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K. David Harrison

Associate Professor of Linguistics

Professor Harrison is an authority on endangered and dying languages with particular interest in connections between language and biodiversity, ethnoecology, and cultural survival.

K. David Harrison

His research has focused mainly on the little-documented Turkic languages of Inner Asia (Central Siberia and Western Mongolia). To date, he has investigated Tuvan, Monchak Tsengel Tuvan, Tofa, Ös (Middle Chulym), and Tuha (Dukha). He has also conducted fieldwork on three Munda languages of Northeast India (Ho, Sora and Remo), on the secret Kallawaya language of the Andean highlands, and on the Siletz Dee-ni language of Oregon.

He is the author of When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2007) and numerous articles in professional journals including Linguistic Discovery, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Languages, and Cultural Survival Quarterly and the edited volume, Prehistory of Central Siberia. Harrison is also co-founder and research director of the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February 2007, Professor Harrison explained how each language death represents a significant erosion of human knowledge about local plant and animal life that was acquired over many centuries. "Information about local ecosystems is so intricately woven into these languages that it cannot be replaced simply through translation," he said. "The indigenous taxonomy alone can provide a huge range of information about a species, which young speakers in these tribes acquire instantly through learning the name. For example, the Siberian Todzhu tribe has many different and complex names for reindeer, according to the animals' life stages. What is called a 'chary' by the Todzu, would be translated in English as 'a two-year-old male, un-castrated, rideable reindeer.'"

Along with his colleague Greg Anderson, Professor Harrison was the focus of the documentary, The Linguists (Ironbound Films). It highlights their efforts to document and preserve endangered languages, and was an official selection at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Professor Harrison offers courses on anthropological linguistics: endangered languages, structure of Tuvan, cognitive science, field methods, and phonology. He received his B.A. from American University; his Magister from Jagiellonian University, Poland; and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University.

See all of Professor Harrison's press coverage here.


Watch K. David Harrison's appearance on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.
K. David Harrison with Colbert on The Colbert Report


Watch K. David Harrison talk about his book, When Languages Die, on "The Alcove with Mark Molaro."
K. David Harrison


Listen to K. David Harrison and colleague Greg Anderson talk about their work documenting and preserving disappearing languages with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. They were featured guests on WHYY's "Radio Times."


Watch David Harrison on a research trip into India to document dying languages, including Koro, which had previously been unknown outside its region.

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