Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Heroic Attempt to Save the World's Languages

Did you know there were 7,000 languages in the world today?  Did you know that half of them may disappear before the end of this century?  I went to a fascinating lecture today at AU given by K. David Harrison, a professor at Swarthmore College and the author of “When Languages Die.”

Dr. Harrison is passionate about finding out where languages are disappearing and learning the causes of their extinction.  He claims that we lose one more every 2 weeks.

In today’s world 80% of the population speak one of the 84 major languages.  These languages, and actually just a handful of them, dominate the global media. 

Most of the others have never been written down.  Dr. Harrison tells of interviews with the “last speakers” of several languages, mainly in language hotspots, such as Siberia, India, and Bolivia, where languages are disappearing most rapidly.

He and his teams are attempting to record and otherwise document as many dying languages as possible.  However, he is quick to assert that ownership of these and all languages is with the native speakers.  In fact the languages are their “intellectual property,” even though collective ownership is not recognized in a court of intellectual property law.

He talked about his personal experiences in Tuva in South Siberia, where over the course of a year he learned and documented Tuvan, a language with a previously oral tradition.

Dr. Harrison sees this work as our greatest conservation challenge.  He claims language conservation is more urgent than the conservation of various animal species.

As sad as it sounds to think of a language disappearing forever, I started to wonder whether it is just a part of the natural cycle of evolution.  I also was more incredulous than ever that an ancient language like Hebrew could survive pretty much intact and be spoken today with no threat of extinction.  I wondered what distinguishes a dialect from a different (but similar) language. 

I bought his book and think it will be a fascinating read.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

And what conditions would have to transpire for a NEW language to develop? With the increasing globalization and technological development of most world cultures, that seems increasingly unlikely.


12:25 AM  
Blogger Terry said...

The town where I grew up, in Idaho, is adjacent to the Bannock-Shoshone Indian Reservation and for many years the Shoshone language, which had no written form, was recorded and transcribed by a professor at the university I went to. It was an immense task that continues even now. Hardly anyone is still alive that speaks the language. I always found that so fascinating. The recordings and transcriptions made by that professor and his students will soon be the only remaining evidence of that language.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Who knew?! It makes me wish I knew more than I do. Language is one of my favorite things in the world.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Malnurtured Snay said...

My favorite class in college!

So, dialects are simply variations on the same language.

However, a dialect becomes a separate language when two speakers of different dialects of supposedly the same language can not communicate with each other.

So, for example, if you took an uneducated hick from the backwaters of Alabama, and sat him down in a room with an uneducated Scot from the Highlands ...

2:38 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I think it's great that people are working to transcribe these languages and preserve them in some form. But I also think their disappearance is a natural process, in a society where we can all communicate so much more easily. C'est la vie, you know?

11:13 AM  

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