Speaker types

Within the linguistic study of endangered languages, sociolinguists distinguish between different speaker types based on the type of competence they have acquired of the endangered language. Often in situations where a community is gradually shifting away from an endangered language to a majority language, not all speakers acquire full linguistic competence, but have varying degrees and types of competence depending on the kind of exposure to the minority language they experienced in their upbringing. Originally the relevance of speaker types in situations of language shift was noted by Nancy Dorian who coined the term semi-speaker to refer to those speakers of Sutherland Gaelic who were predominantly English-speaking and whose Gaelic competence was limited and showed considerable influence from English.[1][2] Later studies added additional speaker types such as rememberers (who remember some words and phrases but have little or no grammatical competence and do not actively speak the language), passive speakers (who have nearly full comprehension competence but do not actively speak the language). In the context of language revitalization, neo-speakers who have learned the endangered language as a second language are sometimes distinguished.[3][4][5]

In contexts of language acquisition and language teaching studies sometimes there is a distinction between native speakers and second language speakers, depending on whether language was learned as a language of primary socialisation or learned after already having fully acquired a first language. In contexts of multilingualism a bilingual speaker may also be described as a heritage speaker (A heritage language actually refers to a language whose speakers have moved from the original area where the language was spoken: eg. Welsh is a heritage language in Patagonia, but not in Wales) if they have not been as fully exposed to one of their languages, leading to a diminished degree of confidence in themselves as speakers, and sometimes also limited competence in one of their languages.


A rememberer is a person who knows individual words or phrases (sometimes entire texts) of a dying or dead language but cannot use the language productively.[6] It is contrasted with fluent or full speakers, who have a good command of the language, and semi-speakers, who have a partial command of it.[7] The distinction between fluent speakers and rememberers is important in fieldwork, but accurately determining where a member of a language community falls on the speaker-rememberer continuum can be challenging.[8]

A passive speaker (also referred to as a receptive bilingual or passive bilingual) is someone who has had enough exposure to a language in childhood to have a native-like comprehension of it, but has little or no active command of it. Such speakers are especially common in language shift communities where speakers of a declining language do not acquire active competence. Around 10% of the Ainu people who speak the language are considered passive speakers. Passive speakers are often targeted in language revival efforts to increase the number of speakers of a language quickly, as they are likely to gain active and near-native speaking skills more quickly than those with no knowledge of the language. They are also found in areas where people grow up hearing another language outside their family with no formal education.

A semi-speaker is a speaker who has acquired a partial linguistic competence in a given language, but who does not generally use it regularly in conversation. Their speech can contain erroneous forms. Semi-speakers are often among the most motivated and engaged participants in language revitalization projects.[9] As languages become obsolete and speech communities shift to other languages, they are spoken less frequently and in fewer social domains. Many speakers learn the language partially, often in a simplified way, with significant influence from the majority language. They are sometimes referred to as "semi-speakers", "quasi-speakers" or "rememberers". The word semi-speaker was introduced by linguist Nancy Dorian in describing the last speakers of the East Sutherland dialect of Scots Gaelic.[10][11] When semi-speakers form a significant part of the speech, community language contraction often ensues, as the linguistic norms are accommodated to the competences of the speakers.[12][13]

A terminal speaker is the last speaker of a language. A terminal speaker may still be alive, or may have been the last person speaking what is now an extinct language.[14] In the process of language death, the remaining speakers begin to lose some of the vocabulary and grammar of the language, so when there is only a last terminal speaker, the person will not remember a complete form of the language as it had been spoken by a larger community using it in all language domains. Being a terminal speaker means that the person is bilingual, remembering their heritage language but interacting with their community in another language. The importance of this distinction is seen in the story of Dolly Pentreath of Cornwall. She is popularly named as the last fluent, first-language speaker of Cornish, but there were others who still spoke it for many years, though possibly incompletely. Terminal speakers are sometimes found by linguists doing language documentation on a language before it dies. A clear example of a terminal speaker being contacted by a linguist is the case of Abegaz, the last speaker of the Mesmes language in Ethiopia.[15] He lived in an isolated hilly area and was about 80 years old when he was contacted by a team of sociolinguistic language surveyors; he has died since that contact. Ned Maddrell was the last speaker of the Manx language, having died in 1974. In 2008, Doris McLemore was reported to be the last speaker of the Wichita language as she worked with a team of linguists to document the language before it died completely.[16] Many more terminal speakers are listed under the Wikipedia category Last known speakers of a language.


  1. Dorian, N. C. (1977). The problem of the semi-speaker in language death. Linguistics, 15(191), 23-32.
  2. Dorian, N. C. (1980). Language shift in community and individual: The phenomenon of the laggard semi-speaker. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 1980(25), 85-94.
  3. Hornsby, Michael. "The “new” and “traditional” speaker dichotomy: bridging the gap." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2015, no. 231 (2015): 107-125.
  4. Grinevald, Colette. "Speakers and documentation of endangered languages." Language documentation and description 1 (2003): 52-72.
  5. Grinevald, Collette & Michel Bert. 2011. "Speakers and Communities" in Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia, eds. (2011). Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88215-6. p.50
  6. Grinevald, Colette; Bert, Michel (2011). The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages (PDF). Cambridge. p. 51.
  7. Podesva, Robert J.; et al. (2014). Research Methods in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-1107696358.
  8. Chelliah, Shobhana L.; et al. (2010). Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 176–177. ISBN 978-9048190256.
  9. Grinevald, Collette & Michel Bert. 2011. "Speakers and Communities" in Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia, eds. (2011). Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88215-6. p.50
  10. Dorian, Nancy C. 1980. Language Shift in Community and Individual: The Phenomenon of the Laggard Semi-Speaker. International Journal of the Sociology of Language. Vol. 1980, Iss. 25, Pages 85–94
  11. N. Dorian, "The Problem of the Semi-Speaker in Language Death," International Journal of the Sociology of Language 12 (1977): 23-32.
  12. Knowles-Berry, Susan (Winter 1987). "Linguistic decay in Chontal Mayan: the speech of semi-speakers". Anthropological Linguistics. 29 (4): 332–341. JSTOR 30028108.
  13. Dorian, Nancy C. (September 1978). "Fate of morphological complexity in language death: Evidence from East Sutherland Gaelic". Language. 54 (3): 590–609. doi:10.1353/lan.1978.0024. JSTOR 412788.
  14. Polinsky, Maria. 1995. Cross-linguistic parallels in language loss. Southwest Journal of Linguistics 14.1-2 pp. 87-123.
  15. Ahland, Michael Bryan. (2010). Language death in Mesmes. Dallas: SIL International and the University of Texas at Arlington.
  16. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18532656 Web access]

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/28/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.