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Reports from the Field

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"After examining how these diverse populations in unusual corners of the world have over millennia named plants and animals, the author ponders whether significant knowledge about these species is being lost with their names. Both written and oral traditions of storytelling are suffering." Science News 2/11/2007

Speakers of thousands of the world’s languages are now abandoning their ancestral tongues at an unprecedented rate. What exactly is lost when speakers of indigenous languages switch to speaking English, Hindi, Russian, or other global tongues? And why should we care if small languages vanish?

Building on my fieldwork in Russia, Mongolia, India, the Philippines and Lithuania, and drawing examples from a wide array of threatened or recently vanished languages, this book highlights the complex systems of knowledge embedded in indigenous languages. It illuminates individual faces of language loss, while revealing its global scale.

Languages are the repository of thousands of years of a people’s science and art – from observations of ecological patterns to creation myths. The disappearance of a language is not only a loss for the community of speakers itself, but for our common human knowledge of mathematics, biology, geography, philosophy, agriculture, and linguistics. In this century, we are facing a massive erosion of the human knowledge base.

As the book explores technologies for survival and the languages that communicate them, we are introduced to people such as Aunt Marta, one of the last speakers of the language of the reindeer-herding Tofa people of Siberia; Vasya Gabov, at 54 the youngest speaker of Ös, who, after being pressured into speaking only Russian as a child, invented in secret a writing system for his mother tongue; and Shoydak-ool, a Tuvan storyteller who practices the vanishing art of telling Tuva's traditional epics.

The global abandonment of indigenous languages will bring a massive loss of accumulated knowledge and culture – this book argues for the irreplaceable nature of these unique knowledge systems and the urgency of documenting them before they are lost forever.