Saving languages in a new home

This week we are looking at ELAT, which works to document the endangered and minority languages of Toronto. Specifically, the interview focusses on their first project: working on the Harari language.

This interview is a bit different because there were two people interviewed, but not simultaneously. Anastasia Riehl is a director of the organization; however, in order to get a first-hand view of the Harari language. I also asked some questions of Abdullah Sherif, a Harari speaker who has worked with ELAT on the transcription and translation of recordings in Harari.

 

Michael Iannozzi : You are a part of ELAT, what does that stand for, and what are its objectives?

Anastasia Riehl : ELAT stands for Endangered Language Alliance Toronto. Our objectives are to document endangered languages (as well as other small or understudied languages) spoken in the GTA, to support communities in their efforts to strengthen their languages and to celebrate our multilingual city.

MI : Why is it important to document these languages in Toronto? Why is Toronto such a great place to do this documentation work?

AR : It is important to document these languages wherever they are spoken. Approximately half of the world’s 6000+ languages are at risk of extinction, and many of these have never been studied or recorded. Toronto offers a unique opportunity to undertake documentation work due to the large number and diverse range of languages spoken here, including languages that are globally endangered.

MI : What projects are you currently working on?

AR : Some of our ongoing projects include Sri Lankan Malay, Harari (Ethiopia), Bukhori (language of the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia), Urhobo (Southern Nigeria) and Cellese (Francoprovencal variety in Italy). In all of these cases there are at least a few dozen speakers in the city, and we hope to record a range of individuals for each.

 

I then inquired about ELAT’s work on Harari to Abdullah Sherif, who is a community leader and speaker of the Harari language in Toronto. The following are his responses.

Abdullah with his father Abdusamed

Abdullah with his father Abdusamed

MI : The Harari community appears to be one with a couple thousand speakers in Toronto. How vibrant is the community in Toronto?

Abdullah Sherif : I believe there are more than 2000 Harari people in Toronto but it is true, not all would be categorized as being able to speak the language. I would say the Harari community is very vibrant when taking into consideration their small number. They can be found in every part of the city of Toronto: bankers, nurses, cab drivers, bus drivers,  lawyers, business owners, students at all levels: elementary, secondary, college, university, Master students, PhD students… The community is socially active as well, holding numerous cultural and religious events in large circles and in small ones too.

MI : Harari comes from the Harar region, so where is the Harar region?

AS : Harar is now a walled city in eastern Ethiopia.

MI : Are there languages that are related to Harari?

AS : Harari is a relatively unique language. It is actually a Language Island. It is Semitic [The most well-known Semitic languages may be Arabic and Hebrew] surrounded by Cushitic languages [Such as Somali—many of the languages of the horn of Africa]. A language that is very similar to Harari is spoken by the Silte people from the Gurage community. They happen to be in a region that is relatively far from Harar. Many Hararis were scattered throughout Ethiopia during the 16th century. It is suggested that the Silte’s ancestors are some of those scattered Hararis or at least have been heavily influenced by them.

MI : Why do you think it is important to document the Harari language in Toronto?

AS : I feel it is important to document it because the language has been considered endangered. Many of the youth do not speak it, or do not speak it well, giving credence to the claim that it is endangered. Also, much of the language’s history is almost lost. Documenting it now might encourage people to properly investigate its past and give its future a better chance at survival.

MI : Does the Harari language community have any community places like a restaurant or place of meeting in Toronto?

AS : In spite of the small size of the community, there is a Harari community/heritage centre. What is interesting is there are at least 90 languages in Ethiopia with almost each one associated to a different ethnic Ethiopian community. Hararis are among the smallest in population. Yet, here in Toronto you have the one Ethiopian community centre which serves all Ethiopians, and in addition Hararis have their own independent community centre. It is possible there may be other specific Ethiopian community centres like the Harari one, but I am not aware of any. As for the Hararis, other than that one Community Centre, they also have other medium to small community groups and religious groups. Some of the small groups are called “Affochas” and can be made up of as few members as three people. Affocha loosely translated means “community group”. In Harar there are many Affochas and many types: youth Affocha, women’s Affocha, men’s Affocha, etc. We also consider the larger community centre as an Affocha too.

MI : With almost all the speakers in Ethiopia and Canada being multilingual, what does that mean for the Harari language?

AS : As is already the case, Harari will be heavily influenced by the other languages. Interestingly, Harari speakers in Ethiopia use many Amharic words (Amharic is the official language in Ethiopia) and some were surprised by me when I would use the Harari words where they would have likely used Amharic words. But I am guilty of often using English words in many places while speaking Harari.

MI : How do you think the language can survive in Toronto?

AS : The language will survive only if the youth speak it. For that to happen they need to appreciate its importance.

[Abdullah’s father speaking Harari with captions]

 

I then asked more broad-based questions regarding ELAT and endangered languages in Toronto to Professor Riehl to end the interview.

MI : ELAT produces videos and audio of the language projects. Why is this important to you? What is the power of videos and modern technology for the survival of these languages?

AR : There are various methods of language documentation – collecting wordlists, undertaking grammatical analysis, creating dictionaries, recording audio and video of different styles of speech. All of these are important. At this stage, our focus is on producing short videos which we hope will have broad value and appeal – to linguists studying the languages, to community members interested in preserving examples of their language or using them for educational purposes, and to the general public interested in learning more about the languages and lives of the speakers.

In terms of content, we usually ask the participants to discuss the experience of being a speaker of their language in the context of Toronto – and also where relevant their experience immigrating to the city. In this way, we wish to explore the common themes of the immigrant experience in Toronto and Toronto as a city of languages.

MI : What do you think is the most crucial thing for the survival of Harari, and the other languages studied, in Toronto?

AR : Languages survive by being passed down to younger generations. Once this transmission declines, a language is at risk of disappearing. Although there are often outside forces working against a community’s retention of its language (governmental policies, economic factors, etc.) the motivation for maintaining a language must come from within the community. There are, however, things that others can do to support these communities, such as undertake documentation projects, create educational materials and assist with organizing classes and events.

In talking with endangered language communities in Toronto, I often hear speakers express concern that their language is dying because young people, in particular, are not interested in speaking it. However, I also often hear from young speakers or partial speakers who are very motivated to ensure that their language survives. These young community members are the key to their language’s future. Supporting and collaborating with these individuals by sharing ideas, tools and resources is an important way to ensure a language survives, whether in Toronto or elsewhere in the world.

MI : What can the average person do to help these languages?

AR : Talk to your relatives, friends and neighbours about their linguistic histories. You will be surprised how many people have interesting stories to share. If you meet someone who speaks one of the world’s smaller languages, seek help with documentation. If you are interested in particular languages, you can get involved with the relevant community groups in your area. You can also lend your time, expertise and resources to organizations that work to document and preserve endangered languages. Perhaps most importantly, support a world where multilingualism and the rights of minority language communities are valued.

 

A sincere thank you to Anastasia Riehl and to Abdullah Sherif. The work they do is undeniably valuable. Every language in the world is worth saving and documenting. In recent decades with so many communities fracturing and moving to various parts of the world, the widespread pieces of the community cannot keep their language alive when surrounded by a new language. These efforts at documentation are important because these languages have not been studied a great deal, but also because the communities in Toronto might speak a different variety or dialect of the language than the people who remain where the language is originally “from”.

If you want to learn more, please follow this link to the Endangered Language Alliance of Toronto: http://www.elalliance.com

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

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