JANE HILL is Regents' Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona and President-Elect of the American Anthropological Society. She has been interested in language obsolescence since the late 1960s and has published several papers in this area, dealing especially with the relationship between structural change and changes in language use. She has also published extensively on broader issues in language contact and language change, including "Speaking Mexicano" (1986, with Kenneth C. Hill). Her interests are primarily in Native American languages of the Uto-Aztecan family, where she has done field work on Cupeño, Mexicano (Nahuatl), and Tohono O'odham (Papago). Her current field work on Tohono O'odham includes attention to attrition in the biosystematic lexicon of this language.
Languages can die quite independently of their speakers. We understand this process in two dimensions: the range of functional domains in which speakers habitually use a language is eroded, and the range of formal means deployed in these usages erodes as well. The two dimensions are closely intertwined. I will address functional attrition at the level of language ideology, genres, and interactional frames, and formal attrition at levels of discourse, lexicon, syntax, morphology, and phonology. A significant problem is to distinguish the formal and functional symptoms of language death from very similar dynamics of "normal" language change in non-threatened languages, especially since we have no theory of the minimal requirements for formal elaboration in a "language", nor of the minimal requirements for boundedness required to sustain a "language". Concepts of formal requirements and of boundaries resonate in complex ways with language ideologies, both among communities of speakers and among linguists, and these resonances cannot be neglected in assessing the health of languages.
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