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2013 Spring Issue 1 (April 12, 2013)

Harrison on “Finding the Pulse” of Endangered Languages

April 15, 2013
By Jonathan Lin

K. David Harrison, Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College opened the term’s convocation series with a presentation on language diversity and extinction. Entitled “Endangered Languages,” his talk focused on the rapid disappearance of the world’s seven thousand-plus collection of documented languages, a shift that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has termed a “language extinction crisis.” Harrison detailed his research in various regions of the world to “take the pulse of these languages,” studying these communities of speakers and efforts to combat the erosion of vital cultures and knowledge.

Harrison highlighted that languages are more endangered than at-risk animal and plant species. He also emphasized that scientific assessments claiming that more than eighty percent of the earth’s biosphere had not been properly documented and taxonomized in Western literature: “This is also very true for languages,” he remarked, “and in many ways, the number seven thousand is a significant undercount.”

Harrison pointed out his research in what he called “language hotspots”: regions of the world characterized by high language diversity, low levels of scientific documentation, and very high levels of language endangerment. In his talk he presented a virtual tour of various hotspots, ranging from Northern to Southern Asia, Melanesia to North America. The communities he studied with a team of professionally trained graduate students varied in their degrees of isolation and concern at the steady erosion of their language.

He mentioned the Os people of central Siberia, who with only seven fluent speakers of the language, form a community undergoing what he called “language obsolescence.” In addition, these individuals were incredibly dispersed throughout the land, and Harrison’s efforts to physically bring these speakers together allowed them to have a conversation.

In an honest and humorous video clip, three elderly Os individuals tried to recall the names of the months of their lunar calendar, visibly straining to recall linguistic terms that had slowly eroded with time and lack of verbal use. Not captured on camera was Harrison’s description of their reaction to having a conversation with other Os speakers: pure joy. It may be easy to forget the joy of being able to communicate with someone who shares your native language.
Harrison emphasized the pedagogical value of documenting endangered languages, manifest most clearly in his months of living with the Tuvan people of the same region.

“They have an incredibly rich vocabulary when talking about sounds, and other speakers of Tuvan can easily determine the nature - volume, softness - of these sounds just through the language.” One key takeaway was the cultural influence on solving and framing problems, reflected in the use of metaphor in language. “The Tuvans view time and space differently from us: to them the past is in front of them, with their future behind them,” Harrison explained. “Logically, you can see what has happened because it is in front of you, while what has not happened will creep up on you. Our idea of ‘looking forward to something’ just doesn’t make sense for them.”

He emphasized the enthusiasm that many communities had towards the use of technology to document vocabulary and create online dictionaries for their language. Harrison illustrated that these people embrace technology, crossing the digital divide to preserve their heritage. He brought up the vital issue of language as intellectual property, noting the Siletz community in Oregon that had just one fluent speaker. Working with this individual to record more than ten thousand phrases and placing them online, Harrison described the initial desire for the tribal council to restrict access to only Siletz people. Over time they realized the merits of online digitization, and revoked their preference to password-protect their language database.

Harrison’s last major emphasis involved generations of youth who are “extremely sensitive to the ‘status’ of a language,” and will often prefer to learn and speak a dominant language of the region, neglecting the original tongue that their parents and grandparents spoke.

Yet Harrison shared his reasons for hope and optimism: often it is younger individuals who are “language warriors” very intent on preserving the ancestral tongue. “As a linguist, it is my job to locate them and given them the training and equipment that will facilitate this preservation,” Harrison remarked.

He closed by showing a determined duo from the Koro community of Eastern India; two teenage speakers of four languages - including English - deciding to immortalize the tongue of their people through rap music and singing. Even with the capacity to speak a dominant language that has real socio-economic value, the teenagers decided it was an integral part of their identity to preserve the language of their fathers.

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