Historical and moral arguments for language reclamation

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann
University of Adelaide

Language is an archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts, lost and buried civilizations and technologies. The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.
Russell Hoban (children’s writer, 1925-2011 – cf. Haffenden 1985: 138)


Linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating) have made Australia an unlucky country. These twin forces have been in operation in Australia since the early colonial period, when efforts were made to prevent Aboriginal people from continuing to speak their language, in order to ‘civilize’ them. Anthony Forster, a nineteenth-century financier and politician, gave voice to a colonial linguicide ideology, which was typical of much of the attitude towards Australian languages (Report on a public meeting of the South Australian Missionary Society in aid of the German Mission to the Aborigines, Southern Australian, 8 September 1843, p. 2, cf. Scrimgeour 2007: 116):

The natives would be sooner civilized if their language was extinct. The children taught would afterwards mix only with whites, where their own language would be of no use – the use of their language would preserve their prejudices and debasement, and their language was not sufficient to express the ideas of civilized life. 

Even Governor of South Australia George Grey, who was relatively pro-Aboriginal, appeared to partially share this opinion and remarked in his journal that ‘the ruder languages disappear successively, and the tongue of England alone is heard around’ (Grey 1841: 200-201). What was seen as a ‘civilizing’ process was actually the traumatic death of various fascinating and multifaceted Aboriginal languages.

It is not surprising therefore that out of 250 known Aboriginal languages, today only 18 (7%) are alive and kicking, i.e. spoken natively by the community children. Blatant statements of linguistic imperialism such as the ones made by Forster and Grey now seem to be less frequent, but the processes they describe are nonetheless still active, let alone if one looks at the Stolen Generations between approximately 1909 and 1969.

There are approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken worldwide. 96% of the world’s population speaks 4% of the world’s languages, leaving the vast majority of tongues vulnerable to extinction and disempowering for their speakers. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority. However, with globalization, homogenization and Coca-colonization there will be more and more groups added to the forlorn club of the powerless lost-heritage peoples. Language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve their wellbeing.

Revivalistics – including Revival Linguistics and Revivalomics – is a new interdisciplinary field of enquiry studying comparatively and systematically the universal constraints and global mechanisms on the one hand (see Zuckermann 2009), and particularistic peculiarities and cultural relativist idiosyncrasies on the other, apparent in linguistic revitalization attempts across various sociological backgrounds, all over the globe (Zuckermann & Walsh 2011).

Interview with Ghil‘ad Zuckermann about Hebrew revival on Fry’s Planet Word: clip 1 at AIATSIS, clip 2 on BBC

Revivalistics combines scientific studies of native language acquisition and foreign language learning: language reclamation is the most extreme case of foreign language learning. Revivalistics is far more than Revival Linguistics. It studies language revival from various angles such as law, mental health, sociology, politics, education, colonization, missionary studies and architecture.

Why should we invest time and money in reviving languages?
1. Ethical reasons

Australia’s languages have not just been dying of their own accord, as many Australians and non-Australians believe. Many of the languages were destroyed by settlers of this land. We owe it to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to support the maintenance and revival of their cultural heritage, in this instance through language revival. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ Every person has the right to speak their mother tongue, to express themselves in the language of their ancestors, not just in the language of convenience that English has become.

Language death means not only the loss of cultural autonomy, but also of spiritual and intellectual sovereignty. Cultural knowledge perishes, and therefore the direct connection to ancestors through language, often resulting in feelings of anger or isolation. Through the prejudices of colonists, so much pride and cultural autonomy was lost along with heritage that can never be reclaimed. Through supporting language revival we can right some small part of the wrong against the original inhabitants of this country and support the wishes of their ancestors with the help of linguistic knowledge. We can appreciate the importance of Indigenous languages and recognize their importance to Indigenous people and to Australia.

An enactment of a new governmental statute-based ex gratia legislation ought to be established in order to pay compensation for the lost Aboriginal languages (Zuckermann and Shakuto, forthcoming). The proposed legislation can be colloquially called Native Tongue Title, modelled upon the established concept of ‘Native Title’, the recognition by Australian law that some Indigenous people have rights to, and interests in, their land that come from their traditional laws and customs. Deontologically, the Australian government ought to compensate Indigenous people not only for the loss of tangible land, but also for the loss of intangible langue (language). Such legislation will recognize the Indigenous people’s rights to revive or maintain their languages, and the compensation money can be used to support reclamation and linguistic empowerment efforts. The enactment of new legislation would help reinstate the Indigenous peoples’ authority and ownership of their cultural heritage. One should also note that in case of linguicide, it is much harder to prove continuity in Native Title cases.

Despite being aware of the people-land-language trinity, I propose that ontologically, the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land. When the land is lost, it is still there, albeit mined or abused by others. When a language is lost, even though the ownership (rather than usership) still exists, the language is not there anymore, let alone the loss of cultural autonomy, spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, ideas, values and experiences.

Australia ought to learn from New Zealand:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vernaculars should be defined as official languages of their state/territory/land.
  • Signs (Linguistic Landscape) should be both in English and in the local Indigenous language.

Full 17 minute interview on Marae investigates

2. Aesthetic reasons

Australia was once linguistically diverse, but this diversity has been vanishing rapidly. Most of Australia’s approximately 250 original languages are falling asleep, or have already become ‘sleeping beauties’. The linguist Ken Hale, who worked with many endangered languages and saw the effect of loss of language, compared losing language to bombing the Louvre.

When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre.
(Ken Hale, The Economist, 3 November 2001)

A museum is a repository of human artistic culture. Languages are even more important since they store the cultural practices and beliefs of an entire people. In Australia, information relating to food sources, surviving in nature and dreamtime often passes away when language perishes.

A study by Boroditsky and Gaby (2010) found that speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken in Pormpuraaw on the west coast of Cape York, do not use ‘left’ or ‘right’, but always cardinal directions. Kuuk Thaayorre speakers are constantly aware of where they are situated, and this use of directions affects their awareness of time.

Different languages have different ways of expressing ideas and this can indicate which concepts are important to a certain culture. To demonstrate this variety, here are a few unique words from around the world:

  • Mamihlapinatapai is a word in the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego in Chile and Argentina. It refers to ‘a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but have been unwilling to suggest or offer themselves’. This word can be broken down into smaller parts, or morphemes, thus: ma- is a reflexive/passive prefix (realised as the allomorph mam- before a vowel), ihlapi [iɬapi] ‘to be at a loss as what to do next’ (the lexical root), -n stative suffix, -ata achievement suffix, and -apai, a dual suffix, which has a reciprocal sense with ma- (circumfix).
  • Persian nakhur is a ‘camel that will not give milk until her nostrils have been tickled.’
  • Tingo, in Rapa Nui (Pasquan) of Easter Island (Eastern Polynesian language), is ‘to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by asking to borrow them, until there is nothing left’ (De Boinod  2005).

Such fascinating words should not be lost as they are important to the cultures they are from and beautiful to outsiders. Through language maintenance and reclamation we can keep important cultural practices and concepts alive.

3. Utilitarian benefits

Language revival benefits the speakers involved through improvement of wellbeing, mental health and cognitive abilities. It reduces delinquency and increases cultural tourism. Language revival has a positive effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of people involved. Participants develop a better appreciation of and sense of connection with their cultural heritage and tradition. Reacquiring their ancestors’ tongue can be an emotional experience and provide people with a strong sense of pride and identity. As the Aboriginal politician Aden Ridgeway said, ‘language is power; let us have ours!’ (Ridgeway 2009). Small changes can impact people in big ways. A participant at a Barngarla Aboriginal language reclamation workshop in May 2012 (Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia) wrote that she found learning the language ‘liberating’, that it gave her a ‘sense of identity’ and that ‘it’s almost like it gives you a purpose in life’. Another participant said: ‘Our ancestors are happy.’

There are various cognitive advantages to multilingualism. Several studies have found that bilingual children have better non-linguistic cognitive abilities compared with monolingual children (see, e.g., Kovacs and Mehler 2009) and improved attention and auditory processing (see, e.g., Krizman et al. 2012):

The bilingual’s enhanced experience with sound results in an auditory system that is highly efficient, flexible and focused in its automatic sound processing, especially in challenging or novel listening conditions.

Evidence shows that being bilingual or multilingual can slow dementia, improving quality of life for many and reducing money spent on medical care. In a recent study it was also found that decision-making biases are reduced when using a second, in this case non-native, language (Keysar et al. 2012):

Four experiments show that the ‘framing effect’ disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.

There are severe problems with mental health amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. According to the National Survey of Mental Wellbeing, 40% of Australians (not necessarily Indigenous) suffer from a mental disorder at some stage of their life. Furthermore, 20% of participants experienced some kind of mental disorder in the past 12 months. In comparison, 31% of respondents aged 15+ participating in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008) had experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the four weeks leading up to the interview alone (ABS Publication 4704.0). This is 2.5 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. Language reclamation increases feelings of wellbeing and pride amongst Indigenous people. Many of them are disempowered because they ‘fall between the cracks’, feeling neither whitefellows nor in command of their own Aboriginal heritage. As Fishman (1990 – see 2006: 90) puts it:

The real question of modern life and for RLS [reversing language shift] is […] how one […] can build a home that one can still call one’s own and, by cultivating it, find community, comfort, companionship and meaning in a world whose mainstreams are increasingly unable to provide these basic ingredients for their own members.

It has been shown that people involved in Indigenous language reclamation see an improvement in non-language subjects, linked to educational empowerment and improved self-confidence. Educational success directly translates to improved employability and decreased delinquency. Approximately $50,000 per language per year was provided in 2010-11 by ILS (Indigenous Language Support) to 78 projects involving 200 languages. The cost of incarceration is $100,000 per person per year and the cost of adolescent mental health $1,395 per patient per day.

Cultural tourism already represents an important part of Australia’s economy with many tourists wishing to learn about Indigenous cultures during their stay. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures represent part of Australia’s image overseas and greatly contribute to the tourist dollar. We need to help preserve and revive these languages, and protect cultural knowledge in order to maintain this point of attraction. This tourism not only benefits the economy, but can also provide work and opportunities for Indigenous people.

Establishing Revivalistics in Australia is turning Indigenous Australians into experts of language revival, making language revival part of their cultural identity. They will then be able to assist others in language revival. Language revival itself has therefore the potential to become an important part of Indigenous pride, bringing many benefits to the wider community. It can help promote awareness and understanding of Indigenous languages and cultures. By improving mental health and social cohesion through language reclamation projects, we can decrease the amount of money spent on ill health and social dysfunction. Language revival can aid in ‘closing the gap’ and encourages cultural tourism whilst enriching Australia’s multicultural society.

Interview with Ghil‘ad Zuckermann on Lingua Franca, ABC Radio National, 20 October 2012


Boroditsky, Lera and Gaby, Alice. 2010. ‘Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community’. Psychological Science. vol. 21 no. 11, pp.1635-1639

De Boinod, Adam Jacot. 2005. The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World. The Penguin Press: London.

Fishman, Joshua A. 2006. Language Loyalty, Language Planning, and Language Revitalization: Recent Writings and Reflections from Joshua A. Fishman, edited by Nancy Hornberger and Martin Pütz. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Haffenden, John 1985. Novelists in Interview. London – New York: Methuen.

Hallett, Darcy; Michael J. Chandler and Christopher E. Lalonde. 2007. ‘Aboriginal Language Knowledge and Youth Suicide’, Cognitive Development 22: 392-399.

Keysar, Boaz, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An. 2012. ‘The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases’. Psychological Science. Vol. 23 no. 6 pp. 661-668.

Kovács, Ágnes Melinda and Mehler, Jacques. 2009. ‘Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants’. Science. Vol. 325 no. 5940 pp. 611-612.

Krizman, Jen, Marian, Viorica, Shook, Anthony, Skoe E and Kraus, Nina. 2012. ‘Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 109 no. 20 pp. 7877-7881. http://www.soc.northwestern.edu/brainvolts/documents/Krizman-2012-Subcortical%20encoding.pdf

Ridgeway, Aden. 2009. ‘Language is power; let us have ours’, Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/language-is-power-let-us-have-ours-20091125-jrsb.html

Scrimgeour, Anne. 2007. Colonizers as Civilizers: Aboriginal schools and the mission to ‘civilise’ in South Australia, 1839-1845. PhD thesis. Charles Darwin University, Darwin.

Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad. 2009. ‘Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns’. Journal of Language Contact Varia 2: 40-67. http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Hybridity_versus_Revivability.pdf

Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad & Walsh, Michael. 2011. ‘Stop, Revive, Survive!: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures’. Australian Journal of Linguistics 31: 111-127. http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/Revival_Linguistics.pdf
Also published as Chapter 28 of Making Sense of Language Readings in Culture and Communication (2012), Second Edition, edited by Susan D. Blum: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/he/subject/Anthropology/CulturalandSocialAnthropology/LinguisticAnthropology/?view=usa&sf=toc&ci=9780199840922

Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad & Monaghan, Paul. 2012. ‘Revival linguistics and the new media: Talknology in the service of the Barngarla language reclamation’, pp. 119-126 of Foundation for Endangered Languages XVI Conference: Language Endangerment in the 21st Century: Globalisation, Technology & New Media. Auckland, New Zealand. http://adelaide.academia.edu/Zuckermann/Papers/1971557/Revival_Linguistics_and_the_New_Media_Talknology_in_the_service_of_the_Barngarla_Language_Reclamation

How to cite this post:

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad. 2013. ‘Historical and moral arguments for language reclamation’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/06/26/historical-and-moral-arguments-for-language-reclamation

D.Phil. (Oxford), Ph.D. (Cambridge) (titular), is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide. A native speaker of a reclaimed tongue (Hebrew) and fluent in 10 other languages, he is an expert of Revivalistics (including Revival Linguistics and Revivalomics), language contact, borrowing, lexicology and the study of language, culture and identity. He has launched together with the Barngarla community the reclamation of the no-longer-spoken Barngarla language of Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. Professor Zuckermann is Visiting Professor at the Pilpel Genomics Lab, Department of Molecular Genetics, Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel), and Distinguished Visiting Professor and Oriental Scholar at Shanghai International Studies University (China). He serves as editorial board member of the Journal of Language Contact and consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is the author of the revolutionary bestseller Israeli – A Beautiful Language (2008), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment (2003) and Revival Linguistics (forthcoming by Oxford University Press); co-author of Tingo (2011, Tel Aviv), and editor of Burning Issues in Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (2012) and Jewish Language Contact (in press), a special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language. He has published more than 100 articles in Israeli (Revived Hebrew), English, Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, German, Russian, Esperanto and Chinese. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow in 2007–2011 and Gulbenkian Research Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge in 2000–2004. He has taught inter alia at the University of Queensland, University of Cambridge and National University of Singapore, and has been a Research Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy; Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Research Centre for Linguistic Typology (RCLT), Institute for Advanced Study, La Trobe University; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; and Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūjo, National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo.

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Posted in Australia, Philosophy, Revival linguistics, Revivalistics
12 comments on “Historical and moral arguments for language reclamation
  1. Bernadette le Goullon says:

    Ghil’ad’s article is a good case for language reclamation in Australia. Indigenous language is part of Australia’s heritage, as is every animal, plant or feature of this sacred country. Indigenous language is important to all Australians because it revives the identity of the country as it re-connects us with place. It is of great assistance to indigenous people who wish to explain the unique qualities of this land and the importance of its natural law.

    • rabia says:

      This is a good article describing the causes of the revival of indigenous languages discussing particularly the situation in Australia….this is the situation common in all over the world here in Pakistan too we are facing this very situation

  2. James McElvenny says:

    Thanks for a great post! It’s really good to see this blog publishing pathbreaking programmatic material alongside studies of existing approaches made from the outside.

    Could you say a little more about the status of revivalistics? Are there, say, any journals, textbooks or conferences that focus on revivalistics? And are there efforts to revive cultural institutions other than language?

    What exactly is ‘revivalomics’ and how does it relate to revivalistics and revival linguistics? I couldn’t quite glean this from your post.

  3. nickriemer says:

    I agree with lots in this post, Ghil’ad, including the idea of compensation for lost languages, but I’ve got a concern which I think it’s worth airing. We clearly need to distinguish between reviving languages which are still partly spoken, and resurrecting ones which are now purely heritage items. I wasn’t always clear in your post whether you had in mind one or the other – or both – but the political and ethical questions in the two cases seem to me quite different. Isn’t there a risk, for instance, that putting the stress on the ‘resurrection’ of wholly extinct languages may have the counterproductive effect of devaluing indigenous people’s current linguistic practices, and locating the source of their cultural authenticity in a past which they’re unlikely ever to be able to fully recapture? Languages spoken by previous generations are clearly part of the cultural heritage of any community and, as such, deserve recognition of some kind. But in the case of many Aboriginal languages, they’re now, tragically, no longer anyone’s mother-tongue. It seems to me that if our interest is in helping Aboriginal people to ‘recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve their wellbeing’, then a good first step would be to try and valorize their contemporary culture, including their current languages – and that this is a higher priority than trying to draw them back to a precontact status about which, ironically, the experts are mostly white. In short, language-resurrection seems a rather more ambiguous political project than you present it as. I wonder whether this question has ever been raised by or in the communities concerned by language-resurrection projects. Have the Aboriginal people in question often been presented with a choice between the restoration of no longer spoken languages and the valorization of current ones ? Carmel O’Shanessy’s recent appearance in a long article in the New York Times on ‘Light Warlpiri’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/science/linguist-finds-a-language-in-its-infancy.html?_r=0) is, perhaps, a good example of the way that European linguists’ involvement can lead to the positive valuation of current non-traditional linguistic practices.

  4. Thank you, all, for your perspicacious comments.

    Language revival is obviously on a continuum. It includes the (1) RECLAMATION of sleeping beauty tongues (i.e. no-longer spoken languages such as Hebrew in 135-1886 AD, Barngarla and Kaurna), (2) REVITALIZATION of severely-endangered languages (i.e. languages spoken natively by some elders. Adnyamathanha), and (3) RENEWAL of endangered languages (e.g. Māori).

    To ask a Barngarla Aboriginal person to adopt Warlpiri as his/her heritage language is like to ask a Welshman to adopt Russian as his/her language because it is stronger than Welsh, or to ask fin-de-siècle Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (father of Israeli, or Revived Hebrew) to adopt Arabic.

    Of course the 18 Indigenous Australian languages that are alive and kicking ought to be maintained! Of course the dozens of Aboriginal tongues that are spoken only by several elders must be kept! But these crucially-significant activities have little to do with Stephen Atkinson (Barngarla) or Geoff Anderson (Wiradjuri) – see

    And it is NEITHER zero-sum NOR a game!

    Yours respectfully, Ghil‘ad

    • Alison Fay says:

      Dear Prof. Zuckerman,

      I am intrigued by your statement, “Of course the 18 Indigenous Australian languages that are alive and kicking ought to be maintained! Of course the dozens of Aboriginal tongues that are spoken only by several elders must be kept!”

      I don’t doubt your zeal, but would you please explain the “of course?” I have a number of Spanish speaking students from indigenous language backgrounds who have asked me why this opinion is so automatically understandable and immune from question. After all, haven’t countless languages bitten the dust in the last 5,000 years while the world has managed to survive? Nobody speaks Old English anymore, but their descendants are doing quite well some 1500 years later. The same can be said for a number of other languages, too. There are no heritage speakers Etruscan, but the inhabitants of that part of central Italy do quite well. My students asked me about my own situation, and I told them that despite my ancestry, I am not willing to undertake the study of Gaelic. The last Gaelic speaker of my family probably died 400 years ago.

      I have not arrived at a satisfactory answer to my students’ question about the “of course,” so would you please provide one? We would all like a logical argument based on demonstrable facts and deduction, one which is not based on emotion, anecdotal evidence, rhetorical question or assertion. In other words, they want quod erat demonstrandum. Kindly oblige.

      South American Prof

  5. […] Beyond Blue campaign against racism, launched earlier this year. Ridgeway, former Indigenous MP and Ghil’ad Zuckermann a historical linguist both make it clear that through the preservation, understanding and […]

  6. […] Beyond Blue campaign against racism, launched earlier this year. Ridgeway, former Indigenous MP and Ghil’ad Zuckermann a historical linguist both make it clear that through the preservation, understanding and […]

  7. […] Zuckermann, G. (2013). Historical and Moral Arguments for Language Reclamation.        History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. Retrieved from https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/06/26/historical-and-moral-arguments-for-language-reclamation/ […]

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