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David Harrison giving a presentation

Presentation at Pop!Tech Conference, 2008. Video of talk with subtitles in over 40 languages.

My research focuses on endangered and little-documented languages, with primary emphasis on Turkic languages of Inner Asia (Central Siberia and Western Mongolia). To date, I've investigated TuvanTsengel TuvanTofaÖs (Middle Chulym), Tuha (Dukha), and Monchak. In recent years I have focused on several languages of Vanuatu, which is a language and biodiversity hotspot.

As a theoretician, I primarily investigate Phonology (sound structures) and morphology (word structures). I am particularly interested in a set of complex, emergent patterns known under the umbrella term 'vowel harmony'. These patterns show rich variation and exhibit many properties of self-organizing systems. They pose interesting challenges for Linguistic theory and for modeling more general cognitive functions such as pattern recognition and statistical learning. I study these patterns both empirically (e.g., collecting new data in the field), and by way of computer modeling (using simulations of artificial speech communities).

As a field linguist, I adopt the position that languages exist solely within a cultural matrix, and must be studied holistically and in their natural context. This means that in addition to studying abstract structures in the mind (e.g., vowel harmony), I am keenly interested in what people have to say and how languages shape the structure of human knowledge. My ethnographic research looks at indigenous knowledge, folklore, oral epics, conceptual systems, and naming practices, often within the context of Inner Asian nomadic life. All of my research without exception relies on close collaboration with other scholars, including members of the indigenous communities where I work.

As a responsible scientist, I am eager to raise awareness about language extinction. Two languages I am currently investigating, Tofa and Ös, have fewer than 30 fluent speakers each. Nearly half of the world's languages are endangered and may vanish in this century. The loss to science, to humanity and to the native communities themselves will be catastrophic. Linguists can support community-based efforts at language preservation and revitalization, and can document languages for posterity and for science.