Australex 2013 'Endangered Words, and Signs of Revival'

David Nash (ANU, AIATSIS)

‘Reviving unique words’

Appeals for maintaining endangered languages usually refer to the value of special words.  Examples are adduced of a word with a meaning rarely lexicalised in any language, or sometimes of a complex word combining numerous morphemes to denote an unusual meaning. (Recent examples are Abley 2005:19 on Murrinh-Patha, Harrison 2008:24,57,213 on Tofa, Evans 2011:57 on Dalabon etc.)

If a language L is endangered, then each word of the language is necessarily also endangered (more or less). We can assign perceive a scale of endangerment; some words being more endangered than others. As L loses vigour, the next generation of speakers (or semi-speakers) will learn only some of its vocabulary and constructions. Or a particular endangered word W may persist in form but its meaning might lose some sense special to L, perhaps under pressure from the meaning of a translation equivalent in the dominant language. Now, what if a particular endangered word W is shared as W', a homologous word in another language L', and if L' is far less endangered? An endangered word W may well fade away in L, but survive unendangered as W' in L'. W and W' could be cognates (inherited from a common source) or shared because of borrowing ('copying'). In this view, the rarer a word is cross-linguistically, the more it is at risk, as it is less likely to have a homologous correspondent which might persist in another language.

Taking this further, we can define a word as unique to L: a word with no cognate in any related language, and not borrowed into another language. Under this definition a word can be unique even when its denotation is commonplace: examples of words unique to English are boy, girl, and dog. Words unique to an endangered language are thus especially endangered.

Aside: The definition of unique word would seem to need a further component, to discount homoplasy.: there could be another language unrelated to English in which, by chance, [dog] denotes 'dog' and indeed Mbabaram of north Queensland was such a language.

Taking this view further, we can see that an endangered word W could survive in a way by being adopted into a stronger language. It is easy to see how at least the form of W can persist, adapted by loan phonology; the full range of senses of W, however, usually does not survive borrowing, similarly connections with derivations. Thus boomerang, once uniquely attested from a language near Sydney, has been indelibly borrowed around the world (as has the derived sense or connotation of 'boomeranging' which developed in English). Lexical adoption can apply in domains beyond cultural artefacts. A related survival niche is lexical immortality through scientific nomenclature, so that wombat (once uniquely attested from a language near Sydney) survives in the name Vombatidae.

I illustrate this with unique words of Warlmanpa, an endangered language of the central Northern Territory, Australia.


Abley, Mark. 2005. Spoken here: Travels among threatened languages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Evans, Nicholas. 2011. Dying words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Wiley-Blackwell.

Harrison, K David. 2008. When languages die: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge.  Oxford University Press, USA.

© 2013 David Nash