OMG! How endangered is Chinuk Wawa?

endangered pigeons.jpg

But only 35% of pigeons are endangered! (Image credit: Mongabay)

One scholarly research paper recently concluded that Chinuk Wawa is on its deathbed. Let’s see if you’ll agree!

Nala H. Lee’s study “Contact languages around the world and their levels of endangerment” just came out. (Language Documentation & Conservation volume 12 (2018):53-79.)

The author does a service, I feel, by paying special attention to languages like pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages (the “contact languages” of the title).

It’s a truism that these kinds of languages get less respect and less attention than others — even from linguistic researchers. So they often blink out of existence before anyone has a chance to try maintaining them.

Languages like Chinuk Wawa really should, then, be evaluated as to how endangered they are. Every one of them has a unique cultural history, a store of knowledge, attached to it. It’s a shame to lose that.

Lee constructs a methodology for quantifying whether each of these languages is in a healthy state that suggests a continued existence, being spoken by future generations of community members. The overall finding backs up the intuition that contact languages as a group are alarmingly endangered.

The author looks at four factors of strength/weakness for each language:

  • intergenerational transmission (are kids being raised speaking the language?)
  • absolute number of speakers (how many are there?)
  • speaker number trends (is the number of speakers stable? decreasing? increasing?)
  • domains of use (is the language used publicly? for many purposes?)

Before we go further — as you think about each of those 4, what would you say about Chinuk Wawa?

I’ll skip some details and report that Lee finds the Jargon critically endangered — the most threatened category.

What do you think of that?

Now I’ll tell those details. The data that Lee relies on…

  • gives no information on intergenerational transmission
  • says there are less than 10 (ten) speakers of Chinuk Wawa
  • tells nothing about speaker number trends
  • is silent about domains of use

This explains why Lee assigns a low (20%) certainty to her evaluation of the Jargon’s endangerement.

That’s a relief to know! I’m certain that if she were aware of the Grand Ronde Tribes language program and its successes teaching all ages and bringing the language into greater daily use, not to mention the ever-thriving online community around the Jargon, she would reach a different conclusion.

I think Chinuk Wawa, then, would still rate as endangered (and we need to continue pouring our efforts into revitalizing it) — but it would be labeled as something more like “vulnerable”, in Lee’s terms.

About that. As somebody who fancies himself something of an advocate for this language, I have an issue with her choice of words. Every level of endangerment on Lee’s scale is some shade of doom. I realize we are looking at risk factors. We don’t have a “rainbows and unicorns” terrorist threat level, I get it.

But when even Haitian Creole, which has a whole country full of native speakers, is called “vulnerable” instead of “thriving”, I really wonder. And Chinuk Wawa, like some others of the 96 languages Lee evaluates, is a promising success story of a turnabout from the brink of extinction.

Lee’s paper is an interesting read, not overly technical. You might enjoy seeing what she says about other North American contact languages: African American English (yes!), Gullah, Bungi, Michif, Hawai’i Creole, Louisiana Creole…and what the heck is “Kodiak Russian Creole”?

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