News & Reviews

Revivalistics - Zuckermann

Reviewed by Karin Calley and Xavier Barker

Twenty-two years ago the title of Joshua Fishman’s groundbreaking book on reverse language shift action asked the question “Can threatened languages be saved?”[i].  In the first year of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a protege of Fishman’s, assures us that this is the case. Our threatened languages can and must be saved. Zuckermann’s new book, Revivalisitics is a necessary and timely call-to-arms. For those of us who work with speech communities in their efforts to reclaim and revitalise their fragile ancestral languages, Revivalistics is welcome – a realistic but positive, kind and empowering book –  a clear voice in an urgent conversation about language justice and peoplehood for poor and marginalised speech communities.

In Revivalistics Zuckermann examines many of those questions to which we seek answers – the whats and the hows and the whys of reverse language shift. Revivalistics is a document of reverse language shift action that will prove to be an important step in our quest for language justice.

Revivalistics can be best interpreted as a literary diptych; the first panel devoted to describing the beginnings and ultimate success of Israeli, the second panel to the application of the lessons learned to revive indigenous and minority languages around the world, with a trove of ideas and insights about how to advance the revival of threatened languages.

The book opens with an analysis of Hebrew reclamation which has led to what Zuckermann calls Israeli. Revivalistics issues a challenge to the Stammbaum model of language evolution, suggesting the Congruence Principle better explains the genesis of reclaimed languages. Pama Language Centre’s Mpakwithi revival project illustrates this point well. Mpakwithi language revival began with a grammar sketch of the Mpakwithi dialect of Anguthimri, a short wordlist recorded by Terry Crowley[ii] in the 1970’s along with recordings of Donald Fletcher, the last fluent speaker of classical Mpakwithi and a number of remembered gospel songs in Mpakwithi from the language custodians’ childhood. The corpus has now been expanded with the development of literature, film, animations, songs and the language itself has been semi-engineered using elements of related languages; Thaynakwith and Angkamuthi chief among them.

Zuckermann draws many analogies with biology. One such insight that we think is useful is that language is more analogous with a species than an organism; whilst a speaker is a discrete, living user of a language, the language itself is the set of tacitly agreed-upon norms that unify a speech community as being ‘unique’ and homologous. And so, the revivalist’s goal should be to revitalise a speech-community, rather than a language.

To expand on this idea, Zuckermannn[iii] has elsewhere described what he calls The Revival Paradox thus:

  1. Whereas linguists put the language at the centre, revivalists put the language custodians at the centre
  2. Whereas in documentary linguistics the Indigenous/minority people have the knowledge of the language, in the revivalistic case of reclamation, the revivalist is the one with that knowledge.

Just to clear the decks: based on successful revitalisations such as Israeli Hebrew and Hawaiian, Zuckermannn makes it clear that a revived language is not going to be the same as the pre-shift form of the language. Because “shift happens’, ‘and this is ok.

We are not failing if – after months or years or even decades of language revitalisation toil – our speech communities are not speaking “the classical” forms of their languages. Language revival is – and probably needs to be – an endless quest. Language vitality also means different things to different people at different times and success is relative.

Reward for effort – return on investment – is critically important to maintaining momentum and enthusiasm in the difficult work of reviving a sleeping language or revitalising a fragile language.

The Pareto Principle is a tool from economic theory that we can apply to language revival action to inform maximisation of the reward effort ratio.

In Revivalistics Zuckermann introduces a generalised cline of revivablity in which elements of a ‘sleeping beauty’ language lie on a gradient of revivability: from the least revivable features – spirit/mindset, discourse, phonology, phonetics, semantics, morphology, syntax, to the most revivable feature, lexis.  Whilst most of these terms are well-known to linguists, “spirit/mindset” might be less familiar as a linguistic concept. Pama Language Centre proposes we use the term, “folklynne” popularized by Swedish statistician Gustav Sundbärg in 1911[iv], meaning the “people’s temperament”. Zuckermann’s Gradient of Revivability, in assigning comparative difficulty to various aspects of the revival process, provides a tool to which we can refer when calculating reward/effort matrices in the awakening of Sleeping Beauties.

Referring again to Mpakwithi revival – in recognition of reward for effort – phonological features of the local variety of Aboriginal English, Torres Strait and NPA Creoles also find themselves creeping into the awakening Beauty: Mpakwithi’s unique set of fricatives (bilabial, post-alveolar, dental, palatal and dorsal) have undergone convergence with stops, trills and taps. If we were to labour the task of precisely resurrecting Donald Fletcher’s phonology, we would be hamstringing our revival efforts by over-tasking and perhaps discouraging adult Mpakwithi learners. Of course, whilst revivalists and speech communities must collectively come to pragmatic decisions in the interests of today’s speech community and language revival, we must also take great care to preserve all that is known about the language in the interests of future revival efforts and future revivalists and equally important as considerations of effort and reward are the current status of the language, particular interests, skills and experience of individuals, the priorities of speech communities and the quirks of opportunity. For many revitalisation languages in Cape York Peninsula the folklynne, the most difficult aspect of language to revitalise, remains strong.

In the second chapter of Revivalistics titled, ’Nother tongue, Zuckermann proposes that reclaimed languages are multi-parental and that this process should be celebrated for adding to the diversity of human languages. Again, some aspects of Injinoo Ikya revival mirror, in a number of ways, the Israeli situation.

The hybridisation of three Cape York ‘sleeping beauties’ (Angkamuthi, Atambaya and Yadhaykenu) confirms Zuckermann’s observation that awakening cannot take place without “cross-fertilisation with the revivalists’ mother tongue”. Heinz Kloss[v] has described this relationship between mutually intelligible language varieties as Ausbau; Ausbau languages are a collective of languages developing in the same direction, providing a Dach – or roof –  under which non-standard varieties can shelter. In the Injinoo Ikya experience, a strong influence of NPA Creole can be heard in the phonology. Injinoo Ikya is to Crowley’s Uradhi what Zuckermann’s Israeli is to Hebrew; it provides the Dach to the Uradhi Ausbau.

Zuckermann is confirming what Crystal (2000:162)[vi] said, that “the revived language is not the same as the original language; most obviously it lacks the breadth of functions which it originally had, and large amounts of old vocabulary are missing. But, as it continues in present-day-use, it will develop new functions and new vocabulary, just as any other living language would, and as long as people value it as a true marker of their identity, and are prepared to keep using it, there is no reason to think of it as anything other than a valid system of communication.” We caution however that if the revival language fails to rise to the challenge to serve the ambitions and needs of the speech community, it remains in danger of again falling silent.

Zuckermann’s exploration of the “how” of language revival opens up an important conversation about the psychology and strategy of language revival  – rules of engagement, attitudes, roles and responsibilities, practical approaches and methods which are applicable  to sleeping and fragile language revival and maintenance in all, including Australian contexts. The key idea of revivalistics is that language revival is necessarily multifaceted, rich and complex work  that needs to be approached from many angles and include a wide range of perspectives, skills and understandings. In reverse language shift the role of the linguist revivalist is just one of many and the linguist in this role must reinvent themselves.  Pama Language Centre applauds this insight.

Our experience of language revival in Cape York supports  Zuckermann’s conclusion; the linguist alone cannot hope to achieve reclamation.  Whilst Zuckermann is known as a polymath who has served as the revivalist-in-chief in the Barngarla reclamation, Pama Language Centre approaches revivalistics – the transdisciplinary requirements of language revival – by seeking language revitalisation partnerships and recruiting language revitalisation teams with diverse skill sets, experience and backgrounds; indigenous Australians, Micronesians, Europeans who are also linguists, artists, pedagogy experts, microbiologists, parents, grant-writers, coaches, athletes, political scientists, archaeologists, musicians, computer scientists, filmmakers, systems administrators, composers, librettists, historians, writers, singers, animators, educators, social roboticists, business administrators, performers, sports scientists, technologists, engineers, programmers, cognitive scientists, designers and more. We look forward to our list of collaborators expanding to include all other fields of expertise including soon, we hope, health professionals and policy makers. Rather than being inter- or multi-disciplinary, Pama Language Centre revivalists have discovered – as Zuckermannn has – that the creative processes employed in our revival projects allow us to explore and discover solutions that do not come from any single realm of expertise within the group.

Pama Language Centre pursues a hungry approach to language revival. We want our people to have big expectations and to benefit fully from the detail and rich texture of their historical linguistic identity – but we also recognise that where we can go with language revival at a given moment in history depends on a lot of things:  is this reclamation, revival or maintenance? What are the assets our speech community has at its disposal? What are the speech community’s interests? What is the speech communitiy’s definition of successful revival? We need to encourage great expectations and anticipation, but we also need to be realistic and to acknowledge every achievement as such.

In Revivalistics Zuckermann suggests we should think of language revival as a journey. We think we need to take a long view of this journey – perhaps as an inter-generational journey – look at what actions are going to be the most beneficial, rewarding for the individuals and communities we are working with and take it from there. We don’t think there is a map – rather we must navigate together with the tools and information we discover along the way, and not be too proud to stop and ask for directions.

If you have a wordlist and a sketch grammar, a linguist – or preferably a few linguists – who ‘get’ revivalistics, some enthusiastic and talented language champions (artists, singers, story tellers?), some IT expertise, you might produce a series of beautifully illustrated read aloud ebooks, or some original songs in your ancestral language – for starters. Language revival is a journey – but experience tells us that success depends on the journey being rewarding and exciting and our achievements being a delight to us, not a sad slog – even if we are battling the odds.

Why should threatened languages be saved? Why did Zuckermann write this book? The “why” of language revitalisation is also the “why” of Revivalistics.

Zuckermannn lists a number of reasons explicitly; improvement of social outcomes, health outcomes, justice outcomes, states of mental health and many more true and compelling reasons. Pama Language Centre takes a Kantian view: we pursue revivalistics because revival of threatened languages is right, regardless of the social, health or economic outcomes. Even if we didn’t spare a generation from the blight of diabetes, or the misery of suicide clusters; it is right to support people to revive their language if this is what they wish.

In 2015 John Ralston Saul, then president of PEN International, the society for authors which championed the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights and the Girona Manifesto on language rights, identified the loss of ancestral language as the loss of a fundamental human right of freedom of expression, article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ralston Saul said:

“When I’m not acting as president of PEN International, I am a Canadian. We share in the Americas the fact that we are probably the most disgraceful of two or three continents when it comes to the destruction of indigenous languages. We have done wrong, again and again, over the centuries by continuing to allow these languages and cultures to be damaged…. This is a big concern because we believe that losing your language is a very serious form of losing your freedom of expression.” (2015)[vii]

Language is a right and loss of language rights is a social justice failure. So our first argument must be that threatened languages should be saved because these languages – these sleeping beauties, are the precious inheritance of a people. The historical relationship between linguistic and political oppression and social and economic marginalisation is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in Australia.

Fragile languages throughout the world are small languages. Speakers of fragile languages are typically poor and marginalised, without the economic or political means to champion their own cultural survival. Viability of ancestral languages and culture is of critical importance to the well-being, capacity and future of First Nations and minority peoples. However there is also now an increasing body of evidence to show that a strong link exists between the cultural and the physical well-being of individuals.

In fact the revitalisation of fragile languages is not only possible but essential for the wellbeing of individuals and for the survival of cultural minorities who are struggling to preserve their rights and identities in the face of dispossession and cultural and economic imperialism.

Revivalistics is about empowering the poor and marginalised peoples of the world in their fight  to reclaim their languages, their autonomy and their freedom. Zuckermann describes how owners-custodians-speakers are empowered to run their own programmes and teach their own languages. This is a key goal of Pama Language Centre’s approach: to work with language-keepers to discover and develop the skills, insights, tools and structural support they need to continue their language revival work into the future, beyond the existence of their current revival support team.

Whilst Pama Language Centre’s “why” is the “why” of speech communities and indigenous First Nations – that their language is a right, Zuckermann is of course correct to present the many and overwhelmingly convincing “whys” of language revitalisation that government and policy makers should take into account; improving health, justice and social outcomes. Zuckermann presents these as part of a cost-benefit argument.

His evidence is that revivalistics leads to a lower cost of maintaining indigenous populations: consider the $50,000 per language/per annum cited as the Commonwealth’s contribution to language reclamation, compared with the $100,000 per annum cost of youth incarceration or $1395 per day cost of adolescent in mental health care. The point Zuckermann emphasises is that engagement with language revival as much as whatever language revival outcomes there may be – is a good thing for people and for a speech community. Our experience bears this out. Guugu Yimithirr parents are proud and excited to see their children learning Guugu Yimithirr language at school and many children say that Guugu Yimithirr is their favourite class. They are proud to be learning to write their language and speak “like my Gami” (paternal Grandfather / maternal Grandmother) and working together to compose and sing new songs in Guugu Yimithirr.

In Chapter 6 of Revivalistics Zuckermann discusses the processes of language engagement – emphasising that the way we approach this needs to be very open, creative and receptive to the desires, needs, skills, interests and personalities of the speech community. Mpakwithi revivalists were already creative people before beginning their language revival journey; all were artists and choreographers.  Recognising and being able to harness the creativity of the Mpakwithi community to develop revival activities has been central to their movement. Now they are not just painters and sculptors but have developed creative writing skills, singing ability and songwriting. Most importantly for them, they have developed these skills through expression in their ancestral language; the remarkable success of collaborative creativity as a language engagement process reminds us of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the message is in the medium”[viii].

It has been our experience that establishing a collaborative creative environment is critical for language revitalisation and the key to this is trust. A successful creative collaboration takes time and good will to grow. Many indigenous communities of Cape York have become guarded against the linguist; people who have come in, elicited information and then disappeared to publish their work. Other than the academic work itself, which can be mined for information by those with specialist knowledge, there have rarely been any useful resources left behind for the owners of the language upon which the linguist has built their reputation. Investing time in the community to understand the motivations and goals of the individuals and the collective is a step that cannot be overlooked. And the importance of trust – both for collaborative creativity and for language revitalisation – cannot be overstated.

Leadership scientist Kurk Dirks[ix] demonstrated that the athlete-coach trust relationship is pivotal to performance outcomes: where athletes have highest levels of trust in their coach, their success is greatest; when trust is low, performance is worse. This insight is crucial to the revivalist: having high levels of trust allows the revival participants to exercise fully their creativity; lowered inhibitions – where judgement is removed from the learning environment – facilitates the acquisition of language and emboldens the learner to step forward and try – to sing, to write, to dance, and to share their language.

Zuckermann lists four principles of linguistic survival:

1 – if your language is endangered, do not let it die

2 – if your language is dead; stop, revive survive

3 – if you have revived your language, embrace the hybridity of the emergent language

4 – if your language is safe, consider helping others in linguistic need

PLC would like to add to Zuckermann’s principles with some helpful thoughts from the Mpakwithi, who are a Cape York language revival success. We would like to call these The ma-cha-nja principles (people, language, land principles).

Agnes Mark, Victoria and Susan Kennedy and their elder cousin Celia are the custodians of the Mpakwithi language. Mpakwithi was one of the first Ancestral Language Teams to join Pama Language Centre. The Mpakwithi wanted to revive their language, which had been silent for many years. Had it not been for the rebellion of one man, the Mpakwithi Nation would have been erased from history and forgotten.

Donald Fletcher was a Mpakwithi man who had been removed from Tentpole Creek on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula to Old Mapoon with his people by the Department of Native Affairs. As a young man he often escaped from the mission dormitories, stole food and met with free Mpakwithi elders who still lived in the bush outside the mission.  In this way he learnt and maintained his Mpakwithi language. Following the burning of Old Mapoon in 1963, Fletcher was moved to New Mapoon in the Northern Peninsula Area. Some 10 years later, the linguist Terry Crowley met the old man and realised he had found the speaker of an un-described language.  Fletcher’s knowledge revealed that the Mpakwithi language is unique – remarkable among Australian languages for its unusual sound system. The information Donald Fletcher recorded with Crowley is important because it is enabling the revival of Mpakwithi language today.

But the personal legacy Grandfather Fletcher left with his grand-daughters – Celia, Agnes, Victoria and Susan – is the most precious thing of all.  Donald Fletcher taught his four granddaughters about their land. He told them stories about the past, he taught them fragments of his language. He sang with them. The little girls learned four songs in Mpakwithi and for 50 years they have been singing those songs in memory of their grandfather – without understanding many of the words they were singing.

Donald Fletcher’s gift of these songs to his granddaughters has preserved important information about how to pronounce the sounds of the Mpakwithi language. And by giving them his language and his memories he also preserved a continuous link to the Mpakwithi Nation and homelands some 300 kilometres to the south of New Mapoon.  And his gift has given the women something of great value – their identity as Mpakwithi people.  They have held onto their Grandfather’s legacy through difficult times. From the words and memories their grandfather left them, the Mpakwithi are rebuilding their language. They have two thoughts they want to share:

Ma-cha-nja principle 1: Every word in your language is a treasure. If you know one word, be proud. It doesn’t matter how little you know. If you know something about your language, be proud and share it.

The sisters started with just a few words and strong childhood memories. Now they have their language.

Ma-cha-nja principle 2: Sharing our language makes our language and our people stronger.

Language is a collective effort.  No one person possesses all of the pieces and only by sharing what we know can we make our languages strong.

By sharing their language, the Mpakwithi can ensure others become enculturated in the Mpakwithi customs and gain a better understanding of Mpakwithi identity.  The Mpakwithi are proud to be able to share their language in both traditional and modern ways. Vicky Kennedy says that when she sings in her language she feels well. The sisters have worked with Pama Language Centre to write and record many original songs in their language and have written and illustrated four beautiful children’s books. A modern Mpakwithi corroboree was performed at the Laura Dance Festival in 2018, short animated films have been produced and  words for many occasions – such as a welcome to country – have been composed.

The Mpakwithi were able to return to Tent Pole Creek in 2018. For the first time in more than 50 years, Mpakwithi were home on their traditional lands.  Over the previous year, Agnes Mark and Pama Language Centre had planned the return to  Mpakwithi country as a way to restore the connection of ma-cha-nja – people-language-land – and to allow the Mpakwithi to feel complete once more.

Victoria Kennedy spoke the following words upon crossing into her ancestral lands: 

Dhay, Kuku, reeghe mbu’u mbumru mawkwighi.

Nyanga, Fletcher runthi, ningi wi vama angana

Nyanga ndrru’ana nja pimi kwe-ragha kunu ndrraya,

Nyanga rwana nggaenae,“nanha tavanjenge thae’ae”

Nyanga pana ndrru’ana yana, lamalathi wi yana chiinhiikumu.


Mother, Grandfather, spirits of our Countrymen,

We, the Fletcher grandchildren, have come back to our place

We now take the first steps on this land,

We ask you to send us on the right path.

We have brought friends here and strangers to observe us.

Then she said:

“I can feel them. I can feel their spirits here and I’ve got goosebumps.”

The group was visibly moved by the experience and Victoria’s sister Susan later told us:

I think it is important for me to learn Mpakwithi because I owe it to my grandfather and my ancestors for allowing our language to be restored so that it could be revived today.

Before I started working on my language, I felt that there was emptiness that needed to be filled, the feeling of loneliness and lost (sic) from being a cultural person.”

Revivalistics is both a substantial record of Zuckermann’s broad experience of language revival action and an inspiring playbook of successes and lessons for all of us who work with minority and indigenous communities seeking to revive, revitalize and maintain their languages. The parallels between Zuckermann’s experience and our own work in Cape York Peninsula is affirming, providing a strong theoretical foundation for ongoing work and establishing revivalistics as an important field of inquiry and action for the coming decade.


[i] Fishman, J.A. (2001) (ed). Can threatened languages be saved? : reversing language shift, revisited : a 21st century perspective. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo :Multilingual Matters.

[ii] Crowley, T. (1981) The Mpakwithi dialect of Anguthimri. In Handbook of Australian languages vol. 2, eds. R. M. W. Dixon and B. J. Blake, 147–194 + map p. 146. Canberra: ANU Press.

[iii] Zuckermannn, G. (2021). Revivalistics – a new comparative, global, transdisciplinary field of enquiry. Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 154(483–484), 201–210.

[iv] Sundbärg, G. (1911). Det svenska folklynnet: Aforismer. Stockholm: Norstedt.

[v] Kloss, H. (1967). “Abstand Languages” and “Ausbau Languages.” Anthropological Linguistics, 9(7), 29–41.

[vi] Crystal, D. (2000). Language death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[vii] Canada, P. E. N. (2015). Corruption, Impunity, Violence. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from PEN Canada website:

[viii] McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[ix] Dirks, K. T. (2000). Trust in leadership and team performance: Evidence from NCAA basketball. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(6), 1004–1012.