[lg policy] Languages on Life Support: Linguists debate their role in saving the world's endangered tongues

Jeremy Graves jayrkirk42 at YAHOO.COM
Tue Jun 2 01:18:20 UTC 2009

This is definitely a fascinating issue. As a historical linguist, I often question the usefulness of fighting to preserve languages, when the social and natural linguistic factors are going to operate in any case. There is no doubt, however, that theoretical work, as Chomsky points out, loses a great deal with the passing of a language.

-Jeremy Graves
Adjunct Instructor of English
Florida Community College at Jacksonville

--- On Mon, 6/1/09, Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com> wrote:

From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com>
Subject: [lg policy] Languages on Life Support: Linguists debate their role in saving the world's endangered tongues
To: "lp" <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Date: Monday, June 1, 2009, 5:02 PM

>>From the issue dated June 5, 2009

Languages on Life Support: Linguists debate their role in saving the
world's endangered tongues


Last year, when 89-year-old Marie Smith Jones died, a language died
with her. Jones was the last speaker of a south-central Alaskan
language called Eyak. Once used extensively along 350 miles of the
Gulf of Alaska, Eyak had begun to die even before Jones's childhood,
crowded out by other Alaska Native languages. During her lifetime,
English-speaking settlers suppressed indigenous languages. After her
sister died, in the early 1990s, Jones no longer had anyone to speak
to in her native tongue.

Now, Eyak exists only in documentation, much of it compiled (with the
help of Jones and other last speakers) by Michael E. Krauss, an
emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Alaska at
Fairbanks. Preserving Eyak, at least in the form of a grammar, a
dictionary, and other records, has occupied a large part of his

Krauss is not the only linguist to mourn the loss of a language he
devoted himself to preserving. As he and a handful of others have
loudly warned their colleagues for more than 30 years, almost all the
world's languages are approaching extinction. Linguists, Krauss and
others complain, are blithely presiding over the disappearance of most
of their raw data.

They date that attitude to 1957, when Noam Chomsky published his
landmark Syntactic Structures, arguing that all languages exhibit
certain universal grammatical features, encoded in the human mind. The
field has focused largely on theoretical concerns ever since. American
linguists, in particular, have largely turned away from documentary
linguistics — the Linguistic Society of America's standing committee
on language endangerment notwithstanding.

It is all very well to generate ideas about how languages work, Krauss
and his fellow critics say, but those ideas will be next to useless
without primary material to test them against. That loss affects more
than just linguists. The world of our languages is a "very fragile
membrane that humanity depends on, that we evolved in, that makes us
human," Krauss says. When languages disappear, cultures do, too — ways
of thinking and describing, and of adapting to the globe's varied

Recently, advocates of preserving dying languages can point to some
signs of hope. Master's and doctoral programs emphasizing documentary
linguistics have grown in number and enrollments in several countries.
Collaborations with native speakers are on the rise (see related
article). And at linguistics meetings in the United States, "suddenly
everyone is talking about endangered language issues," says Peter
Austin, director of the endangered-languages program at the University
of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Many of his
colleagues, he says, hope that the advent of digital recording and
storage, along with Internet capabilities, will usher in a time when
linguists and language speakers alike will have access to archives
that will help them maintain fading languages.

But the discipline as a whole is still divided, not only over its
proper relation to dying languages, but also over whether the scholars
who are working to preserve them are approaching the problem in the
right way. Of the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 languages in the world —
about one-half of the number used 10,000 years ago — at least one-half
will almost certainly be dead by midcentury, while another 40 percent
will most likely become too diminished to survive much beyond 2100.
The causes are largely agreed upon: colonization and other demographic
shifts, government neglect or outright suppression of regional and
indigenous languages, the influence of mass media.

With the rise of new technologies, however, mass media may actually be
a tool to help preserve dying languages. Some 1,500 languages are used
on the Internet, including many endangered ones. Chat rooms, blogs,
social networks, and Internet-based telephone services like Skype are
helping to disseminate recorded speech and video footage of
traditional ceremonies. Global cellphone coverage, too, is creating
virtual communities of people who speak threatened languages.

One sign of linguists' increasing interest in preserving languages is
that they are calling on colleagues from other fields, such as
specialists in signal processing, speech synthesis, and geographic
information systems. But digital data and other technological fixes
are at best partial. Digital data are vulnerable to the obsolescence
of machinery and software programs. "In this regard, Sumerian clay
tablets still remain unsurpassed for archival stability and long-term
interpretability," observes Nicholas Evans, a professor of linguistics
at Australian National University and a specialist in Aboriginal
languages, in his Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have
to Tell Us (Wiley-Blackwell), published this month.

The National Science Foundation, in collaboration with the National
Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution, has for
several years financed linguistics fieldwork. The European Union and
governments in Brazil, China, and Russia have also financed
documentation efforts, as have the Volkswagen Foundation in Germany
and the Marit and Hans Rausing Charitable Foundation in England. In
Australia, a major, publicly financed push that began in the 1970s has
resulted in at least basic documentation of most of the 130 remaining
Aboriginal languages, almost all of which are at risk of extinction.

Documentation alone is not enough to keep a language alive, of course.
Some linguists worry that a sort of "archivism" is taking over, with
talk of international standards for "best practices" for how much to
record and how to store it, with what formal archiving properties.
That archivism, they add, has encouraged a "commando style" of
recording trip: Fly in, turn on the digital recorder, fly out,
download to archives — and check boxes to satisfy funding agencies'
requirement that the material be available to speaker communities.

With the commando approach, "too much is up to blind luck," says
Richard A. Rhodes, an associate professor of linguistics at the
University of California at Berkeley who is president of the Society
for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of America. The nuances that
are at the core of language are captured only through long, patient
transmission among actual human beings — linguists on the ground
attuned to social, historical, and political factors at play locally.
"You don't know what you missed, if you're not analyzing as you go,"
he says.

While largely agreeing that languages tend toward similar features,
they are in many respects singular and irreducible, say Austin and
other field linguists. Learning them well enough to produce a
dictionary and a grammar can be done only little by little. "Even with
recording devices, computers, and the like, adequate documentation of
a language is still measured in man-decades, not man-years," says

Exactly, says Alaska's Michael Krauss: "You learn a language by
sitting there with people. You ask an old lady what she calls various
kinds of bushes." Moreover, the work must often be done in harsh and
even hazardous settings. And though plenty of students are drawn by
the lure of living by their wits in the field, critics like Austin and
Krauss say the culture of academic linguistics has dampened their
enthusiasm by the time they earn their doctoral degrees.

"We've had 50 years of that kind of reductionist view of language: as
a thing in the brain, where the structures are universal across a
whole range of languages, and if we study one language, we can
understand how all languages operate," says Austin. Chomsky, who
spawned the theoretical turn in the field, says it's not the problem.
In fact, the loss of a language "is much more of a tragedy for
linguists whose interests are mostly theoretical, like me, than for
descriptive linguists who focus on specific languages," he says,
"since it means the permanent loss of the most relevant data for
general theoretical work." In that sense, a descriptive linguist
working in, say, Africa, is far less affected by the death of a
language in New Guinea than a theoretical linguist.

But Chomsky says that his sympathy for endangered-language communities
does not mean that MIT, or any other department, should award Ph.D.'s
for descriptive work alone. In linguistics, "just as in every other
field, you can't do descriptive work without a theoretical
understanding," he says. That's precisely the point, objects Nicholas
Evans, of Australian National University. To compile a grammar is to
live and breathe theory. The process of immersion, extraction,
analysis, and summation of a language is, he argues, "the most
demanding intellectual task a linguist can engage in."

While some linguists worry that helping communities shore up their
languages saps too much time from research, Evans believes that
linguists who document languages in the field should take an active
role in such activities. Working with Aboriginal communities in
northern Australia, Evans often acts as an interpreter or expert
witness in legal proceedings relating to land and sea rights; he also
contributes to educational programs that strengthen local languages.
All the while, aided by these activities, he prepares dictionaries and
grammars, devises orthographies, and transcribes and translates
documents and old texts. He says Aboriginal communities expect that
give-and-take with outsiders, and the result is what some linguists
refer to as "sustainable linguistics."

Not that getting speakers to reciprocate is always easy. Communities
may be ambivalent about or even hostile to efforts to preserve their
languages. They may doubt that linguists will follow through, or that
funds will keep coming for immersion schools. Speakers may have ceased
bothering to use their languages in everyday activities, such as
speaking with their children. Without that transmission, of course, no
language can survive.

Indeed, says Evans, losing one's language, often without fully
acquiring another, will demoralize a community. "There are times when
what people speak is like seeing the world through very badly made,
thick glasses," he says. "You can avoid bumping into objects, but you
don't see all the beautiful detail.

"Just to take an example in northern Australia. Say a community goes
over from speaking a traditional Aboriginal language to speaking a
creole. Well, let's just use talking about the natural world as an
example. You leave behind a language where there are all sorts of
clues about the ecological relations of one species to another.
There's very fine vocabulary for the landscape. Inside the language
there's a whole manual for maintaining the integrity of the landscape,
for managing it, for using it, for looking for stuff. All that is gone
in a creole; you've just got a few words like 'gum tree,' or

When the knowledge that has imbued life with meaning is wiped out,
what community would not be demoralized? he asks.
But much can be achieved even with language-revitalization programs
that do not succeed in completely reviving a language, he says:
"There's a whole lifetime's accumulation of stories, observations,
understandings inside the head of some people which can now start
coming out, and people feel enormously proud of that, as employment."

And when their language is committed to print, "people suddenly see
their language as something immensely valuable, as something to be
proud of, and to learn," he says. Conversely, when not rehearsed,
languages tens of thousands of years in the making vanish within a
generation or two. With the loss of raw data and the damage to
communities of speakers so great, Evans asks, is it not worth the
expense to at least document the languages?

He has done the math: It costs about half a million dollars to train
one qualified graduate student to glean and record enough of a
language that it might be recoverable. That $500,000 covers a
doctorate and two or three years of postdoctoral work. "Multiply that
by, say, 4,000 languages," says Evans. "That's two billion dollars.
That's almost just a cut off the edge of a budget, in a lot of
places." The social benefits, aside, says Evans, "the scientific
expense isn't really exorbitant and the scientific payoffs are
enormous. How much did sequencing the human genome cost? A fair bit
more than that, I'd think."

Peter Monaghan is a correspondent for The Chronicle.

http://chronicle.com  Section: The Chronicle Review

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