Half of living languages face extinction
By Lucy Tobin via The Guardian
You’ll never again hear anyone speaking Laghu, and anyone yearning to communicate in Old Kentish Sign Language is out of luck: it, too, has gone the way of the dodo. But there’s still a chance to track down a conversation in Gamilaraay, or Southern Pomo – if you’re prepared to trek to visit to one the few native Americans still speaking it in California. Of the 6,500 living languages currently being used around the world, around half are expected to be extinct by the end of this century.
It was concern about the cultural and historical losses that result from a language disappearing that inspired the World Oral Literature Project, an online collection of some of the 3,500-plus “endangered languages” struggling for survival in the world.
The heart of the project, run by Cambridge University, is a large database listing thousands of languages alongside details such as where they are spoken and by whom, plus audio clips. On the site, surfers can discover that Laghu was a language spoken in the Solomon Islands until it disappeared in 1984, Old Kentish Sign Language was a precursor to the modern-day version, and Gamilaraay is still used by the Kamilaroi tribe of New South Wales.
The project is the brainchild of Mark Turin, 37, a research associate at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He grew up in London speaking Dutch and English and had planned to study linguistics at university, but on a gap year in Nepal realised he was interested in “what language unlocked, not just the nuts and bolts of linguistics”, and switched to anthropology.
“We know very little about most of the world’s languages, and an incredible amount about the histories and changes of a handful of western European languages,” Turin explains. And he has devoted his academic career to trying to open up little-known languages. “Most endangered languages are primarily oral, and are vehicles for the transmission of a great deal of oral culture,” he says. “That’s at risk of being lost when speakers abandon their languages in favour of regional, national or international tongues.”
So the World Oral Literature Project aims to document vanishing languages – and everything about the culture and society they convey – before they disappear. Its database used three major sources to collate the information about the disappearing languages, including Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. About 150 of its listed languages are in an “extremely critical” condition, where the number of known living speakers has slipped to single figures, or even just one.
“As soon as a scholar declares a language to be extinct, you get a phone call from someone furious who says ‘my mother still speaks it’,” Turin says. “But in a way, these corrections are all part of the process of drawing attention to the cause and the sense of urgency involved in careful documentation and description of endangered speech forms the world over.”
The project also provides funds for local fieldworkers in countries including Malawi, India, Mongolia and Colombia to collect data and recordings about little-spoken languages. In the past, Turin says, major collections of recordings were lost because they weren’t deemed important. He sees the new site as a “safe haven” for fieldwork on languages that might otherwise be lost. “The vast majority of tapes are just kept in dusty boxes, but to put them on our database we digitise and hopefully future-proof them,” he adds.