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Saving Endangered Languages from Being Forgotten: Two New Linguistic Projects at the University of Vienna

26 January 2010 University of Vienna

With only 3.000 speakers in Northwest Siberia the Ob-Ugrian language Mansi is on the verge of extinction. Predictions say it will be extinct in ten to twenty years at the latest. The same holds true for Khanti, a member of the same language family. It is for this reason that extensive documentation is so important. Johanna Laakso, professor for Finno-Ugrian Studies at the University of Vienna concerns herself with the documentation of this and other minority languages in the framework of an FWF project and the EU project ELDIA.

Siberian Minority Languages: Mansi and Khanti

The two Ob-Ugrian languages Mansi and Khanti will be the object of extensive digital cataloging and documentation within the framework of the FWF three-year project "Ob-Ugric Languages: Conceptual Stuctures, Lexicon, Constructions, Categories". This FWF project under the coordination of Johanna Laakso, professor at the Department for European and Comparative Linguistics and Literature, is part of an international project on the documentation of the Ob-Ugrian languages in the framework of the European Collaborative Research program EuroBABEL. "With only a few thousand native speakers both languages are considered to be in grave danger", states Johanna Laakso. The reasons for the marginalization of Mansi and Khanti are among other things to be found in the decades-long sovietization and Russian-language school education of Northwest Siberia. A further reason for the decline of the two local Finno-Ugrian languages lies in the massive migration of Russians to Northwest Siberia, drawn there by the discovery of gas and oil and the jobs created thereby.

The documentation of the languages Mansi and Khanti is additionally of great importance because their speakers are to be found almost only in the older generations. "The younger generation hardly speaks any of the Ob-Ugrian languages any more," explains Laakso. "Our work will make the research tradition and the knowledge available more accessible to modern international linguistics." One of the major tasks will be to internationalize materials on the Mansi and Khanti languages, i.e. to translate them from Russian and other languages into English.

ELDIA: "European Linguistic Diversity for All"

Johanna Laakso and her team are furthermore engaged in the large EU project ELDIA. In this project a "vitality barometer" is being developed for the langugages of Europe which will indicate which languages are in acute danger of extinction. The results will assist policy makers as well as those affected to appraise the situation of the language, and to enhance the status of the minority langugages as part of a vital multilingualism. multilingualism and linguistic diversity being, as they are, an essential element of the European cultural heritage. Eight universities in six different European countries are participating in this project which is being promoted in the framework of the seventh supporting program of the EU. In the course of the three-year project 14 Finno-Ugrian linguistic communities will be examined. The Finno-Ugrian minorities lend themselves particularly well to being objects of research as they display a large spectrum of ecological-geographical and sociopolitical conditions, from the speakers of MeƤnkieli in Sweden, over the North Saami in Norway, the Karelians and Vepsians in Russia, and the Estonians in Finland to the Hungarians in Austria.

Attached files

  • Johanna Laakso

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