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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)
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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