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Oxford Arts Blog


There are over 6,000 languages spoken in the world. But did you know that, like the Indian elephant and the Bengal tiger, some of them are in danger of dying out?

From Dusner (three speakers) to Kelabit (five thousand) to Yiddish (1.5 million), these languages are sprawled across the globe, but they all have one thing in common: unless we act soon, they could become extinct.

Researchers at Oxford University are meticulously studying these languages. And Dr Johanneke Sytsema, who has organised a popular seminar on endangered languages, thinks there could be a novel way to keep minority languages alive: social media.

“Social media could help save a language,” Dr Sytsema says. “Because young people text each other how they speak, even if they don’t know how to spell it.”

Minority languages are often at risk of being drowned out by the louder voices of the bigger languages, which are spoken at school and in the media. But, with social media handing control over to the users, the advent of Facebook and Twitter might just have the reverse effect.

Dr Sytsema has first-hand experience: she speaks Frisian. Frisian, spoken in a province in the Netherlands called Friesland, has 350,000 speakers. Interacting with her own language has given Dr. Sytsema food for thought about how languages could be saved in the future.

“In Friesland, young people who don’t learn much Frisian writing at school send each other messages on social media in Frisian,” she says. In this way, a new generation of Frisian speakers keeps the language alive.

But how do languages become endangered in the first place?

“6% of the world’s population speak 94% of the world’s languages,” Dr. Sytsema explains. “That means that many of these languages only have a handful of speakers.”

But it’s not just a small number of speakers that makes a language endangered. Some languages were once widely spoken, but lost speakers over time. This can happen for many reasons.

“It can be for political reasons - governments decide that only one language can be spoken in schools, for example. Or people move away from their home and lose their language, or communities are broken up.”

Tweeting and texting in Frisian (or Sorbian, or Breton) is not enough in the long-term, though. Dr Sytsema says there are many other things we need to do.

“Government policy is important,” she says. “To support the language, provide teaching in that language, and subsidise radio, television, and printing.”

If we do all of these things, Dr Sytsema argues, we can preserve the thousands of languages that people are chattering in across the globe.

But there’s an (endangered) elephant in the room. Why is a language worth saving in the first place?

Dr Sytsema is unequivocal. It’s vital: because, like our wildlife, our languages are natural creations.

“Natural beauty needs to be protected. Once languages die, you don’t get them back, because they’ve grown over thousands and thousands of years,” Dr Sytsema explains.

“Every language has its own beauty. And that’s why it’s so important.”

You can listen to some Frisian for yourself by watching a weather forecast or exploring an interactive map of endangered languages.

KelabitSarawak, Malaysia, where Kelabit is spoken

Lenny K Photography (Flickr)


Oxford feels different over the summer. The High Street is devoid of undergraduates streaming in and out of lectures. They are replaced by tourists who are in much less of a rush.

The pace of academic life changes, too. Although graduate teaching continues, academics have more time to focus on their research or write their next book.

But many academics in the Humanities Division found their research interrupted by a knock on the door from Bethany White.

Bethany is a DPhil student in the Faculty of History and Trinity College, and she was given artistic license to roam the various departments in the Humanities Division and write a series of articles on some of the most exciting and unusual research going on.

The results are thrilling - keep your eyes peeled for her article about medical remedies in medieval England. Did you know that medieval doctors recommended applying heated eight-day old urine to your face to cure acne? If you didn’t, please don’t now try it at home.

Bethany has also written a series of profiles about students in the humanities doing interesting things – from the student balancing literature lectures with running a campaign to help refugees, to the aspiring historian helping her classmates to fight procrastination.

“I learnt more than I imagined I would - about graffiti, bilingualism, Qawwali music, medieval medicine and so much more,” says Bethany.

“It struck me just how much research is being done in Humanities, and what a range and depth there is. It was exciting to think that this is all going on at once, and that you can learn so much from a quick chat with anyone in Oxford.”

Today, we release the first article in the series: could social media save endangered languages?

You can find out more about Bethany's own research into working-class women and higher education in Britain from 1965 - 1975 here, and follow her on Twitter here.


A new website, writersmakeworlds.com, has been launched at Oxford today (16 October).

Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds asks how our reading of British literature shapes our sense of identity in Britain today. It focuses in particular on how Black and Asian writing in Britain might give us new ways to think about Britain in the world.

In a guest post, the project leaders Elleke Boehmer (Professor of World Literatures) and Erica Lombard (Postdoctoral Research Fellow) explain their research:

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches.

At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts.

At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

All literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

This article has also been published on The Conversation.


Retweeting the Romans

Matt Pickles | 21 Sep 2017

As an expert on the literature of the Roman Republic and an avid viewer of the recent ITV show Love Island, Oxford classicist Dr Andrew Sillett was always going to try watching Bromans.

The new ITV programme is billed as a “gladiator reality show” which claims to send “eight modern-day lads back in time to see if they can cope with living and fighting like Roman gladiators”.

As he settled down to watch the first episode last week, Dr Sillett tweeted his reactions.

His tweets went viral – they were retweeted by dozens of other users and media outlets.

At the end of the show, he concluded: "10/10 will watch again."

“The interest my tweeting generated came as something of a surprise,” he tells Arts Blog.

“In all honesty, I didn't come to Bromans from an academic angle, it just followed on naturally from a summer spent in the company of Love Island. “All the responses I've received have been very friendly and supportive (which is hardly to be taken for granted on Twitter...).”

Andrew is evangelical about the importance of public engagement with a wide audience.

“I came to Classics from a bit of a standing start myself, as my school didn't offer Latin, Greek, Classical Civilisation or anything like that,” he says.

“Not that it was anything like Bromans that caught my interest ten years ago, that was a talk from Brasenose's Llewelyn Morgan (who bears only a passing reference to the gladiators of Bromans).

“Nonetheless I think it's undoubtedly important to be aware of what sort of contact the majority of people have with your subject.”

It is unlikely that many viewers of Bromans assumed it was a realistic depiction of Rome - but Dr Sillett says it did capture certain aspects of life in the Republic.

“In the run-up to Bromans airing I encountered a lot of snootiness in relation to the show's vulgarity, but I think that rather misses the point,” he says.

“Rome wasn't all marble, rhetoric and epic poetry, it had a popular culture of its own that was coarse, sweaty and physical.

“I think Bromans captures that as well as, say Ridley Scott's Gladiator; there's plenty ITV2 can teach us.”

Dr Sillett is a lecturer in the Faculty of Classics, specialising in the literature of the late Roman Republic and early Empire.

You can read more of his thoughts on Bromans here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Oh, and because I know everyone reading this blog was about to Google it anyway, you can watch the show here.

Zoology lab

Cutting-edge science research in gleaming laboratories. Undergraduates defending their essays to a world expert in the field in a tutorial. The tortoises who take part in an annual inter-college race.

This diverse group of people – and reptiles – are the stars of a new exhibition of photography by Magnum photographer Martin Parr.

Martin Parr: Oxford is a free exhibition that forms part of Photo Oxford 2017 (8 – 24 Sept) and will run from 8 September to 22 October 2017 at the Weston Library.

As part of the commission, Mr Parr was given access to many of the University’s most iconic buildings and events. He told Vice that he enjoyed the project.

“[Oxford] has everything. It has tradition, it's on the cutting edge of research, it's evolving yet staying still,” he said.

“It was meant to be one year's project; it became two years. I don't know how many trips I made there, 50 or 60. I could have gone on for ten years. Once you start digging, you realise the complexity of a place.”

‘Martin Parr has brought his unique viewpoint to the University and we are delighted to be able to show some of his images opening up Oxford at this free exhibition in the Weston Library,’ says Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian.

‘Martin strongly supported the Bodleian’s campaign to acquire the archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, who made the first photographic journey to Oxford in the 1840s, and I’m sure this new collection, looking at the many different aspects of Oxford life will be of huge interest to Martin’s fans, local residents, visitors and alumni alike.

'This is a rare opportunity to see work of a brilliant photographer who normally only exhibits at larger international galleries.’

A one day symposium featuring talks by the Photo Oxford 2017 artists will run at the Weston Library on Thursday 7 September. The publication OXFORD Martin Parr, by Oxford University Press, is available to pre-order online.