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.