Language Endangerment in Nigeria. The Case of Yoruba

Term Paper, 2015
14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Language Endangerment in general
2.1 Historical Background
2.2 Classification
2.3 Causes for Language Endangerment
2.4 The Value of Languages
2.5 Supports for Endangered Languages

3 Yoruba as an Endangered Nigerian Language
3.1 Nigerian Languages
3.2 The Yoruba Language
3.3 Causes for the Decline of Yoruba
3.4 Countermeasures for Maintaining Yoruba

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.” Edward Sapir (1921: 220), a poet as well as pioneer linguist, draws our attention to the great diversity and impact language itself holds. As language is recreated by each generation of learners, language changes continually. During this process of transmission languages may be maintained, undergo a language shift, get endangered or die out (Ostler 2011: 315).

The study focuses on language endangerment in Nigeria presented by the example of Yoruba. The aim of this paper is to present the topic of language endangerment in general concerning the historical background, the classification, the value of languages, and the causes as well as the supports for language endangerment. In Section 3 I will apply the theoretical background knowledge on endangered languages to the case of Yoruba, one of the numerous languages still spoken in Nigeria. It is discussed whether Yoruba counts into the category of endangered languages or not.

2 Language Endangerment in general

Language diversity is a cultural heritage of the world. Even though approximately 6,000 languages still exist, many minority languages are threatened with extinction in almost every part of the world (UNESCO 2003: 1). However at the same time, several projects are under way aimed at stabilizing and documenting endangered language. Furthermore new policy initiatives are promoted to maintain the vitality by establishing meaningful new roles in society. Speakers of endangered languages often work alongside linguists to fight the impending language loss. Language death means an essential break with cultural identity and tradition for the majority of speakers of endangered languages (Grinevald, Bert 2011: 49-54). Only a small number of linguists and speakers consider language loss as a natural process that should not be counteracted. They even argue that a language shift is beneficial for overcoming social stigmata and for increasing economic opportunities (UNESCO 2003: 2).

2.1 Historical Background

The phenomenon of language loss worldwide is not unparalleled throughout history. Mighty empires have always been a threat for languages. In the early stages the Roman Empire among others hugely affected many European languages, which dropped from sixty to twelve. At a later time in the 16th century, sea explorations made it possible to export European languages such as Spanish, English, Portuguese and Dutch into the rest of the world due to technological development. Thousands of Europeans immigrated to the temperate zones. (Ostler 2011: 325-28). Nowadays, languages disappear because of a language shift through diffusion rather than through migration. Political, social and cultural processes are powerful forces to dominate the economically weaker languages (Grenoble 2011: 27). An inexorable decline in language diversity is recorded. Between 50-90% of the languages will have vanished by the end of the 21st century (UNESCO 2003: 2). The top twenty languages are spoken by 50% of the world´s population, whereas a multitude of minority languages is only used by small language communities, most of them counting less than 10,000 speakers (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 1).

2.2 Classification

The UNESCO's Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages regards a language as endangered “[…] when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next. That is, there are no new speakers, adults or children" (UNESCO 2003: 2). Language endangerment is a matter of degree. Various classifications have been proposed by many linguists. Among these, the classification by the UNESCO linguists seems to be the most comprehensive and differentiated and therefore the most convincing one to me. The Expert Group distinguishes six levels of endangerment in the world´s languages, based on an intergenerational transfer (UNESCO 2003: 7-8):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Beside the intergenerational transfer, the languages are further divided according to eight major evaluative factors by the UNESCO linguists: the absolute number of speakers, the proportion of speakers within the total population, the shifts in domains of language use, the response to new domains and media, the materials for language education and literacy, the governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, the community members´ attitudes toward their own language and the type and quality of documentation (UNESCO 2003: 8-17).

Studying a second schema for classifying languages, linguist Michael Krauss uses the terminology safe if the language is considered to be spoken by children in 2100 and as extinct if there are no speakers left and the language is neither remembered by anyone nor obtained through new documentation (Tsunoda 2006: 12). In between there is the large category defined as endangered. The term is used for an entire spectrum. It describes languages that are stable, in decline, instable and eroding or definitely, severely or even critically endangered (Krauss 2007: 1-3).

2.3 Causes for Language Endangerment

The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages distinguishes four main categories of causes of language endangerment (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 5-6).

Firstly, minority languages may die out because a language community is wiped out by famine or disease. Moreover, natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, which seriously affected Papua New Guinea, Malol and the Andaman for instance, can be a physical danger for the population. Consequently the vernacular languages are threatened.

Secondly, (civil) wars and genocides must be marked as dangerous forces to significantly downsize the number of speakers or even to eradicate a whole language. In countries such as Tasmania, El Salvador and in different parts of Brazil indigenous people have been victims of such violence.

The last two causes are not physically threatening for the population but rather explain why speakers are discouraged or reluctant to use their vernacular language. Overt political repression has frequently happened under the guise of national unity or assimilation. A promoted single national culture limits the opportunities for speaking minority languages in public (i.e. schools, media) or even prohibits them. Sometimes ethnic groups are forcibly resettled. This kind of endangerment has affected the Kurdish in Turkey, the Welsh languages in Great Britain, Breton or Alsatian in France and many Native American and Australian languages for instance.

Among the causes of language endangerment the fourth aspect is the most significant one: the cultural, political and economic dominance. If political and economical power is closely related to a particular language, there is a great incentive for speakers of minority languages to switch to the more prestigious one on behalf of themselves and their children. This situation mainly occurs with indigenous people groups in order to move to a better standard of living and achieve a higher social status. Languages such as Ainu, Manx, Sorbian and Quechua were replaced because of this reason.

The last category can be subdivided into five common factors of dominance. Economic dominance occurs when people find themselves forced to migrate to cities, other regions or countries because of rural poverty. Hence speakers are dispersed. Cultural dominance negatively affects minority languages if education and literature are only available in the majority or state language. The indigenous language and culture may become a subject of folklore. In the case of political dominance, education and political policies are carried out solely in the supreme language. The local languages lack recognition and political representations. Sometimes the usage of the minority languages is actually prohibited in public life. Another factor traces back to a historical background. During the colonial era some languages have been regarded as superior to others when different language communities got in contact with each other. Mostly the historical dominance is combined with economic and cultural dominance. Moreover the attitudinal factor plays an important role. Speakers of endangered languages may develop a negative attitude towards their own language. They associate it with illiteracy, social stigmata and poverty, whereas the dominant language may be a synonym for social and economical progress as well as modernity.

Sometimes several factors interrelate and occur together. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line between those four categories (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 5-6). Cultural hegemony for instance is often not the result of conquest but rather arises from a growing contact with larger and more influential language communities. Globalization, urbanization, social and cultural dislocation belong to the main reasons for language shift today (Grenoble 2011: 33).

2.4 The Value of Languages

Every single language is of essential quality as it serves two equal and high goals, which are communication and cognition (Lehmann 2006: 154). Ostler presents three key reasons why language is a valuable good: (1) the value of the language as a unique instance of a language type, (2) the value of the knowledge that has long been expressed in the language and (3) the value of the continuing use of the language to support functions or domains of human life.

Firstly, in his opinion language in itself holds enormous value because the indefinite conversations of every language which evolved as a natural system (Ostler 2011: 328). The process of documentation and analysis reveals important insights into how humans communicated in oral and non-oral modalities (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 7).

Secondly, language has the potential to pass on and to express a great amount of knowledge on cultural heritage in form of legends, stories, historical narratives, poetry and songs to future generations. In addition the biological diversity is transmitted through language (Ostler 2011: 329). Consequently the extinction of a language does not only mean a decline in cultural richness but also a loss of knowledge about specific fauna, flora and the environment for both the community and humanity in general (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 7).

Thirdly, language creates ethnic and national identity. Especially the self-esteem, security and the living standards of a community are strengthened through an own language in times of pressure and trouble (Ostler 2011: 329). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that the way of thinking is determined by the lexicon and syntax of the language. Hence language death may cause a disappearance of a unique way of looking at the world (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 8).

The Cambridge Handbook for Endangered languages adds another two reasons, why language maintenance is important: the linguistic human rights and the education policy.

In many countries the vast majority of the population does neither fluently speak nor read nor write the national or official language. In order to integrate them into public life, it is necessary for these people to get access to services such as education, the media and the justice system in their mother tongue (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 9).

According to numerous researches, educating the native language has positive effects on the children. But if pupils from minority language backgrounds are not supported in learning their home language, this could be a disadvantage with regard to a loss of self-confidence, lower achievements at school and even discrimination and racism (Austin, Sallabank 2011: 10).


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Language Endangerment in Nigeria. The Case of Yoruba
University of Würzburg  (Anglistik)
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