Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Sep 30 12:51:50 UTC 2007

September 19, 2007

Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words


Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists
say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and likely to disappear
in this century. In fact, one falls out of use about every two weeks.
Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole
surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as
indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school,
in the marketplace and on television. New research, reported
yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing
most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North
America's upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma
and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people
speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.

The study was based on field research and data analysis supported by
the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for
Endangered Languages. The findings are described in the October issue
of National Geographic and at In a
teleconference with reporters yesterday, K. David Harrison, an
associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore, said that more than
half the languages had no written form and were "vulnerable to loss
and being forgotten." Their loss leaves no dictionary, no text, no
record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.

Beginning what is expected to be a long-term project to identify and
record endangered languages, Dr. Harrison has traveled to many parts
of the world with Gregory D. S. Anderson, director of the Living
Tongues Institute, in Salem, Ore., and Chris Rainier, a filmmaker with
the National Geographic Society.

The researchers, focusing on distinct oral languages, not dialects,
interviewed and made recordings of the few remaining speakers of a
language and collected basic word lists. The individual projects, some
lasting three to four years, involve hundreds of hours of recording
speech, developing grammars and preparing children's readers in the
obscure language. The research has concentrated on preserving entire
language families.

In Australia, where nearly all the 231 spoken tongues are endangered,
the researchers came upon three known speakers of Magati Ke in the
Northern Territory, and three Yawuru speakers in Western Australia. In
July, Dr. Anderson said, they met the sole speaker of Amurdag, a
language in the Northern Territory that had been declared extinct.

"This is probably one language that cannot be brought back, but at
least we made a record of it," Dr. Anderson said, noting that the
Aborigine who spoke it strained to recall words he had heard from his
father, now dead.

Many of the 113 languages in the region from the Andes Mountains into
the Amazon basin are poorly known and are giving way to Spanish or
Portuguese, or in a few cases, a more dominant indigenous language. In
this area, for example, a group known as the Kallawaya use Spanish or
Quechua in daily life, but also have a secret tongue mainly for
preserving knowledge of medicinal plants, some previously unknown to

"How and why this language has survived for more than 400 years, while
being spoken by very few, is a mystery," Dr. Harrison said in a news

The dominance of English threatens the survival of the 54 indigenous
languages in the Northwest Pacific plateau, a region including British
Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Only one person remains who knows
Siletz Dee-ni, the last of many languages once spoken on a reservation
in Oregon.

In eastern Siberia, the researchers said, government policies have
forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional
languages, like Russian or Sakha.

Forty languages are still spoken in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico,
many of them originally used by Indian tribes and others introduced by
Eastern tribes that were forced to resettle on reservations, mainly in
Oklahoma. Several of the languages are moribund.

Another measure of the threat to many relatively unknown languages,
Dr. Harrison said, is that 83 languages with "global" influence are
spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the
others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds
that of birds, mammals, fish and plants.

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