REVIVALISTICS: Why Should We Invest Time and Money in Reclaiming ‘Dead’ Languages?

Language and Culture

By Ghil‘ad Zuckermann

This article introduces revivalistics, the new science behind language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration. It explores the various benefits of language revival.


Revivalistics is a new comparative, global, trans-disciplinary field of enquiry studying comparatively and systematically the universal constraints and global mechanisms on the one hand (Zuckermann 2003, 2009, 2020), and particularistic peculiarities and cultural relativist idiosyncrasies on the other, apparent in linguistic reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration across various sociological backgrounds, all over the globe (Zuckermann and Walsh 2011, 2014).

What is the difference between reclamation, revitalization, and reinvigoration? All of them are on the revival spectrum. Here are my specific definitions:

  • Reclamation is the revival of a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tongue, i.e. a no-longer natively spoken language, as in the case of Hebrew, Barngarla (the Aboriginal language of Eyre Peninsula, South Australia), Wampanoag, Siraya and Myaamia.
  • Revitalization is the revival of a severely endangered language, for example Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges in Australia, as well as Karuk and Walmajarri.
  • Reinvigoration is the revival of an endangered language that still has a high percentage of children speaking it, for example the Celtic languages Welsh and Irish, and the Romance languages Catalan and Quebecoise French.

Language endangerment has little to do with absolute numbers. Rather, it has to do with the percentage of children within the language group speaking the language natively. A language spoken natively by 10 million people can be endangered (as, say, only 40% of its kids speak it). A language spoken natively by 3,000 people can be safe and healthy (as 100% of its kids are native speakers).

Obviously, reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration are on a continuum, a cline. They do not constitute a discrete trichotomy. That said, the distinction is most useful. For example, the Master-Apprentice (or Mentor/Apprentice) method can only be used in the revitalization and reinvigoration, not in reclamation. This method was pioneered by linguist Leanne Hinton at the University of California, Berkeley (see, e.g., Hinton 1994), who had been working with a wide range of Native American languages spoken or in some cases remembered or documented across California. In many cases, she was working with the remaining handful of ageing fluent speakers of languages such as Karuk. It is a difficult proposition to ask an elderly speaker to come into a school classroom and teach children when they themselves are not trained teachers and, in some cases, may never have had an opportunity to attend school themselves. Even if they were able to teach their languages in a school setting, will this really ensure that their language continues into future generations? Probably not. What is more effective is to ensure that highly motivated young adults who are themselves owners-custodians of the language gain a sound knowledge of and fluency in their language. This is achieved through the Master-Apprentice (or Mentor/Apprentice) approach: A young person is paired with an older fluent speaker – perhaps a granddaughter with her grandmother – and their job is to speak the language with each other without resorting to English. It does not matter what they do – they can weave baskets, go fishing, build houses, or fix cars together – so long as they speak the language with each other (Zuckermann 2020).

Revivalistics is trans-disciplinary because it studies language revival from various angles such as law, mental health, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, geography, politics, history, biology, evolution, genetics, genomics, colonization studies, missionary studies, media, animation film, technology, talknology, art, theatre, dance, agriculture, archaeology, music (see Grant 2014), games (indirect learning), education, pedagogy (see Hinton 2011), and even architecture.

Consider architecture. An architect involved in revivalistics might ask the following ‘location, location, location’ question, which is, of course, beyond language:

  • Should we reclaim an Indigenous language in a natural Indigenous setting, to replicate the original ambience of heritage, culture, laws, and lores?
  • Should we reclaim an Indigenous language in a modern building that has Indigenous characteristics such as Aboriginal colours and shapes?
  • Should we reclaim an Aboriginal language in a western governmental building – to give an empowering signal that the tribe has the full support of contemporary mainstream society?

Why Should We Invest Time and Money In Reclaiming ‘Sleeping Beauty Languages?

Approximately 7,000 languages are currently spoken worldwide. The majority of these are spoken by small populations. Approximately 96% of the world’s population speaks around 4% of the world’s languages, leaving the vast majority of tongues vulnerable to extinction and disempowering their speakers. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority.

With globalization of dominant cultures, homogenization and Coca-colonization, cultures at the periphery are becoming marginalized, and more and more groups all over the world are added to the forlorn club of the lost-heritage peoples. One of the most important symptoms of this cultural disaster is language loss.

The following is my own trichotomy of the main revivalistic reasons for language revival. The first reason for language revival is ethical: It is right. The second reason for language revival is aesthetic: It is beautiful. The third benefit for language revival is utilitarian: It is viable and socially beneficial.

Ethical Reasons

A plethora of the world’s languages have not just been dying of their own accord; many were destroyed by settlers of this land. For example, in Australia we owe it to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to support the maintenance and revival of their cultural heritage, in this instance through language revival. According to the international law of human rights, persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to use their own language (Article (art.) 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)). Thus, every person has the right to express themselves in the language of their ancestors, not just in the language of convenience that English has become.

Through supporting language revival, we can appreciate the significance of Indigenous languages and recognise their importance to Indigenous people and to Australia. We can then right some small part of the wrong against the original inhabitants of this country and support the wishes of their ancestors with the help of linguistic knowledge.

Aesthetic Reasons

The linguist Ken Hale, who worked with many endangered languages and saw the effect of loss of language, compared losing language to bombing the Louvre: ‘When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre’ (The Economist, 3 November 2001). A museum is a repository of human artistic culture. Languages are at least equally important since they store the cultural practices and beliefs of an entire people. Different languages have different ways of expressing ideas and this can indicate which concepts are important to a certain culture.

For example, in Australia, information relating to food sources, surviving in nature, and Dreaming/history is being lost along with the loss of Aboriginal languages. A study by Boroditsky and Gaby (2010) found that speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken in Pormpuraaw on the west coast of Cape York, do not use ‘left’ or ‘right’, but always use cardinal directions (i.e. north, south, east, west). They claim that Kuuk Thaayorre speakers are constantly aware of where they are situated and that this use of directions also affects their awareness of time (Boroditsky and Gaby 2010). Language supports different ways of ‘being in the world’.

Such cases are abundant around the world. An example of a grammatical way to express a familiar concept is mamihlapinatapai, a lexical item in the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego in Chile and Argentina. It refers to ‘a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would offer something that they both desire but have been unwilling to suggest or offer themselves’. This lexical item, which refers to a concept that many have despite lacking a specific word for it in their language, can be broken down into morphemes: ma– is a reflexive/passive prefix (realized as the allomorph mam- before a vowel); ihlapi ‘to be at a loss as what to do next’; -n, stative suffix; ‑ata, achievement suffix; and -apai, a dual suffix, which has a reciprocal sense with ma- (circumfix).

Two examples of concepts that most people might never imagine are (1) nakhur, in Ancient Persian, refers to ‘camel that will not give milk until her nostrils have been tickled’. Clearly, camels are very important in this society and survival may have historically depended on camel milk; (2) tingo, in Rapa Nui (Pasquan) of Easter Island (Eastern Polynesian language), is ‘to take all the objects one desires from the house of a friend, one at a time, by asking to borrow them, until there is nothing left’ (see De Boinod 2005; De Boinod & Zuckermann 2011); (3) bunjurrbi, in  Wambaya (Non-Pama-Nyungan West Barkly Australian language, Barkly Tableland of the Northern Territory, Australia), is a verb meaning ‘to face your bottom toward someone when getting up from the ground’.

Such fascinating and multifaceted words, maximus in minimīs, should not be lost. They are important to the cultures they are from and make the outsiders reflexive of their own cultures. Through language maintenance and reclamation we can keep important cultural practices and concepts alive. Lest we forget that human imagination is often limited. Consider aliens in many Hollywood films: despite approximately 3.5 billion years of DNA evolution, many people still resort to the ludicrous belief that aliens ought to look like ugly human beings, with two eyes, one nose, and one mouth.

Utilitarian Benefits

Language revival benefits the speakers involved through improvement of wellbeing, cognitive abilities, and mental health (see Zuckermann and Walsh 2014; chapter 9 of Zuckermann 2020); language revival also reduces delinquency and increases cultural tourism. Language revival has a positive effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of people involved in such projects. Participants develop a better appreciation of and sense of connection with their cultural heritage. Learning the language of their ancestors can be an emotional experience and can provide people with a strong sense of pride and identity.

There are also cognitive advantages to bilingualism and multilingualism. Several studies have found that bilingual children have better non-linguistic cognitive abilities compared with monolingual children (Kovács & Mehler 2009) and improved attention and auditory processing (Krizman et al. 2012: 7879): the bilingual’s ‘enhanced experience with sound results in an auditory system that is highly efficient, flexible and focused in its automatic sound processing, especially in challenging or novel listening conditions’.

Furthermore, the effects of multilingualism extend to those who have learned another language in later life and can be found across the whole lifespan. This is relevant to the first generation of revivalists, who might themselves be monolingual (as they won’t become native speakers of the Revival Language). The effects of non-native multilingualism include better cognitive performance in old age (Bak et al. 2014), a significantly later onset of dementia (Alladi et al. 2013), and a better cognitive outcome after stroke (Alladi et al. 2016; Paplikar et al. 2018). Moreover, a measurable improvement in attention has been documented in participants aged from 18 to 78 years after just one week of an intensive language course (Bak et al. 2016). Language learning and active multilingualism are increasingly seen as contributing not only to psychological wellbeing but also to brain health (Bak & Mehmedbegovic 2017), with the potential of reducing money spent on medical care (Bak 2017).

Further benefits to non-native multilingualism are demonstrated by Keysar et al. (2012: 661). They found that decision-making biases are reduced when using a non-native language, as follows:

Four experiments show that the ‘framing effect’ disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language. Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.

Therefore, language revival is not only empowering culturally, but also cognitively, and not only the possibly-envisioned native speakers of the future but also the learning revivalists of the present.

Concluding Remarks

More and more indigenous and minority communities seek to reinstate their cultural authority in the world. Revivalistics can assist them in doing so. One should listen to the voice of Jenna Richards, a Barngarla Aboriginal woman who took part in my first Barngarla reclamation workshop in Port Lincoln, South Australia, on 18-20 April 2012. She wrote to me the following sentence in an unsolicited email message on 3 May 2012:

Personally, I found the experience of learning our language liberating and went home feeling very overwhelmed because we were finally going to learn our “own” language, it gave me a sense of identity and I think if the whole family learnt our language then we would all feel totally different about ourselves and each other cause it’s almost like it gives you a purpose in life.

As Barngarla woman Evelyn Walker (née Dohnt) wrote to me following the same reclamation workshop: Our ancestors are happy!

This article was originally published on 8 February 2022.

About the Author

Ghil‘ad ZuckermannProfessor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann (DPhil Oxford) is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia (2011-present); and President of the Australian Association for Jewish Studies (2017-present). Throughout 2017-2021 he was chief investigator in an NHMRC research project assessing language revival and mental health. He is the author of the seminal bestsellers Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2020), Israelit Safa Yafa (Israeli – A Beautiful Language; Am Oved, 2008), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 多源造词研究 (Multisourced Neologization; East China Normal University Press, 2021), Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property (2015), Dictionary of the Barngarla Aboriginal Language (2018), Barngarlidhi Manoo (Speaking Barngarla Together, 2019) and Mangiri Yarda (Healthy Country: Barngarla Wellbeing and Nature, Revivalistics Press, 2021).


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.