Lexical Innovation and Language Reclamation

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Introduction

"As cruel as it may seem, keeping ancient languages alive serves no real purpose other than maintaining a sense of nostalgia and historical context. To encourage peoples to live in a linguistic straight jacket, incapable of expressing modern mathematical or scientific thought is to doom them to perpetual ignorance. Is there an Einstein among the Karen tribe of Thailand or Myanmar? Can the theory of relativity or Euler's theorem be communicated to them in their native tongue? It's doubtful." (Crosby Boyd, Reader Comment to "Dying Languages," an editorial by John McWorter)

"Lexical Innovation is a constant and unplanned spontaneous process in any language, that is as communication needs change and expand, speakers develop strategies for creating or borrowing new terms which their language did not have until then. 'Modernization,' elaboration,' 'language development,' however, are terms used for planned lexical innovation which imply in a very pejorative sense that languages, particularly in Africa, and which have not yet been submitted to language planning, are somewhat traditional primitive or underdeveloped. Such discriminating statements must be rejected as obviously false. In the course of their long histories African languages as well as all other languages have accommodated many instances of culture contact, and these have left lasting or only temporary traces in their vocabulary and other parts of linguistic structure." (Professor H. Ekkehard Wolff African languages: an introduction, 337-338)

About this project

The thoughts expressed above by Crosby Boyd are shared by a large number of people. Why, they ask, should we care if endangered languages become "extinct"? They are ancient, outdated, and irrelevant languages in which modern concepts could not possibly be expressed, or, once they are expressed, are no longer "pure" and can not be said to be the language in question anymore. English, on the other hand, is "permanently evolving and developing. New words and expressions are coined and existing words change their meaning as society, culture and technology progress."

The goal of this website is to help show how the process of coining new words, or what is known in linguistics as "lexical innovation" is a normal process of language evolution all languages, especially indigenous languages, today. I built this website with two audiences in mind. First, my hope is that this project will be a resource that language communities working on language reclamation projects can turn to when dealing with the challenges they will confront when dealing with lexical innovation. Second, I hope that people who are not members of these communities (such as myself) can see that lexical innovation is a normal part of any language while learning about the unique challenges and obstacles that endangered language communities face when considering and implementing lexical innovation policies. that non endangered languages do not.

This website began as a term project for a graduate seminar I took in San Diego State University's Department of Anthropology entitled The Politics of Endangered Languages, which was taught by Dr. Wesley Leonard, visiting assistant professor at SDSU and chair of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Language committee. You can learn more about me at my personal website.

The contents of the website are as follows:

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