Think linguistics is boring? Not when David Harrison explains it.

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Say it.

Kap LAY ya

Say it again.

There.  You have now dramatically increased, if briefly, the number of people who speak Koro, an endangered language.

That’s according to David Harrison, Swarthmore linguist, National Geographic Fellow, and an absolutely riveting speaker this weekend at the Modern Language Association Convention in Scottsdale, Arizona.  His talk:  “Endangered Languages: Local and Global Trends,” was followed that night by a screening of a documentary featuring his work: The Linguists.

Attending a large conference with hundreds of people is always a crap shoot.  Any particular session could be a crashing bore, or among the most thought-provoking and stimulating presentations of a lifetime.  I was lucky.

Harrison explained that there are over 7,000 languages in the world.  The 83 “big languages” (you know, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, and so on) are spoken by 80% of the world.  About 2,935 are spoken by 20.4% of the world.  And the final 3,586 are spoken by .2% of the world.  (I know, I know, they don’t add up, but still.)

That last .2% are Harrison’s concern.  Think linguistics is boring?  Not when Harrison explains it.  These small languages are perishing – and with each of them goes a whole worldview.  They contain “traditional knowledge” of plants, animal species, ecosystems and medicinal remedies.

In some cases, Harrison has made the first recordings ever of these languages – “sometimes the last,” he added sadly.  For example, the Chulym language of the remotest regions of Siberia is spoken by only 6 or 7 people now – they call their language “Ös.”  (Harrison is also the author of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages and When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge.)

The Chulym language’s youngest speaker, a 58-year-old man with a third-grade education, created a written form for the language, using the Cyrillic letters of Russian.  Harrison calls Vasily Gabov‘s innovation “a work of genius,” something that would have been difficult for an experienced linguist with advanced degrees. “It was really brilliant,” said Harrison.  “It didn’t need tweaking.”

Although the first book in Ös has been published – which goes some way to validating the language – the language “is in the terminal stages of its existence” and likely to be extinct within the next decade.

Harrison also did extensive field work among the Tuva people, a nomadic Siberian tribe that herds camels, goats, yaks, and sheep.  These people reinforced “how inadequate our theoretical tools are,” said Harrison.  For example, the simple verb “to go” has no equivalent for the Tuvans.  The word varies according to whether you are ascending or descending, or going with or against the current of the nearest stream.  “They laugh if you pick the wrong one, but they can’t say why.  All this knowledge” – for example, the subtle sense of sloping ground beneath their feet – “is completely second nature to them.”

Oh, and see below for one young man’s solution for the disappearance of his own language in India – Aka Kora, the language cited at the beginning of this post.

The young man set it to hip hop.  “The elders somewhat disapprove,” said Harrison, but “people like him are key to keeping the language.”

“Speakers generally love their languages, and want to keep them.”

Below Songe Nimasow‘s hip hop rendition of his dying language is a young Tuvan musician Marat Damdyn, who does a little “throat singing,” beginning about 1 minute in.  If you haven’t heard this before, it’s astonishing. And below that, David Harrison himself.   (Read about his work at his Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages here.)

 


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2 Responses to “Think linguistics is boring? Not when David Harrison explains it.”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    How could anyone in their right mind think linguistics is boring?
    (*Sigh*)
    Never mind.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Well, anyone except you, John! I’ve almost fallen asleep over the linguistics textbooks.

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