The diversity of endangered languages: Documenting three endangered languages in Trinidad and Tobago

Braithwaite, Ben
Ferreira, Jo-Anne
Braithwaite, Ben
Ferreira, Jo-Anne
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As the scale of the problem of language endangerment has become better understood, much work has been done on developing and sharing methodologies for documenting and describing endangered languages around the world. At the same time, there is a growing awareness of the diversity of languages which are endangered. For example, a recent conference organised by the World Federation of the Deaf focused on “Sign Languages as Endangered Languages” and Frank (2007) discusses “Creoles as Misunderstood and Endangered Languages”. This paper aims to broaden the scope of current discourses on language endangerment by discussing three endangered languages currently used in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T): Trinidadian French Creole or Patois (TP), Trinidadian Bhojpuri (TB) and Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language or TTSL. All of these might be considered non-canonical examples of endangered languages. None of them conforms to the definition of ‘indigenous’ used by Grenoble & Whaley (2006:14): “languages firmly planted in a particular geography before the age of European colonization”. Nonetheless, the danger of the imminent disappearance of each of these heritage languages in T&T is of great concern to the language communities who value them, and language documentation work has begun, involving collaborations between community members and academics. The paper discusses a number of differences and similarities between the situations of these three languages and the communities who use them, and the consequences for approaches to language documentation and revitalization work. The differences in modality mean that documentation of signed languages depends on video in a way that documentation of spoken languages does not. This has ethical consequences, such as the problem of anonymising video recordings. There are also significant demographic differences between TTSL and the other two languages: the TTSL community is both younger and more geographically spread out than the speakers of P and TB, and the factors that are causing TTSL to be endangered, above all, the shrinking of the Deaf community, are also quite different. There are, however, important similarities. For example, each of these languages is frequently described as a ‘broken’ version of some other language: TP is “broken French”, TB is “broken Hindi” and TTSL is sometimes considered to be a kind of broken English or a bad form of ASL. We argue that a better understanding of the diversity of endangered languages can help us to develop flexible and creative approaches to documentation and revitalization which take advantage of the similarities whilst appreciating differences
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