Listening to the Last Speakers

Listening to the Last Speakers By K. David Harrison, associate professor and chair of linguistics

David Harrison

Associate Professor and Chair of Linguistics K. David Harrison co-founded and serves as director of research for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and co-directs the Enduring Voices Project at National Geographic. His own research, the subject of the award-winning documentary The Linguists, focuses on endangered and little-documented languages around the world. Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Uncover the World's Most Endangered Languages. Write to him at harrison@swarthmore.edu.

The following was adapted from an essay that appeared as a BBC Special Report earlier this month.

My journey as a scientist exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald's in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers - dignified elders - who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth.

Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. In fact, they are often eager to share it. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?

As the last speakers converse, they spin individual strands in a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia.

David Harrison

David Harrison with Maria Tolbanova, who recently emerged as the oldest female speaker of Chulym, a Turkic language of Central Siberia. (photo by Gregory Anderson).

We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. Finally, this web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity - epics, myths, rituals - that celebrate and interpret our existence.

Pundits argue that linguistic differences are little more than random drift, minor variations in meaning and pronunciation that emerge over time (the British say 'lorry', Americans 'truck'; Tuesday is CHEWS-day, for Brits, TOOZ-day for Americans). These reveal nothing interestingly different about our souls or minds, some claim. But that's like saying that the Pyramid of Cheops differs from Notre Dame Cathedral only by stone-cutting techniques that evolved randomly in different times and places; revealing nothing unique in the ancient Egyptian or Medieval French imagination.

David Harrison

More than 3,500 of Earth's 7,000 languages are in danger of extinction. Listen to Harrison discuss the ongoing effort to document and preserve these threatened languages.

All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. We might as well proclaim human history banal, and human genius of no value to our survival.

The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80 percent of plant and animal species unknown to science, and 80 percent of languages yet to be documented.

But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well-known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things, but also complex interrelations among them. Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

David Harrison

Techonology plays an integral role in Harrison's work. Clockwise from left, he, Gregory Anderson, and Ganesh Murmu consult with Apatani speaker Vijay Punyo on phonetic transcription in Arunachal Pradesh, India.

Linguistic survivors hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths. Johnny Hill, Jr. of the Chemehuevi tribe of Arizona is a big, imposing man, but he instantly wins people over with his gentle humility. Designated "last speaker" of Chemehuevi, Johnny achieved celebrity in the 2008 documentary film The Linguists.

Although he had never previously travelled far from his reservation or flown on an aeroplane, Johnny mesmerized film festival-goers with his life story. Raised by his grandmother who spoke only Chemehuevi, Johnny learned English at school seeking a path out of isolation.

At the other end of his lifespan, Johnny finds himself linguistically isolated once again. "I have to talk to myself," he explains resignedly. "There's nobody left to talk to, all the elders have passed on, so I talk to myself... that's just how it is." Johnny has tried to teach his children and others in the tribe. "Trouble is," he sighs, "they say they want to learn it, but when it comes time to do the work, nobody comes around."

David Harrison

There are about 30 fluent speakers left of Ös, also known as Middle Chulym, in Central Siberia.

Speakers react differently to loss - from indifference to despair - and adopt diverse strategies. Some blame governments or globalization, others blame themselves. Around the world, a growing wave of language activists works to revitalize their threatened tongues. Positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive, while negative ones can doom them.

Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally, and new technologies are being mobilized to the cause. A Torres Straits' Islander in Australia told me: "Our language is standing still, we need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words, because right now we can't say 'computer'."

The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige. Translated software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues, as I've heard among young Aka speakers in India, infuses new vitality.

David Harrison

In 2002, Harrison filmed speakers of Tsengel Tuvan, a dialect of Tuvan spoken by approximately 1,500 people in the extreme western corner of Mongolia.

Language revitalization will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.

What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know - which we've forgotten or never knew - may some day save us. We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let's listen while we still can.

This language hotspots map illustrates the locations of endangered languages around the world.