Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Linguists Scramble To Save The World's Languages

Doctor Gregory Anderson (left) works with Middle Chulym-speaker Vasiliy Gabov (courtesy of The Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages)Doctor Gregory Anderson (left) works with Middle Chulym-speaker Vasiliy Gabov (courtesy of The Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages)
Doctor Gregory Anderson (left) works with Middle Chulym-speaker Vasiliy Gabov (courtesy of The Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages)
Doctor Gregory Anderson (left) works with Middle Chulym-speaker Vasiliy Gabov (courtesy of The Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages)
By Richard Solash
When Gregory Anderson and K. David Harrison set off in 2003 to a few remote villages in Russia's eastern Tomsk Oblast, they took only the bare essentials: toothbrushes, socks, soap, plus their microphones, video cameras, audio recorders, and linguistics textbooks.

What brought them to this isolated corner of central Siberia was a business conference -- of sorts: a series of meetings with the less than 25 remaining speakers of Middle Chulym, or Os.

Anderson and Harrison are the two linguists behind the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. A U.S.-based nonprofit, it is one of a handful of initiatives spearheaded by linguists who are scrambling to save the world's endangered tongues. Experts predict that by the end of the century, half of the world's 6,700 languages will be extinct.

Language endangerment, a global phenomenon, has likely never before been so pervasive. As small, minority languages give way to socioeconomic and cultural pressures, they also yield to languages that replace them. In the process, unique linguistic and anthropological information is lost forever.

"Can it [language loss] be stopped or slowed? It's very difficult to know how that could happen," says Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the UK-based Foundation for Endangered Languages.

"It's a social fact about the way the world is developing at the moment which puts pressure on small language groups, and only if there's a radical change in the way the world is, the pressures that the world puts on things, [and] people's consciousness, is it likely to change."

Fighting The Demise

Ostler's organization, like Anderson's and Harrison's, is fighting the trend. That involves research trips to some of the world's remotest spots -- from Siberia to Bolivia to Australia -- and working with locals to preserve rare languages through recordings, transcriptions, and videos.

Then comes detailed analyses of the samples -- most offering new insight into the grammar and sound system of a language -- and sometimes even a rare glimpse into history.

It has been established, for example, that Yaghnobi, a minority language of Tajikistan, is a descendant of the ancient language Sogdian, spoken up and down the Silk Road in medieval times.

After documentation comes the hard part -- revitalization and maintenance of a dying language. But it's work that linguists cannot do alone.

"No matter what linguists think, say, or do, they can't do anything to maintain a language. All they can do is provide adequate documentation for it," says Anderson.

"The people themselves have to choose to maintain it. That requires a lot of effort, both in producing materials that will be suitable for schooling, for example, and a lot of personal effort that the people themselves require to make real the desire that they have to maintain their language."

With enough effort, disappearing languages can flourish again. One of the great success stories of recent times is Welsh, the language of Wales in Great Britain. It was well on its way to extinction only two decades ago, but now has hundreds of thousands of speakers.

But Welsh had something that most endangered languages do not: vigorous government support. And that support assured the Welsh revival included another crucial element: enough money to make the dreams of reviving the language a reality.

For all these reasons, many linguists say that UNESCO’s decision 11 years ago to create International Mother Language Day on February 21 was a step in the right direction.

"The problem is that there's far more money for conflict resolution and battles and wars in the world than there is for understanding culture," says Mark Turin, founder of the UK-based World Oral Literature Project, which focuses on the cultural losses -- chants, songs, creation myths, and entire ways of life -- that accompany language loss.

"So, I would say UNESCO is fantastic, but it needs to be funded much more heavily. It needs to have more robust sticks and also carrots with which to attract and also penalize nations that infringe the basic linguistic rights of its citizens. And we need many more organizations that support things like UNESCO's mandate."

Finding The Money

Turin relies on grant money and donations to keep his organization afloat, as does the Living Tongues Institute. Ostler's Foundation for Endangered Languages survives on membership fees, which are turned into a $10,000 annual fund for language documentation and support projects. They all agree, however, that a lot more money -- and a lot more public awareness -- is required.
A speaker of Yaghnobi by the Yaghnob River in Tajikistan (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Ostler)

For now, the main sources of grant money include the U.K.-based Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, which gives nearly $2 million in grants each year. It has funded over 150 teams to document endangered languages. The Volkswagen Stiftung in Germany has funded work on some 80 endangered languages in the last decade, and the National Science Foundation in the United States also funds documentation initiatives. Smaller sources exist in other countries.

Turin says that along with money and publicity, a sense of collective responsibility is what is really needed to save endangered languages.

"We all are [responsible]. We all are as a species. If we are interested in what makes us human, if we're committed to understanding knowledge, and where we came from, and where we're going, we need to connect with this, our linguistic past -- and present."
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Comment Sorting
by: Bill Chapman from: Wales, United Kingdom
February 21, 2010 18:59

Perhaps this is an appropriate time to announce that the first ever text book in Welsh designed to teach the international language Esperanto has just been published. The Mini-Cwrs is a 36 page guide to Esperanto, consisting of ten lessons, some reading exercises and a vocabulary. The man behind the new booklet is Harry Barron of Machynlleth in north-west Wales.

Esperanto is a language introduced in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof after years of development. He proposed Esperanto as a second language that would allow people who speak different native languages to communicate, yet at the same time retain their own languages and cultural identities. Esperanto doesn't replace anyone's language but simply serves as a common language. The first tiny guide to the language was published in 1910, and a two-way dictionary in Esperanto and Welsh was published in 1985.

by: Samantha from: USA
February 22, 2010 01:46
I am a lover of languages and it is a shame that most of these exotic and interesting languages will be extinct. I think to revive these languages a type of translation program needs to be created where speakers of Middle Chylum or Dari are taught Western and European languages so they can produce texts in their native languages.

February 22, 2010 12:13
Languages are in most ways living things. Their appearance and extinction have more to do with a general evolution of external conditions than the deliberate action of a few dedicated individuals, supported by generous national or international funding. In a world of freedom, (even in conditions of unfreedom) nothing can stop people from loving things that have nothing in common with their own culture. And it takes up a lot of their mental space. This is as natural as the invasion of the Mediterranean by extraneous seaweeds. All the more so that films,TV and other massive cultural media make it too easy to broadcast catching models, especially in a world where cultural content is considered a mere commodity.
The only chance of survival for a language is to become desirable for its own community. It should be the creative effort of authors, bold enough to start working in their own language, producing new and valuable material, that could entice even bilingual users to turn to their original work rather than the translated version. Then only can one expect some real demand to appear.
But, as Levy Strauss saw it clearly, with all its well-intended UNESCO-inspired democratic tolerance, liberalism is not in a position to save cultures that do not necessarily fit into its overall picture.
What linguists can do is commiting to museal memory what is on the verge of extinction. The legacy will at least be documented somewhere.

by: dmitri novosibirsk from: viera, fl
February 22, 2010 15:19
great article-much information at me

by: charles carlson from: bishkek
February 23, 2010 12:17
Question for Mr. Nercessian: Would you say that Russification was a natural linguistic process, or was it deliberate?

by: Colleen Clark from: Cambridge, MA, USA
February 25, 2010 17:52
Recording by all possible means dying languages is important and useful. It's of both archival and intellectual interest.

But we shouldn't wring our hands over the homogenization of language. After all, the fundamental task of language is to communicate and in an increasingly interconnected world it's inevitable that languages now spoken by only a few people in remote areas will eventually become extinct. This surely has been going on for about 200,000 years.

I saw a program on TV, Frontline?, in the past week about education in Pakistan, which is in a parlous state with high rates of illiteracy etc. So I was surprised, astonished even, to see that a group of children studying outdoors in rubble were being instructed in some English. On the blackboard was written, "Good morning, sir." Urdu is not about to die out but English is everywhere.

Re Dari, mentioned by Samantha above. Dari is unlikely to die out. In my understanding it's just a version of Persian, mutually intelligible. And Persian is a language that is changing so slowly that speakers of modern Persian (Farsi) can easily read poetry and other texts written 1000 years ago. English-speakers have some difficulty even with Shakespeare, much less Chaucer or Beowulf.

February 26, 2010 09:37
To answer Charles Carlson's question about the deliberate or coincidental aspect of Russification:
Your answer is implied in the very word you chose to describe the process. Any *-fication means that something is DONE to something. And there are cases in history where a government will deliberately interfere. Forbidding to speak a language or to give ethnically marked names to children is a clear case of it.
What to me is more interesting is the way languages will get altered uncousciously by speakers who sincerely think they speak their own language. after some time, one can expect the appearance of very similar syntax elements in languages of different origins in a certain area.
You have understood that I tend to think that the almost complete disappearance of the Gallic substratum from the French language had more to do with a peaceful process of assimilation than to forcible eradication or extermination.

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