Many people around the world rely on the Ethnologue, published by SIL International, for up-to-date information on the world’s languages. This is a listing of more than 7,000 languages spoken on every continent, giving information about where the languages are spoken, the number of speakers, and what languages are related to one another.
The 2013 edition of Ethnologue has just appeared and unfortunately it contains grossly inaccurate information about the Dieri language. Ethnologue uses the international standards office (ISO-639) codes for languages, and for Dieri this is DIF. Here is what it says:
Notice that Dieri is listed as extinct, that is, no-one speaks it. In the main information section of the 2013 edition here is what it says about Dieri:
Each language is now classified on a scale of Language Status from 1 (alive and kicking) to 10 (dead and gone). So Dieri is classified as 9 “dormant” (asleep). The authors explain what these language status terms mean:
9 Dormant – The language serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency.
10 Extinct – The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language.
Well the 600 members of the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation would certainly object to being told that “no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language”! They would also object to the idea that “no one has more than symbolic proficiency”. A number of the Elders can speak Dieri, and Nanna Renie Warren in particular, is completely fluent. The voices of these speakers can be heard on the Dieri Yawarra CD-ROM, and in the recordings made as part of the Ngayana Dieri Yawarra Yathayilha project and the current ILS-funded language revitalisation project.
Notice also that the Ethnologue says there are “no known L1 speakers” — what this means to say is that there is no-one who grew up speaking Dieri as their first language. Again, this is grossly inaccurate as quite a number of the Elders spoke Dieri as children, and continue to speak it to each other as adults.
It is a shame that this kind of misinformation is published by what is supposed to be a major international reference source.
Note: the title of this blog means ‘The Dieri language is not dying’. It is made up of these words:
nhaririyi ‘is dying, is becoming dead’ which is made up of nhari ‘dead’ and the endings –ri ‘become’ and -yi ‘is happening now, present tense’