Roger Blench: Endangered languages documentation




I have been working on the recording and documentation of endangered languages and cultures since the 1980s, at first principally in Nigeria, later extending my remit to other African countries, then later to Asia and the Pacific. Almost all my early material is simply in the form of analysed wordlists with some rather perfunctory information concerning location and speakers. Later, it gets more sophisticated, with still images and video recordings. I have recently had my older field tapes digitised and my field notes scanned, courtesy the World Oral Literature Project. Doing the metadata for this is time-consuming, but nonetheless it will get done. Recent large files of field data collection are in the gigabytes, so these are seeking an institutional home.


This page provides links to regional pages, which in turn provide links to various parts of my website where various types of documentation lurk. Field data tends to be in pdf format. I am in principle willing to provide original Unicode files to serious enquirers.












My current research projects focus on two areas, Central Nigeria and Northeast India. Both of these are zones of staggering linguistic diversity, where currently very little work is in progress, in comparison to the number of languages to be documented. Institutional funding for this type of survey work is usually not forthcoming, hence the striking lacunae in our knowledge in many regions.


Endangerment comes in many forms and affects many areas of communication. Apart from the broad class of language the following areas of endangerment also deserve attention.




Asian scripts

Especially in SE Asia, communities have created scripts of their own, often written on ephemeral materials and difficult to read except by priests. I have created a page to highlight some of these scripts. I have a small collection of manuscript material which I am gradually scanning.


Some languages have very unusual and complex phonologies, including exotic sounds. These are often being simplified as speakers come into contact with dominant lingua francas. Even where a language is not threatened, its more remarkable features may be in danger of disappearing.


Languages may be thriving but their specialised lexicon, for examples for plants and animals may be lost, due to environmental change. Education is the single most important cause of lexical erosion. For this reason many of my pages include specialised lists of plant and animal names.

Sign languages

Sign languages usually arise from a high incidence of congenital deafness, and from an ethical perspective, we should be glad if they are disappearing. However, they are remarkable systems and well worth documenting. I have recorded the existence of two previously unknown sign languages, in Mali and among the Bura in Nigeria

Oral literature/music

Languages can survive where oral literature and music, the bearers of the richest form of the language disappear. World religions are important engines of this type of cultural loss, together with uncaring governments and ill-thought out educational systems

Material culture

Material culture is deeply unfashionable among anthropologists and its documentation no longer a priority. However, the construction and use of objects has its own elaborate lexical fields and these are in danger of being forgotten as Euro-American consumer goods triumph. The visual material accompanying the web pages provides some initial documentation for individual languages


Most languages spoken by foragers are endangered by their nature and I have also set up a separate page to point to any work I have done in this area.


The growth of the endangered languages industry and the almost inversely proportional rate at which languages are being lost does suggest itself for a short satire involving small cars and orange juice.


Real and bogus endangered languages


In recent years, the synthetic panic surrounding endangered languages has led to the development of an intriguing split. Out in the real world, there are a large number of genuinely endangered languages, many of which are moribund. Spoken only by a small number of old people, often with few teeth and wayward enunciation, recovering their language is often difficult. These languages are not going to be revived, so the benefit of recording them can be seen as antiquarian; their value is to teach us something about the history and culture of the planet. At the next level up are very small languages; some of these are lively, simply by being spoken in very remote communities, while others are disappearing fast as the speakers assimilate to a prestige language. Although it is conceivable that this process could be reversed, it rarely is, because the benefits for outsiders of putting a great deal of energy into such a transformation are slight.


These endangered languages can be contrasted with the ‘endangered’ languages whose study is supported by institutions, foundations and the like, worried over in seminars by furrowed-brow academics, analysed in expensive books from venerable university presses and talked about during the course of spectacularly ill-informed radio programmes. Most of these languages may only be endangered in an extremely elastic sense of the word, but they do have qualities that endear them to institutions; convenient location and relatively large number of speakers, with some who speak an international language. It is easy to see why this is so. Since universities and other foundations became institutions whose main goal is their own propagation, they are increasingly run by hungry bureaucrats whose goal is the increase in their numbers and the consolidation of their salaries. As a consequence, some of the academics appointed to be responsible for endangered language programmes look like idiosyncratic choices to outsiders; individuals with no significant linguistics publications and no discernible interest in endangered languages. But of course they are ideal for administrators; they accept the need for slick websites, glossy brochures and their lack of experience with the reality of endangered languages means almost anything goes, in terms of expensive and useless activities.


The object is thus to acquire research that is relatively cheap but which attracts high levels of overheads. The rise in concern for endangered languages has thus come as something of a boon in a period of financial regression; it plays on a certain sentimentalism with the general public while having no threatening content. Outsiders can be manipulated into imagining that indeed the threatened languages out there are being documented and returned from the edge. One consequence of this has been a surge of interest by those in the art world; requests come in for recordings or lines of poetry in endangered languages, to be used in installations or even to be projected on the sides of buildings. The proposed function of this is ‘draw attention’ to the loss of languages. But this is rather like watching a cookery programme extolling the virtues of fresh food while eating a t.v. dinner. No amount of agonising by the middle classes has any real impact on language loss, only on the amount and quality of the hand-wringing.


One of the more surreal developments in the world of language documentation is the rising power of ‘Ethics’ committees. These are no more about ethics than Animal Farm is about practical porcine husbandry; they exist to prevent universities from being embroiled in legal cases. One of the particularly bizarre demands that has surfaced recently is that students who go to the field must anonymise their data (thereby cutting out community involvement at a step) and, even more strangely, must destroy their data after completion of their project. These strictures apply even to speakers of the actual language to be documented, who then of course must lie on their applications if they wish to be funded. No wonder professorships in language documentation go preferentially to those who tell good jokes about over-studied languages.


Linguists therefore wish to perform a sort of surgery on the patient, extracting the maximum of ephemeral career points with the minimum of pain to themselves. This type of linguistics is of very limited value to the study of language, since most of it involves a type of intricate self-absorption, philosophy masquerading as empirical science. But for linguists this is not generally a matter of concern; like everyone else, they want a career path and they need to keep feeding the insatiable demand for institutional overheads. This has become rather clear as ‘Endangered Languages’ now seems to be on a downwards arc, and those who have used it to embed themselves in academia are now leaving the sinking ship to reproduce mainstream linguistics for the remainder of their careers.


 So the main reason for the choices concerning endangered languages appears to be convenience; for something smart to say in the seminar room, and future employability in the much larger world of academia. Moreover, as in other sectors, such as NGOs or international development, the administrators quickly discover that colour leaflets and websites trumpeting successes are so much cheaper and more satisfying than real achievement. Hence the expenditure of such large sums for such limited results; the old men and women go to their graves largely unrecorded and the archives will fill with largely unread theses framed by forgotten theories.



Top of the Document