K. David Harrison speaks on languages in danger of extinction around the world

By Lydia Wolfe || Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of fandm.edu

This week’s Common Hour, entitled “What Happens When Languages Die? Cultural Survival Without a Tongue,” was presented by K. David Harrison. Harrison is the Associate Provost and a Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College, as well as the Director of Research at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. His talk covered the nature and effect of language extinction, as well as the efforts that are being made to reverse the process and revitalize endangered languages. This event was proposed by Alex King, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at F&M.

Harrison began his talk by teaching the audience a word in Koro, an endangered language of Northeast India, “kap-la-ye.” This word is a greeting and and also means thank you. He then proceeded to talk about language broadly, describing how there are more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, and that “we don’t realize how much linguistic diversity there is in our own area or neighborhood.” He explained that an estimated half of the languages on Earth are endangered and that there is a skewed distribution of languages to people, meaning that 79% of the world’s population speaks only 85 languages. Another 21% speaks 3,000 languages, and the remaining .1% of the population speaks another 3,500 languages.

Harrison introduced the concept of a language hotspot, created through his work with National Geographic. A language hotspot is an area where there are low levels of scientific documentation, high levels of diversity, and high levels of extinction. There are about two dozen of these hotspots in the world, and the rest of Harrison’s talk focused on four of them.

In Siberian Russia, Harrison began to study the Tuvan language. When he arrived, he was put to work collecting yak manure – a job that may seem insignificant, but actually led him to the awareness that the Tuvan language has many different words for yak manure in its different stages, a fact that illustrates the importance of this concept in the Tuvan culture. Another feature of this language is their use of the liver to describe emotions, much like the heart is used in English. Although “both concepts are biologically false,” they are very much a part of their respective cultures.

Another contrast between the Tuvan language and English was the concept of past and future. Tuvan speakers think of the past as being in front of them, because you can see it, and the future as being behind, because one does not know what will happen, much like you cannot see what is behind you. Harrison said that visiting the Tuvan people taught him that “language is more than we think. It is not just grammar but also landscapes, rivers, metaphors, time and space.”

Harrison then proceeded to discuss the Panau language, which has fewer than 500 speakers in a single village in Papua New Guinea. The Panau people had one request for Harrison; they wanted to see their language on the internet. None of these people had ever used the internet, but they had heard about its capabilities and wanted to use it to expand their language. Visiting these people taught Harrison that “technology is an opportunity” and the multilingual and multicultural nature of the internet can be utilized in the preservation of small languages, many of which are “poised to cross the digital divide.”

The Siletz language taught Harrison that a single speaker of a language can be enough to undertake its revitalization, as when he visited a Native American tribe in Oregon. He discovered that the language had only one fluent speaker. Siletz, like many languages, had never been written down, as the language was “carried in the hearts and minds of ancestors…learned by each generation.” Harrison helped to create an online talking dictionary for these people.

Lastly, Harrison turned his attention back to the Koro language, spoken by less than 1,000 people in six villages in Northeast India. This study brought the concept of hidden languages to Harrison’s attention, and he realized that the number of known languages will continue to increase as more hidden languages are discovered. Koro also helped Harrison to realize the positive effects of globalization in allowing unknown languages to be heard, which sheds light on the culture of these people. “If we don’t know about something we can’t possibly care about it.”

Harrison concluded his talk by discussing the importance of preserving these endangered languages. He discussed how much of what humans know about rare animal species is contained in these small languages, and if these languages die so will our knowledge of these animals. He explained how different languages give us different frameworks for looking at the world. He emphasized that “language is a seed bed for ideas,” and in order to understand intelligence, one must understand language. Perhaps most importantly, language is a significant part of a people’s culture, and as Anthony Degio, a Koro-Aka speaker from Yangse village, told Harrison, “loss of culture is loss of identity.”

First-year Lydia Wolfe is a staff writer. Her email is lwolfe1@fandm.edu.

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