The race to save the Enggano language
Languages are in danger.
The Ethnologue guide warns that around 40% of the c.7,000 languages spoken across the world are endangered. Many of them have fewer than 1,000 speakers remaining.
This is a worrying trend because language is inextricably linked with community, identity and culture. But academics in Oxford’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics are working to ensure that one of these languages does not disappear without a trace.
Mary Dalrymple, Oxford’s Professor of Syntax, leads an international team working to preserve the Enggano language, which is spoken on Enggano Island off the southern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. Enggano is classified as ‘theatened’, with about 1500 speakers, and the trend is pointing in the wrong direction.
“Only the elder generation are fully competent and fluent speakers,” the team says. “Many children speak Indonesian and little to no Enggano.” These children are also having more contact with non-Enggano speakers, which further threatens the language.
In February 2018, Professor Dalrymple and colleagues flew to the island met with elders of the five Enggano clans, recorded some traditional stories, and worked with younger speakers. They visited local schools to discuss their project with headmasters and teachers and gave presentations to the students.
They received funding from the Endangered Language Fund and Oxford University’s John Fell Fund in 2018–19, then a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council which runs until 2022. The project team, which also includes Dr Charlotte Hemmings of Oxford’s Linguistics Faculty, is a truly international collaboration of researchers from three continents. One of the consultants is Engga Zakaria, a student at Universitas Muhammadiyah, Bengkulu which is just over the water from the island on mainland Indonesia.
The project has three key aims:
The team is recording, transcribing, translating and analysing a body of traditional stories, conversations, cultural events and descriptions of everyday tasks in the language. “The will allow the data to be preserved for future research and, for the Enggano community and its descendants, as a record of possibly the last generation of fluent Enggano speakers,” they say. These recordings will be deposited in an archive at the end of the project, and some can already be found here.
Enggano is an interesting puzzle for linguists. Some say it is a member of the Austronesian language family like others in the region are, but others see it as an isolated language with no relation to languages spoken nearby. “We believe that Enggano is an unusual Austronesian language, but further evidence is required to firmly establish the place of Enggano within Austronesian,” the team says. The last evidence of its “genetic affiliation” was carried out in 1937/8. The project seeks to collect and review updated evidence.
The project team is also working closely with the Enganno community to empower them to document and preserve the language. “A central component of this effort is our plan to develop educational materials for teaching the Enggano language in local schools, targeted Years 7 to 9 (ages 13–15),” they say.
“We will work with local educators and community leaders to develop these materials and to raise awareness of language and cultural endangerment, and with local government institutions to ensure that our educational materials meet local government standards.”
You can find out more about the project, including papers, publications, recordings and beautiful images of Enggano Island, here.