Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"The Last Speakers," K. David Harrison: preserving language in the internet age

The idea that the world is quickly becoming one vast internet-connected village of ideas and commerce is always challenged by the reality of the situation. On a planet of six-billion-plus human beings there are pockets where the very meaning of "civilization" requires no laptop, no electricity, and no connecting thread but a common language. No matter how few the number of speakers, language makes a community.

The Last Speakers A team of linguists who have discovered in India a distinct patch of language that extends to a group of residents in four bamboo huts. Its speakers share only nine percent of a common vocabulary with the surrounding inhabitants. As the article makes clear, language remains a carrier of common history and culture.

The number of disappearing languages is increasing, and in this interconnected age there is still the surprise in finding new speech and new ways of expressing shared ideas. Here's an excerpt from the article written by Times writer John Noble Wilford.

Two years ago, a team of linguists plunged into the remote hill country of northeastern India to study little-known languages, many of them unwritten and in danger of falling out of use....

At a rushing mountain river, the linguists crossed on a bamboo raft and entered the tiny village of Kichang. They expected to hear the people speaking Aka, a fairly common tongue in that district. Instead, they heard a language, the linguists said, that sounded as different from Aka as English does from Japanese.

After further investigation, leaders of the research announced last week the discovery of a “hidden” language, known locally as Koro, completely new to the world outside these rural communities. While the number of spoken languages continues to decline, at least one new one has been added to the inventory, though Koro too is on the brink of extinction.

“We noticed it instantly” as a distinct and unfamiliar language, said Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Ore.... A scientific paper will be published by the journal Indian Linguistics.

When the three researchers reached Kichang, they went door to door asking people to speak their native tongue — not a strenuous undertaking in a village of only four bamboo houses set on stilts. The people live by raising pigs and growing oranges, rice and barley. They share a subsistence economy and a culture with others in the region who speak Aka, or Miji, another somewhat common language. ...

Listening, the researchers at first suspected Koro to be a dialect of Aka, but its words, syntax and sounds were entirely different. Few words in Koro were the same as in Aka: mountain in Aka is “phu,” but “nggo” in Koro; pig in Aka is “vo,” but in Koro “lele.” The two languages share only 9 percent of their vocabulary.

... In The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages, published last month by National Geographic Books, Dr. Harrison noted that Koro speakers “are thoroughly mixed in with other local peoples and number perhaps no more than 800.”

Moreover, linguists are not sure how Koro has survived this long as a viable language. Dr. Harrison wrote: “The Koro do not dominate a single village or even an extended family. This leads to curious speech patterns not commonly found in a stable state elsewhere.”

... The effort to identify “hot spots of threatened languages,” the linguists said, is critical in making decisions to preserve and enlarge the use of such tongues, which are repositories of a people’s history and culture.

In the case of Koro speakers, Dr. Harrison wrote in his book, “even though they seem to be gradually giving up their language, it remains the most powerful trait that identifies them as a distinct people.”

No comments: