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Convocation Series Resumes April 5 with Endangered Language Scholar, K. David Harrison

March 13, 2013

K. David Harrison, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and a leading authority on dying and little-documented languages, will present Carleton College’s first weekly convocation of the spring term on Friday, Apr. 5. His presentation, “Endangered Languages,” will discuss his work on language death and language preservation, as well as the connection between the survival of languages and the survival of cultures. Convocation is held from 10:50-11:50 a.m. in the Skinner Memorial Chapel, and is free and open to the public. Convocations are also streamed live and can be viewed online at go.carleton.edu/convo.

A booksigning follows Harrison’s presentation. Copies of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages and When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge will be available for purchase at the event at a 15% discount.

Harrison’s work focuses on the theoretical and social aspects of language. He has documented several languages by living in the communities in which they are used—his specialty is the Turkic language group of Mongolia and Central Asia—and his theoretical interests lie mainly in a set of speech patterns known as “vowel harmony.” However, Harrison believes that culture and language are inseparable, living in remote communities to gain a better sense of what people are actually talking about and, more broadly, how languages shape knowledge. His research looks at aspects of culture such as folklore, conceptual systems and naming practices. 

Harrison’s current research focuses on two Siberian languages, Tofa and Ös, both on the brink of extinction, highlighting a global problem to which Harrison has devoted considerable attention. Approximately half of the world’s 7,000 languages, including many native languages in the Americas, are expected to become extinct by the end of the century; it has been estimated that a language dies out every two weeks. Harrison argues that keeping languages alive is essential for cultural preservation and that the loss hurts scientists and humanity as a whole as well as native peoples themselves.

Harrison co-starred (along with Greg Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages) in the 2008 documentary film, The Linguists, produced by Ironbound Films, which follows the two around the world as they collect recordings of some of the last speakers of dying languages. Harrison’s expeditions and research are chronicled in his books, The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages (National Geographic, 2010), a poignant chronicle of Harrison’s expeditions around the world to meet with the last speakers of vanishing languages, and When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2007), which attempts to demonstrate the preciousness of the human knowledge that is constantly being lost.

In addition to his teaching position at Swarthmore, Harrison is also affiliated with the National Geographic Society and co-leads the society’s Enduring Voices Project, which focuses on endangered languages. In 2004 Harrison cofounded the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, an Oregon-based nonprofit that runs language documentation projects worldwide. He has made frequent media appearances in leading newspapers such as the New York Times and on television programs including “The Colbert Report” and “Good Morning America.” Harrison received his Ph. D. in linguistics from Yale University, his M.A. in Slavic studies from the Jagiellonian University (Krakow, Poland) and his B.A. in international studies from American University.

For more information about this event, including disability accommodations, contact the Carleton College Office of College Relations at (507) 222-4308. The Skinner Memorial Chapel is located on First Street between College and Winona Streets in Northfield.

Copies of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages and When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge will be available for purchase at the Carleton Bookstore, located in the Sayles Hill Campus Center, the week leading up to the event at a 15% discount. For more information, call (507) 222-4153 or email bookstore@carleton.edu.

 

Written by Jacob Cohn '13