Of the world’s 6,500 living languages, half will cease to be spoken by the end of this century. Most of these endangered languages are oral speech forms, with little if any traditional written literature. If undocumented, these tongues – each representing a unique insight into human cognition and its most powerful defining feature, language – risk disappearing without trace.
Dr Mark Turin, director of the World Oral Literature Project, has spent much of his life travelling to remote corners of the Himalayas to study languages and cultures that are at risk and document them before they disappear without record.
Linguistics is a growth industry, yet ever more languages are disappearing without trace. There are now more trained linguists working in the discipline than there are extant languages to document. Too many stars and not enough sky. Moreover, as privileged language professionals, linguists are in a position to pose ever more nuanced and complex questions of their data… but where are they sourcing that data? How many doctoral dissertations have been submitted based primarily (or even exclusively) on analyses of the verbal contortions and internal syntax of English, Spanish, and Chinese? Some may ask whether linguists are professionally responsible for documenting the world’s vanishing voices. Perhaps this is not their mandate?
What is the role of ever more sophisticated theoretical excursions of the mind (often on language rather than languages) while “Rome burns”? Beyond that, do linguists even have an ethical or moral responsibility to support communities engaged in reviving their speech forms, and help – through sharing their knowledge, resources and networks – revitalization and reclamation projects, even in cases when these are politically charged? We know that linguists do not save languages, speech communities do; but in this highly articulated documentary and classificatory moment, how should the scholarly community act? Will linguistics go down in the history of science as the only discipline that presided over the demise of its own subject matter and did nothing?
A fascinating video from Cambridge University shows some of the work of the World Oral Literature project.
Mark Turin is a British anthropologist, linguist and occasional radio broadcaster who specializes in the Himalayas and the Pacific Northwest. From 2014–2018, he served as Chair of the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program and Acting Co-Director of the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. He is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, cross-appointed between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. Before joining UBC, he was an Associate Research Scientist with the South Asian Studies Council at Yale University, and the Founding Program Director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative.
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