Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lost Languages

From the New York Times:

Regions of Dying Languages Named

Published: September 18, 2007

Filed at 2:44 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there's still no one to talk to.

Native Australian Charlie Mangulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands around the world on the brink of extinction.

From rural Australia to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said Tuesday.

While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.

Five hotspots where languages are most endangered were listed Tuesday in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society.

In addition to northern Australia, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest, many native languages are endangered in South America -- Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia -- as well as the area including British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

''When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.''

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.

That means, if the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind, he said.

Harrison is associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Ore. He and institute director Gregory D.S. Anderson analyzed the top regions for disappearing languages.

Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he explained, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more useful.

The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is getting a new generation of speakers. He said the institute worked with local communities and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the endangered language.

Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.

The hot spots listed at Tuesday's briefing:

-- Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal Australia holds some of the world's most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag.

-- Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia -- 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, very little documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.

-- Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S., 54 languages. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.

-- Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan -- 23 languages. Government policies in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages and, as a result, some have only a few elderly speakers.

-- Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico -- 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent.

The research is funded by the Australian government, U.S. National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and grants from foundations.


Torben B said...

I'd really like to hear more about this. Is anyone aware of any innovative techniques being implemented to preserve indigenous languages? Further discussion of this topic would really interest me. Anyone interested? :)

grabloid said...

Agreed. This is so fascinating to me...more endangered languages than endangered plants and animals...wow. I definitely believe that preserving these languages would be extremely valuable.

Along with many people researching and studying these language to gain a good working knowledge of them, I think a great thing would be to find a very clever computer programmer (or more likely a whole group of them) to create an interactive input program that would facilitate speakers and scholars of these 'endangered languages' in creating an integrated system of comparing and contrasting dying languages with each other and also with languages that are now commonly spoken. No simple task! I think it would have to be a constant (infinite) work in progress (something similar to wiki technology). You would need a massive amount of people to add to it, check on it, refine it, etc., and a very dedicated, somewhat 'authoritative' core group of multi-lingual scholars to discuss and correct all the comparisons between the involved languages.

I know a couple of computer programmers that could maybe start thinking about a way to approach such a task. I'll invite them to look at this blog and to join the discussion.

Perhaps a technology such as this already exists???

Shaun Gilchrist said...


grabloid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
grabloid said...

Check out that link!!!...the article is called: "Endangered languages and gadgets that record them"
Very interesting.

grabloid said...

...me again...for some reason the link above doesn't show up on the comments page...so to get the full link go to the actual topic link on the main site "Lost Languages"...it full link shows up there...

Torben B said...

Thanks! I'll read this article for sure.

grabloid said...

Finally, the complete link:
(somebody should teach me to make hypertext on this blog...ha...