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Posts Tagged ‘endangered language’

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Photo: Sunaina Kumar
Women of Jad tribe spinning wool in Dunda village, Uttarakhand. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and is one of 780 (possibly 850) in India.

Here is a heretical thought from someone who loves language: if practically everyone speaks a different language from everyone else, maybe we don’t need language? One must at least ponder the question of whether there is a better way to communicate with others. I’ve no idea what it could be. Even gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

There is always a need to communicate, isn’t there? It’s a puzzle. Even English, despite its frequent role as the bridge language Esperanto was meant to be, suffers from so many Orwellian uses of common words today, you can hardly trust it to convey what you mean.

These thoughts came to me because of an article by Sunaina Kumar at Atlas Obscura on the amazing array of languages in India alone.

Kumar writes, “In 1898, George A. Grierson, an Irish civil servant and philologist, undertook the first ever Linguistic Survey of India. It took Grierson 30 years to gather data on 179 languages and 544 dialects. The survey was published in 19 volumes, spanning 8,000 pages, between 1903 and 1928. …

“Ganesh Devy was frustrated by this lack of contemporary data, especially the discrepancies he saw in the existing numbers. Since the government wasn’t likely to start on a new survey in the near future, Devy, a former professor of English from the western state of Gujarat, launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010. The name refers to the fact that it was the people of the country, and not the government, that embarked on this project.

“With single-minded ambition, he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all parts of the country. Since 2013, the PLSI has published 37 volumes, featuring detailed profiles of each of India’s languages. The project is expected to be completed by 2020 with 50 volumes. In the linguistic landscape of India, the work done by PLSI is not just pathbreaking, it is crucial in recording and thus preserving the languages of the country for future generations. …

“The challenge of putting a disparate team together with a minuscule budget of 8 million rupees ($1,17,000) — provided by a private trust — to map the languages spoken by 1.3 billion people was enormous.

“ ‘My team was not made of linguists, but people who could speak their own language,’ Devy says. ‘We had writers, school teachers, philosophers, social scientists, some linguists. We also had farmers, daily wagers, car drivers, people who had been in and out of jail. They had an intimacy with their language. Even if it was less scientific, it was authentic.’ These volunteers were asked to record data about the languages they spoke, including the history of the language, its grammatical features, and samples of songs and stories. It was chaotic, Devy admits, but he traveled to every corner of the country to train the team and the final product was vetted with academic rigor.

“So far, the PLSI has recorded 780 languages in India and 68 scripts. When Devy embarked on the mammoth project, even he did not expect to unearth that many. He says that the PLSI could not report on nearly 80 languages for various reasons, including accessibility of a given region due to remoteness or conflict, which brings the estimated total number of languages closer to 850.

“Based on data from the survey, Devy estimates that in the last 50 years, India has lost 220 languages, including some within the last decade. …

“ ‘India has some of the oldest surviving languages,’ says Devy. ‘A language like Tamil has been around for 2,500 years. Some of the tribal languages would be even older.

These languages have survived because they have a philosophical context to them and that philosophy is part of the lived lives of the speakers.’ …

“After mapping India’s languages, Devy, whose spirit is unflagging at 67, has turned his attention to the world at large. His next project is the Global Language Status Report. The UNESCO states that nearly half of the over 6,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear by the end of this century. The GLSR proposes to cover the languages of Africa and South America, two regions where languages are fast disappearing without any trace, and where linguistic diversity has not been mapped. …

“ ‘I have been traveling to Africa for a year now and I am not deterred by the scope of mapping 54 countries,’ Devy says. ‘The experience with PLSI was great fun, and I believe if people decide to do something, they actually can.’ ”

More here, at Atlas Obscura.

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To me it’s tragic that languages are disappearing and, with them, unique cultures.

Small, determined efforts can bring attention to the problem, as I noted this morning when the filmmaker behind Marie’s Dictionary retweeted this from North Carolina’s Pilot Mountain Elementary School (@pilotMtnElem).

Third grade students are learning about Marie’s Dictionary and endangered languages. @goproject #scsed #pmespirates @UNESCO

Excellent. Third graders are sure to spread the word.

Recently, I came across an article on another threatened language, Hawaii Sign Language.

“In 2013, at a conference on endangered languages, a retired teacher named Linda Lambrecht announced the extraordinary discovery of a previously unknown language. Lambrecht – who is Chinese-Hawaiian, 71 years old, warm but no-nonsense – called it Hawaii Sign Language, or HSL.

“In front of a room full of linguists, she demonstrated that its core vocabulary – words such as ‘mother,’ ‘pig’ and ‘small’ – was distinct from that of other sign languages. …

“The last-minute arrival of recognition and support for HSL was a powerful, almost surreal vindication for Lambrecht, whose first language is HSL. For decades, it was stigmatised or ignored; now the language has acquired an agreed-upon name, an official ‘language code’ from the International Organization for Standardization, the attention of linguists around the world, and a three-year grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. …

“An initial estimate of up to 280 surviving HSL signers was soon revised down to 40, then down to just 10 or so old-timers still likely to be competent in HSL. ASL had made deep inroads even among these signers, but there was evidence, especially from Lambrecht’s signs, that HSL was distinct, and lay close enough to the surface to be recovered. Spoken languages such as Basque, Welsh, and Hawaiian have come back from the brink of extinction – could HSL be the first sign language to do it?”

The article is from the Guardian by way of the blog Arts Journal. Read it here.

Photo: Eugene Tanner Photography, LLC
Linda Lambrecht, left, teaches Hawaii Sign Language.

 

 

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My husband’s latest alumni bulletin had a lot of great articles. One was about a new effort to save endangered languages, starting with Zapotec, an indigenous Mexican language.

If you go to this website and click the buttons, you can see and hear the effort that has gone into recording the ways that Zapotec words are pronounced. It’s the “Tlacolula Valley Zapotec online talking dictionary.”

The initiative has received support from the National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Photo: AxisOfLogic.com

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As I mentioned the other day in the post about the Latin newscast on Finnish radio, I am interested in endangered languages.

Now a composer who is also interested has melded voices of  threatened languages with his music.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes at the NY Times that the “Vanishing Languages” project by Kevin James, “a New York-based trombonist and composer, is a rare hybrid of conservation effort and memorial, new music and ancient languages.

“Prodded by Unesco statistics that predict that by the end of the century half of the world’s 6,000 languages will be extinct, Mr. James spent months in the field tracking down and recording the last remaining speakers of four critically endangered tongues: Hokkaido Ainu, an aboriginal language from northern Japan, the American Indian Quileute from western Washington, and Dalabon and Jawoyn, aboriginal languages from Arnhem Land in Australia.”

Reviewing a concert James gave at a New York venue, da Fonseca-Wollheim says, “ ‘Counting in Quileute,’ which opens with bells struck and bowed and swung in the air and ends with the ring of a Buddhist prayer bowl, had a strong ritualistic feel to it.

“The often puzzling actions of the players — flutists whispering into mouthpieces, a cellist tapping with both hands on the fingerboard as if playing a recorder — appeared like a secret choreography designed to bring forth the voices of the dead filtered through the crackle of old phonographs.

“The imperfections of these old recordings, which Mr. James used alongside those he made recently in the field, show how heavily smudged the window is that we have on these vanishing cultures. And yet at times it seemed as if it were these voices who were willing the performance into existence.” (Isn’t da Fonseca-Wollheim a lovely writer?) More.

For a couple other blog discussions of endangered language, click here or here.

Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Leah Scholes of Speak Percussion using a double bass bow to play a bowl as part of “Vanishing Languages.”

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