David Harrison speaks about “When Languages Die”

About 9 months ago, I shared some news of language extinction and the conservation efforts of K. David Harrison and David Anderson. My coverage was far from a thorough treatment of the subject, partially because I know little about the problem and the ways to remedy it. Fast forward to today, where I come across this video posted by Simon Greenhill on his blog HENRY.

The video is an interview of well spoken linguistic anthropologist K. David Harrison, by host Mark Molaro. In the video, David touches on many aspects, such as ownership of a language and what he considers ‘the greatest conservation challenge’ of humans. For anyone interested in the subject, I recommend you check out this 26 minute interview. Harrison integrates cultural issues as well as the importance of knowledge locked in unknown languages that can be useful to other disciplines such as botanists and zoologists.

Ownership of a language is a critical concept to understand. Speakers of widely spoken languages such as English, French, Chinese, Spanish, may not consider much ownership to their language. But to those who are one of the few speakers of a dying language, such as Chulym where only 30 or so speakers are alive, feel more attached to their language — it is something they identify with.

Harrison also outlines ‘the greatest conservation challenge’ of humans. See, every 2 weeks or so a language dies off. In contrast, species are going extinct at a much slower rate and yet a monumental conservation effort is put into saving this from happening. But studying, saving and/or curating languages aren’t given the same dedication as ecological or archaeological conservation. It is ironic that language, perhaps the most complex monument to human genius, has been ignored in our efforts to conserve the rest of the world.

Support is required from outside to conserve language, and with that a change in the ways we approach language is needed. Harrison suggests that while curating a language is critical to the conservation, understanding the folk taxonomy, a.k.a. the folksonomy, is also imperative. He brings up examples of different single word terms to refer to different reindeer in some Siberian languages. When translated, these single words unravel into elaborate, information packed phrases. He uses that to explain how often times there is a lot of local knowledge hidden lesser spoken language, that can span millennia. Harrison advocates that other researchers entertain the possibility that languages are an untapped resource for knowledge.

But to do that, a restructuring of how we consider discovery is needed. We, as academics, are largely stuck in this colonial paradigm of how discovery is approached. Many zoologists, botanists, even anthropologists and archaeologists discover new things without absorbing native knowledge. It is an awfully imperial way of looking about it, if Western culture doesn’t know about it the rest of the world never know about it! But who’s to say local peoples didn’t know about a certain plant or animal for ages prior to the “Western discovery”? We need people to acknowledge the vast body of knowledge out there, locked in indigenous, endangered languages.

Harrison wraps up his talk emphasizing how language is an infinite system, and I couldn’t agree with him more. He’s put particular consideration on local knowledge, but there is also a lot of knowledge that can be extracted from language — such as human migrations, which will have gaping holes if languages are allowed to erode at the rates they are now.

21 thoughts on “David Harrison speaks about “When Languages Die”

  1. An interesting book on this subject is “Words of the World” by the Dutch sociologist Abram De Swaan (University of Amsterdam).

    De Swaan is critical of language conservation:

    Endangered languages, sociolinguistics, and linguistic sentimentalism, European Review , October 2004


    The movement to protect threatened languages from extinction is based on misleading metaphors and false sentiment. Of course, linguists should do their utmost to document languages that are in danger of being entirely abandoned. But whether speakers of such languages should continue to use them or adopt more current languages is a decision no outsider can make for them. Threatened languages are not like threatened species: they do not die out but are abandoned by those who used to speak them. Small language communities do not necessarily add to cultural diversity, they may isolate their speakers from all cultural alternatives, they may be oppressive and restrictive. The adoption of more current languages may increase the chances of education and employment. The many social dilemmas facing small language communities can only be understood within the encompassing anthropological context.

    1. Wow! This De Swann guy sounds like an insensitive jerk. If history had run a different course, I wonder if he’d abandon Dutch…

  2. Hey JB, thanks for sharing this take on language extinction. De Swaan is pretty outspoken compared to Harrison. I wonder if that’s because De Swaan has any Dutch Colonial Empire nationalism running thru his blood and thoughts?

    On that note, I want to make some distinctions that I think De Swaan doesn’t get. In the abstract, I read, “[languages are] abandoned by those who used to speak them.” Speakers of to-be-abandoned languages have not decided on a whim that their language is useless — it is often to socio-economic and cultural pressures from the outside that influence abandoning a language.

    Furthermore, to associate the impact of lesser spoken languages as barriers that isolate groups is an awful line to make for someone advocating understanding language diversity under an anthropological context.

    De Swaan suggests adoption of current languages in favor of lesser spoken languages increases education — but he’s wrong. As Harrison explained, a lot of knowledge is locked away in lesser spoken languages. Assimilating them under the ‘current language’ umbrella effectively throws this knowledge in the trash and is a blatant example of the colonial paradigm Harrison expressed.

    I wonder if De Swaan or Harrison may surface on this thread to elaborate on this topic. I sure hope they do. Anyways, thanks for linking this information up.


  3. I wonder if De Swaan or Harrison may surface on this thread to elaborate on this topic.

    I’ll ask him.

    I had the privilege of attending his classes when he came to visit the University of Antwerp, Belgium.

  4. Mr. Kambiz apparently is an adherent of the ‘blood and thought’ ideology. Would it apply to his own thinking?
    As to his substantive comment: There is none, he has not bothered to read beyond the abstract of my article.

  5. Dr. De Swaan,

    My institution does not have access to your paper, that is why I haven’t read beyond the abstract. If you care to send me a copy of your paper, I’d be more than happy to provide a more substantive comment. My email is here.

    For others out there, the paper is mislinked above. The correct citation is:

    DE SWAAN, A. (2004). Endangered languages, sociolinguistics, and linguistic sentimentalism. European Review, 12(4), 567-580. DOI: 10.1017/S1062798704000481


  6. The link is indeed faulty, my apologies for that. In my haste (I had an exam this morning) I mistakenly linked to dr. De Swaan’s English biography, which was open in my browser but on an other page.

    This is an other correct link:

    Endangered languages, sociolinguistics, and linguistic sentimentalism

    I hope we can have a good discussion on the subject.

    Again, my apologies.

    Mr. Kambiz, I must admit that I found your comment on “Dutch Colonial Empire nationalism” uncalled for. We’re all academics here, no?

    (Well, as for my case, I’m still working towards being an academic;-)

  7. No, my comment was not uncalled for.

    Based upon the initial information you provided JB, the argument that Dr. De Swaan advocates is exactly what Harrison outlines as the ‘colonial paradigm.’ And I saw and called it as such. Before I defend this point of view, let me first define colonialism. It is the process by which a body extends its boundaries, both physical as well as social, on other body. The rulers impose socio-cultural, religious and linguistic structures on the other population. Why do they do that? It stems upon the ethnocentric beliefs that the morals and values of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized.

    That being defined, I hope you and others can see that the argument of Dr. De Swaan, where he advocates language shifts because it promotes education is colonial.


    Phrasing the argument like so justifies pressuring minority group to gradually adopt the customs and attitudes of the prevailing cultures… which leads to cultural disintegration of the other population and a variety of social problems. Dr. De Swaan uses this ideology to legitimize or promote this a colonial system.

    This is not surprising, because the Dutch have had a history of promoting language shifts in one form or another. For example the Dutch occupied Indonesia for almost 350 years. During that time, the Dutch Empire pressured the adoption of many scientific and technological terminology over Indonesia terms (Sneddon, James, 2003. The Indonesian Language: Its History and Role in Modern Society. UNSW Press). According to Hendrik M. Maier, the impact of this shift is that roughly 20% of the Indonesian language has been lost in favor of Dutch terms. Harrison outlines how these sorts of changes can be problematic, because lots of Indonesian knowledge was most likely obliterated in favor of Dutch terminology.

    In another ex-Dutch colony, Suriname, Dutch is currently the official language and spoken by the majority of the people. Dutch is used in education, government and the media… institutions that indoctrinate the public. The indigenous Amerindian languages are not spoken. There are ongoing debates and concern in the public about reclaiming indigenous Suriname languages as a part of the national identity.

    While Dr. De Swaan is not the Dutch Empire, I can’t help be associate his argument as imperialistic. Instead of promoting language shift thru force, Dr. De Swaan promotes language shift thru academic papers. The net effect is the same; His arguments devalue other cultures. Preservation or cultures and conservation of languages recognizes the many strands of culture: from language to folklore, songs and dances, material culture, etc. are critical. Each time a language or culture is lost, in favor of ‘the simple way of educating people’ we loose an irreplaceable and exquisite way of being.


  8. I’m going to reread dr. de Swaan’s article, because I’m not seeing what you seem to be seeing.

    But, maybe I missed it, it’s been a couple of weeks since I last read it carefully. I have to know it for my cultural sociology exam next month, so some repeating will do no harm.

    What I do see is that you’re making the mistake that de Swaan actually warned about: you assume that every language has to be preserved, and you presume that a language just can’t simply be abandoned for, maybe only in the minds of the people who speak the language, very good reasons.


  9. JB,

    No, I don’t see that every language has to be preserved. I hold the opinion that the survival of languages are under the same laws that govern the survival of species.

    But unlike species, which largely occupy different niches, and only compete when niches overlap, languages all occupy one niche — as a mode to communicate and express information. There is a lot of competition between languages to vie for this niche. To say that lesser-spoken languages only hinder educational processes is not correct because all languages are means offer ways to educate, communicate, and express information. One can’t rationally evaluate or justify that one language has more cultural value over another…


  10. I’m halfway trough the article, eating and drinking at the same time, and I seriously doubt you even read it, even when I provided you with a link that needs no login what so ever.

    Please, for the sake of academic integrity, read the article and discus the points.

    I’m not saying you should agree with dr. de Swaan on every point, I don’t either. For example: I think the requirement to learn a third language in Dutch (and Belgian) schools would be beneficial. de Swaan’s argument against it, that it would breed resentment, is in my opinion a non-argument. So what if it breeds resentment? The benefits outweigh the disadvantage.

    I hold the opinion that the survival of languages are under the same laws that govern the survival of species.




  11. I am afraid I agree that language extinction is not a real problem but perhaps for a different reason. Languages are constantly changing if they are “alive” and will become completely different over time. They are tools, not species or ethnicities. Documenting a language is worthwhile but provides a static snapshot derived at the time of documentation. A dead language is an unused tool thats all.

  12. Charlie, that is not an entirely different opinion from de Swaan, I think.

    There are many reasons for why languages “die.” Sure, this will lead to information loss, as dr. Harrison points out, that’s why language needs to be studied. But there’s a misguided ideology behind some language conservation efforts, and that’s that de Swaan is trying to expose.

    I’m going to bed, I have an other exam to do tomorrow. Interestingly enough it’s a language exam: English…

    Good night! I hope to see some more contributions tomorrow.

  13. It is important to note that members of endangered language communities are typically multilingual, so the argument that endangered language preservation somehow impede education or economic advancement is a non-starter. The claim that the languages in question somehow isolate the communities in which they are spoken does not jibe with my own experiences in Latin America.

    Furthermore, communities generally abandon ancestral languages not for strictly utilitarian reasons (e.g. education), but due to a broader rejection of indigenous or minority identity, which is in turn motivated by the racism these communities face from the dominant society in which they participate.

    Since I have not read de Swaan’s piece, it is not clear to me to what degree he, or his supporters in this thread, have considered these two points. But taken together, I think they undermine the position as expressed in the abstract.

  14. Charlie and then JB,

    You are right, languages are constantly changing. But they change just like tools, species, and ethnicities change. They are subject to the same forces and laws that dictate if we find a certain tool useful or if a particular species provides some additive benefit to the ecology of an environment. Nothing has been static throughout time, but each snapshot of time has proven to be useful to understand how humans got here, who humans were and who we are now. To passively and ignorantly erase entire volumes of the human experience does not help.

    Reducing a dead or dying language to an unused tool is extremely flawed… especially speaking to a group of anthropologists. So what if it is an unused tool? It still has a lot of information packed in it and as thorough researchers of the human experience we need to extract as much as we can before it is lost for good. Try telling an archaeologist who studies Oldowan era stone flakes and cores that his or her research is based upon ‘unused, dead’ effectively useless tools. I’m more than positive you’ll get a nice, humbling lecture telling you how important it is to study ‘dead’ tools.


  15. Kambiz, everything you’re saying makes sense to me. There’s no need for the condescending tone. But I still have the feeling that I’m the only one here who has read de Swaan’s article…

    Please answer my question: Why do you think that the survival of languages is under the same law that governs the survival of species?

    I’m off to my exam.

  16. Related (in a way):

    Language: The language barrier
    Published online 21 May 2008 | Nature 453, – (2008) | doi:10.1038/453446a

    You need access to Nature’s premium content to read the full article.

    Also, make sure to check out the comments.

  17. OK. I finally had time to watch this, or at least part of it. I’m not sure I understand what is gained by using intellectual property law in this way. I just finished reading the book “Who Owns Native Culture” which is very critical of attempts to hijack IP law to protect indigenous rights (the author is pro-indigenous rights, just anti using IP law in this way). IP was not designed for this, and there are lots of reasons why we should be limiting the scope of IP law rather than expanding it. But I’m mostly dumbfounded by trying to think how this could help language preservation and I’d have to see a fuller argument before I could comment on it.

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