderson and Anna Luisa Daigneault
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a leading non-profit research organization based in the US with researchers located around the globe, stands at the intersection of linguistics and community activism. Our team has the capacity to launch technological solutions that help aspiring language activists and scholars alike. We are pleased to partner with living-language-land to help bring awareness to the issue of language endangerment leading up to COP 26.
Since 2005, researchers from the Living Tongues Institute have visited more than one hundred endangered language communities in fifteen countries. Since 2019, our team has reached over 200 more activists in 20+ countries through virtual events and workshops. Our researchers conduct documentary linguistic fieldwork, publish scientific papers, present at academic conferences, run digital training workshops to empower language activists, and collaborate with speakers to release web tools that benefit documentation and revitalization efforts. Our collaborators and teams have created more than 225 online Living Dictionaries to support threatened and low-resource languages. We have also provided free digital training sessions as well as technical and scientific support to many collaborators around the globe.
With over 3,000 languages in danger of being lost before 2100, we know there is a strong need for comprehensive, free online tech tools that can assist language communities. A moral imperative of the 21st century is the decolonization and democratization of linguistic resources. Online dictionaries should reflect the user communities, and citizen-linguists should have a primary role in developing them. Living Dictionaries provide a simple way to create high-quality multilingual documentation records.
As activists in the field of endangered language documentation globally, we know that colonization has caused thousands of language communities to become disenfranchised. Most countries are not investing in resources needed to support minority languages. Through the Living Dictionaries platform, we aim to obviate institutionalized barriers that prevent equal status and equitable treatment of all forms of linguistic communication. One of our main goals is to expand the online platform to serve all of the 3,000+ threatened languages in the world by 2050.
I’ve shared before about the impact of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work on me, and how her words sowed the seeds for this project. This excerpt from her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ exemplifies what learning language beyond our own, but nonetheless belongs to us, can help us imagine. Lyrical; beautiful – drink it up!
In 2019 I was lucky enough to make a short visit to meet Jessie Little Doe Baird and the Wampanoag Native American community in Mashpee, Massachusetts as part of an artist commission for the National Trust at Blickling Hall, Norfolk.
In the library at Blickling Hall we came across a Bible published in 1663, written in Wampanoag and known as The Eliot Bible, which had somehow found its way back to England. Eliot immigrated to Massachusetts just ten years after the Pilgrim Fathers and wanted to preach to the indigenous community there, hence translating the bible, significantly helped by a few Wampanoag people.
However, within a few short years of the Bible’s publication, the Wampanoag community was all but destroyed through war, enforced slavery and banishment. Speaking their language was made a crime, punishable by death. It became a lost, or at least underground language, where the only records were preserved in letters from the time and the Bible.
The first time I consciously recognized the intimate relationship between a landscape, language and people, was meeting an amazing Noongar speaker, Kathy Yarran, in Western Australia. I was living for a short while in Kellerberrin, a small farming town, hardly a town, just a few basic shops straddling the Great Eastern Highway on the edge of the farm belt and desert and a three-hour drive inland from Perth. Kathy was the oldest living Noongar resident and the last fluent speaker in town when we met, and possibly one of the wisest people I have encountered. She had a way of looking and speaking, which seemed to penetrate to your deepest thoughts and emotions.
We are still working out what we are creating, or facilitating with living-language-land. It’s a platform, more than a project. A place where people can share their deep connections with nature in their own languages and own words. But many things lie unresolved – who gets to contribute, and who doesn’t? How can we possibly make a meaningful gesture with 26 words when there are thousands of minority and endangered languages across the world, and more than 800 in India alone? What is it for someone to try and share a worldview and a way of living in just a single word? Could I do that in English? These are the things that I turn over at night when I can’t sleep.
Neville Gabie and I met about 10 years ago, when we were both at the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol. I was the new manager there, and he was our first Artist-in-Residence, supported by the Leverhulme Trust. Neville brought a quiet and thoughtful presence, a fantastic listening ear, and a history of inspiring, participatory projects from Greenland to Antarctica (and many places in between). I brought my passion for interdisciplinary thinking and working, and a mental Rolodex of the brilliant researchers that spanned the Cabot Institute’s environmental remit. It was a good pairing.
We both moved on from Cabot, and stayed loosely in touch, but didn’t really speak until late in 2020 when the call for the British Council’s Creative Commissions for COP26 came out. Throughout 2020 I had been thinking about trying to find a softer response to the environmental crisis. I have been on many protests, lent my voice to chants of “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!”, voted Green, put posters in my window, and ear-bashed my friends. But in the dislocation of pandemic lockdown I felt myself wanting to respond to a quieter yet insistent voice that yearned for less shouting, and more acknowledgement of our beautiful, fragile relationship with the natural world.