What can we do about reviving languages and why it matters

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann is the is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide and is the world’s expert in language revival. Recently he has published a book titled Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond 

To celebrate the release of this new book, we spoke to Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann about what inspired his love for revivalistics, how the events of 2020 will impact language revival and what needs to be done to stop languages from becoming extinct.

Here’s what he had to say:


Congratulations on your new book. In a nutshell, what is it about? 

The book introduces for the first time a linguistic game-changer: revivalistics. Revivalistics is a global, trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation (no native speakers, for example Hebrew, and the Barngarla Aboriginal language of South Australia), revitalization (severely endangered, for example Shanghainese, and Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia) and reinvigoration (endangered, for example Welsh, and Te Reo Māori in Aotearoa, i.e. New Zealand). 

In the book I analyse revivalistics from a plethora of angles such as law, mental health and nationhood. I make a strong case for a clear distinction between revivalistics and documentary linguistics. Documentary linguistics is an already-established field recording endangered languages before they become what I call ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tongues.

Revivalistics, on the other hand, actively assists migrant, minority and Aboriginal communities in reviving their Sleeping Beauties. Whilst documentary linguistics puts the language at the centre, revivalistics puts the language custodians at the centre.


What motivated you to become the world’s expert in language revival? 

My first motivation was my urge – as a language lover – to understand how exactly my own mother tongue, Revived Hebrew, which I term “Israeli”, came about.

My second motivation was my wish – as a migrant to Australia – to give back to my host society. I decided to act in three fronts: macro, micro and, more recently, “MOOCro”:

In the macro: since 2004: I have been working on the establishment of revivalistics, and this book is the very fruit of that. 

In the micro: since 2011: I have been reclaiming the Barngarla Aboriginal language of Eyre Peninsula with its traditional custodians the Barngarla people. This is not a laboratorial enterprise. In 2011 I asked the Barngarla communities if they were interested, and they told me that they had been waiting for me for 50 years.


And what about the MOOCro?

In 2015 the University of Adelaide created a free MOOC, Massive Open Online Course, entitled Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages. So far I have had 13,400 learners from 190 countries, including Syria and Afghanistan.


How is the book structured?

The book is divided into two main parts, reflecting my own journey into language revival: from analysing critically the Israeli language – to reclaiming ‘Dreaming Beauties” in Australia and ‘Sleeping Beauties’ globally.

In the first part of the book I analyse the Hebrew revival, which took place in 1880s-1930s. My theory contradicts the conventional accounts that the language of the Hebrew Bible is now miraculously re-spoken by modern Israelis. I demonstrate how grammatical cross-fertilization with the revivalists’ mother tongues, such as Yiddish, is inevitable in the case of successful “Revival Languages”.

In linguistic terms, Revival Languages contradict the tree model in historical linguistics. The tree model implies that a language only has one parent – for example, English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, Hebrew is Semitic. But I argue that successful Revival Languages do not follow the family tree model but rather the Congruence Principle, which is statistical: the more contributing languages a linguistic feature occurs in, the more likely it is to persist in the emerging Revival Language.

Revival Languages share many common characteristics. They should therefore be classified under the Revival Language “family” rather than under a specific language family such as “Semitic”.


What about the second part of the book?

The second part of the book applies lessons from Israeli to revival movements in Australia and globally. It describes the “why” and “how” of revivalistics. 

When it comes to why: I propose ethical, aesthetic and utilitarian reasons for language revival, suggesting for example that language, albeit intangible, is actually more important than land!

When it comes to how: I offer practical tools for reviving languages, for example the quadrilateral Language Revival Diamond (LARD), featuring four core revivalistic quadrants: language custodians, linguistics, education and the public sphere. 


Can you elaborate on the public sphere?

Absolutely. I propose “Native Tongue Title”. I modelled the term upon the established “Native Title”, which has to do with land. Native Tongue Title, however, concerns language: it is the financial compensation for “linguicide”, that is language killing. I also argue that we should declare Indigenous tongues the official languages of their region, and that we ought to erect multilingual signs, thus changing the lanGscape – with a “g” rather than a “d” – that is the linguistic landscape.


With the events of 2020 in mind – particularly Covid-19 and Black Lives Matters – is language revival more important than ever? If yes, why do you think so?

Indeed. When it comes to BLM, the book demonstrates two telling examples of righting the wrong of the past, both involving Aboriginal Australians:

Firstly, a book – a Barngarla Dictionary – written in 1844 in order to assist a German Lutheran missionary, Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, to introduce Christianity to Aboriginal people – at the expense of Aboriginal spirituality – is used 170 years later by your humble servant, a secular Israeli Jew, son of a Holocaust survivor, in a rollercoaster ride with the Barngarla Aboriginal people in which they attempt to reconnect with their own Aboriginal heritage, which was subject to linguicide by Anglo-Celtic colonists.

Secondly, technology, used for colonization, for example ships and weapons, and for Stolen Generations – for example “governmental black cars kidnapping mixed-race Aboriginal children from their mothers in order to forcibly assimilate them” – is employed – for example, in the form of our Barngarla Aboriginal Language Dictionary App – to assist Aboriginal people to empower their cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality, wellbeing, and “lost soul”, so to speak. 


And what about COVID-19?

Travel restrictions and isolation make revivalistic activities more complicated, of course. However, the pandemic and its dem-panic are obviously compromising peoples’ wellbeing. And, as it happens, wellbeing is at very core of revivalistics: The most important utilitarian benefit of language revival is the empowerment of mental health. 

The book ends with a plea to listen to the voice of Jenna Richards, an Aboriginal woman who takes an active part in my Barngarla reclamation workshops. This is what she wrote to me unsolicited verbatim: “Personally, I found the experience of learning our language liberating and went home feeling very overwhelmed because we were finally going to learn our own language, it gave me a sense of identity and I think if the whole family learnt our language then we would all feel totally different about ourselves and each other cause it’s almost like it gives you a purpose in life.” 

Another Barngarla woman, Evelyn Walker, née Dohnt, summed it up aptly: “Our ancestors are happy!”


Finally, what tangible things can the average person do to help slow or stop the extinction of languages?

I would say four things:

Firstly, if your own heritage language is endangered, do not allow it to fall asleep!

Secondly, if your own language has become a “Sleeping Beauty”, do as the Australian road sign says: “Stop, revive, survive”!!

Thirdly, if you revive a language, embrace the hybridity of the children’s emerging Revival Language!!!

And, finally, if your own language is healthy – and if you have a heart of gold, “balls” of steel – please forgive my risqué metaphor – and the patience of a saint – consider helping others in linguistic need!!!!





Information on Ghil'ad Zuckermann's Book:

Zuckermann, G. 2020. Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978–0–19–981279–0 (pbk), ISBN 978–0–19–981277–6 (hbk). 

Purchase here

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MOOC: Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages

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About Ghil’ad Zuckermann

Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann, D.Phil. (Oxon.), Ph.D. (Cantab.) (titular), is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages, a tenured Full Professor (Level E), at the University of Adelaide. He is chief investigator in an NHMRC project assessing the correlation between language revival and mental health.

He is a leading expert in:

  • Revivalistics, a new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation (e.g. Barngarla), revitalization (e.g. Adnyamathanha) and reinvigoration (e.g. Irish)
  • the study of language, culture, identity and wellbeing
  • multiple causation, cross-fertilization and horizontal gene transfer in languages
  • contact linguistics
  • sources of lexical expansion and camouflaged borrowing, and  
  • lexicography.
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