SOAS University of London

Scholars secure recognition of ‘exceptional value’ of two endangered languages

23 October 2015

Priceless cultural heritage is lost when language communities are displaced by civil war and urban migration. However, research by SOAS linguists on two endangered languages in Senegal has brought international recognition of their value, together with work to preserve them.

Confluence of Agnak
Kanraxël - the confluence of Agnack, explores language diversity and was filmed at Professor Friederike Lüpke’s field site in Senegal

Professor Friederike Lüpke's and Dr. Alexander Cobbinah's research on two Baïnounk languages, which are spoken in multilingual communities in Senegal, has led to the languages being added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register. The register is a prestigious list that contains documentary heritage of exceptional value to the world.

In total 64 collections of The Language Archive in Nijmegen were added, one of which was on the Baïnounk language cluster. The Language Archive (TLA) at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics preserves language materials for the future, and makes them available for scientific research and use by the wider public.

Professor Friederike Lüpke’s and Dr Alexander Cobbinah's research was part of the three-year project "Plants, pots and people - a documentation of Baïnounk knowledge systems" funded by the German VW Foundation in their DoBeS (Documentation of Endangered Languages) Programme led by Professor Lüpke. Research on Baïnounk languages continues in the ongoing Crossroads project which investigates multilingualism and language contact between three languages spoken at the “crossroads” – a group of neighbouring villages in the Casamance area of Senegal, West Africa. Dr Alexander Cobbinah is currently a Postdoctoral researcher on the Crossroads project which is headed by Professor Lüpke.

The Baïnounk languages are a cluster of endangered language spoken in Casamance. Today, the main varieties of Baïnounk are spoken in Senegal and the neighbouring country Guinea Bissau. The communities in which these languages are spoken have been multilingual for hundreds of years and index flexible alliances through speaking different languages. Building on initial DoBeS and ELDP-funded research focussing on individual languages, the ongoing research conducted by the Crossroads team investigates patterns of multilingual language use regarding both their social motivations and their consequences for the shape of linguistic systems. This collaborative research allows insight into the architecture of an entire languae ecology and how multilingualism is maintained. Africa is one of the hotspots of linguistic diversity, countering global trends of language death. Understanding which factors contribute to language vitality there is crucial for its protection. 

Professor Lüpke said: "Speakers of Baïnounk languages live in thriving multilingual communities that contrary to public imagination are protected, rather than being endangered by, a longstanding social practice of extensive multilingualism. These languages are threatened by external factors such as displacement due to civil war and urban migration. Baïnounk languages and their fascinating multilingual ecologies are invisible in the national linguistic landscape of Senegal and virtually unknown to scholars and the general public. Being recognised by the UNESCO is therefore an important symbolic recognition for their speakers and their fascinating patterns of language use. Being part of the UNESCO Memory of the World register will help pave the way for an acknowledgement of West African multilingualism and its role in the social lives of their speakers.