Posts Tagged ‘K. David Harrison’

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

Monday, October 10th, 2011

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.)


Bei Dao: “Each language keeps the secret code of a culture”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Reading at St. Catherine's Church, Kraków (Photo: Droid)

In an early poem, Bei Dao wrote, “freedom is nothing but the distance/between the hunter and the hunted.”

All too true, as he soon found out.

Protesters once shouted his poems in Tiananmen Square, and after his exile (he had been in Berlin during the 1989 uprising), he continued to write in Scandinavia, the U.S., and France.  He now teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, since the government allowed his return to the PRC a few years ago.

At last month’s Czesław Miłosz Festival in Kraków, he participated in a panel called “Place of Birth” with Lithuanian Egidijus Aleksandravičius, English Timothy Garton Ash, and Polish Irena Grudzińska Gross, hosted by Italian Francesco Cataluccio.  Although some of the estrangements from native realms were more voluntary than others, the team discussed their sense of displacement from homeland.

But the most haunting words of the evening belonged to Bei Dao:  “It’s mysterious. Why do we think about birthplace, mother tongue, the origin of life?” he asked.  And then he gave his answer.

“Each language keeps the secret code of a culture,” he said.

“China is unified by a written language,” he said.  “The local accent keeps their secret, keeps their code.”  That’s what he cherishes, and that is what the world is most at risk of losing.

His words returned to me today as I read an unusually eloquent McClatchy Newspapers article, “Silenced Voices,” by Tim Johnson:

Some linguists say that languages are disappearing at the rate of two a month. Half of the world’s remaining 7,000 or so languages may be gone by the end of this century, pushed into disuse by English, Spanish and other dominating languages.The die-off has parallels to the extinction of animals. The death of a language, linguists say, robs humanity of ideas, belief systems and knowledge of the natural world. Languages are repositories of human experience that have evolved over centuries, even millennia.

“Languages are definitely more endangered than species, and are going extinct at a faster rate,” said K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of the book When Languages Die. “There are many hundreds of languages that have fewer than 50 speakers.”

Language is an invisible triumph of humanity, and its disappearance brings only silence.”It’s not as flashy as a pyramid, but it represents enormous human achievement in terms of the thought and effort that went into it,” said Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University…

Miłosz knew this:  This is why Miłosz wrote in Polish throughout his 40 years of exile in California, said the Chinese poet.

In 1999 at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Bei Dao was born in 1949 in Beijing.  “As Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, I was lying in my cradle no more than a housand yards away. My fate seems to have been intertwined with China ever since,” he wrote in the festival’s 100-page companion book. “I received a privileged, but brief, education. I was a student at the best high school in Beijing, until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.  All the schools were closed, and three years later I was assigned to work in the state-run construction industry.”

In those harsh circumstances, at the age of 20, the young construction worker began to write at a site in the mountains more than 200 miles from Beijing.

During the conference session, he recalled visiting his dying father in a brief respite from exile, but Beijing was a disappointment:  “It was not my city anymore.”

“The Chinese people do not know how to rebuild,” he said, praising the preservation of Venice and Florence.  The Chinese, by contrast, “build like Las Vegas – very, very ugly buildings.”

Left to right: Francesco Cataluccio, Bei Dao, Timothy Garton Ash, Egidijus Aleksandravičius, Irena Grudzińska Gross (Photo: my Droid)

“We were drawn by the concept of progress from the West and from Marxism.  Progress became the canon for Chinese people. There was more attention on GDP and new buildings.  Materialism and consumption destroyed Chinese culture.”

At Stanford over a decade ago, he remarked, “I don’t have a motherland now.”

“Someone recently said to me that I am like a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country, and I like that.”

But things change, in our heads as well as in the world.

Detroit, the notorious city of my birth, is now as much a gutted ruin if it had been destroyed by enemy mayhem – which in a sense it had been.  And as some of the speakers mourned their lost homes, I wondered if they were actually mourning the passage of time as much as they were exile and upheaval.

Political exile is poignant, but disguises a more inexorable reality: We are exiles in time as well as in space.  Both are excruciatingly transient.