Dying Languages

This is kind of sad. Lose a language and you lose so much.

“WASHINGTON – When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there’s still no one to talk to. Native Australian Charlie Mungulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands around the world on the brink of extinction. From rural Australia to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said Tuesday.

While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.

Five hotspots where languages are most endangered were listed Tuesday in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society.

In addition to northern Australia, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest, many native languages are endangered in South America — Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — as well as the area including British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

“When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.”

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4 Comments

  1. Jack's Shack September 20, 2007 at 6:22 am

    Ellie,

    That sounds like an incredibly interesting project.

    FC,

    It is important to preserve these languages. There is much that can be learned.

    Paddy,

    The lack of records is the kiss of death for most things.

  2. Paddy September 20, 2007 at 2:09 am

    From what I read, the primary reason a language becomes lost is because it is not written down.

    With our sophisticated computer programs and computer power, it should be possible for someone to audio record people who can still speak these endangered languages.

    A computer program can translate the sounds of the spoken language into symbols or sorts for posterity.

    The first step is to record the spoken language and save it. Record as much of it as possible. Record as many people as possible. Even if there is only one person who speaks the language, record that person and the person’s spoken word as much as possible.

    We already have computer programs that will convert the spoken word into English. But to save a fragile language, all we need to do is have someone record and save it in a digital format. The conversion can be worked on later.

    Who can help with this?

    Paddy

  3. fashionista cat in a zero gravity shoe-store September 19, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Yiddish used to be a world language, but got almost extinct.
    In Britain, it was forbidden for a long time to speak and teach several Celtic languages, e.g. Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Manx etc. The latter three died out, and now the government tries to re-establish those languages with the help of linguists that try to re-trace those languages. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

  4. MizEllie September 19, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    This is of incredible interest to me. My mother and I have been working on a project at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to help them document and preserve their language.

    “When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”

    This is so true. I was just reading a book about someone who deciphered several documents from a particular American Indian tribe. Among other things, these documents turned out to contain an elaborate creation story very similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition, It also contained documentation of trade not only between other tribes, but with South America and Europe….long before this country was “civilized”. Absolutely fascinating.

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