Marianne Ignace and Tom Perry, Department of Linguistics, December 2014

Linguistics, Research, Faculty

Department of Linguistics Delegation to Jawaharlal Nehru University

February 25, 2015

With a grant from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, the Department of Linguistics strengthened research ties in India this past December at the Centre for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Building on areas of collaboration and cooperation established at the SFU-JNU Joint Linguistics Symposium in June 2014, the delegation’s activities focused on the theme “Indigenous Languages in India and Canada: Structure, Documentation, and Vitality.” Linguistics professors and graduate students John Alderete, Stan Anonby, Ashley Farris-Trimble, Kelli Finney, Marianne Ignace, Keir Moulton, and Tom Perry gave individual talks, participated in workshops, and engaged the community in a public panel discussion on endangered languages at the Indira Ghandi National Centre of the Arts during their stay.

Linguists at SFU and JNU share a commitment to the revitalization and preservation of endangered languages. Linguistics Department Chair Tom Perry explains that “We have a lot of experience in Canada with minority or endangered languages and in some ways researchers in India are really starting to grapple with that challenge.” India is linguistically diverse, with over 122 official languages and over 575 actively spoken. Perry says, “of the top 15 languages in the world about half of them are from India. In terms of numbers of speakers, India has a vast linguistic landscape yet many of the language groups are very tiny and are in danger of disappearing.” SFU Linguist Keir Moulton says he learned a lot through the workshops and presentations over the week: "Lots of languages were represented: many varieties of Hindi, Manipuri (a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in eastern India), Malayalam, Arabic." Moulton calls the JNU graduate program  "incredibly dynamic - combining great work on understudied languages and serious theoretical research too." He adds that the workshops "broached brand new territory — asking questions about the structure of these languages that have never been asked before." 

SFU’s Ignace and JNU’s Abbi

 SFU’s Marianne Ignace and JNU’s Anvita Abbi are just two scholars in Linguistics whose work exemplifies a commitment to endangered languages. Ignace runs SFU's First Nations Language Centre and is leading a seven-year project funded by a SSHRC partnership grant, working with many local First Nations communities and elders to preserve and teach indigenous languages. Similarly, Anvita Abbi has spent years documenting, evaluating, and preserving Great Andamanese, a language of the Andaman Islands located in the southeast of the Indian subcontinent in the Bay of Bengal. Abbi is the 2015 recipient of the Kenneth L. Hale Award given by the Linguistics Society of America for outstanding work on the documentation of languages that are endangered or no longer spoken. In recognition of Abbi’s work, Marianne Ignace “blanketed” her with a Coast Salish blanket the delegates brought along from SFU’s Office of Aboriginal Peoples.

Alongside Tanmoy Bhattacharya of the University of New Delhi, Anvita Abbi, Tom Perry and Marianne Ignace also sat on the public panel discussion “Language Loss and Indigenous Cultures in India and Canada” held at the Indira Ghandi National Centre of the Arts. Perry notes there was a full room including linguists and people from remote local villages. According to Perry, the panel noted that prevention is the main interest for linguists and speakers of endangered languages in India: “[Parts of India] could be easily swamped by this huge linguistic environment. There are several large languages spoken around them and so the issue is maintaining usage of the local language in certain regions. They are asking what kinds of things keep language vital?” Projects like Ignace’s as well as local efforts at language revitalization give SFU-based researchers a particular opportunity to observe and sometimes participate in the revival of endangered languages. As Perry says, “There are so many efforts going on here, it just makes sense for us to compare notes and establish continual, collegial and formal links between the two universities.”

SFU-JNU Linguistics Workshop, December 2014