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Authors: K. David Harrison

The Last Speakers

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THE LAST SPEAKERS
THE LAST SPEAKERS

THE QUEST TO SAVE THE WORLD'S MOST
ENDANGERED LANGUAGES

K. DAVID HARRISON

Published by the National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036
Copyright © 2010 K. David Harrison. All rights reserved. Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents without
written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Harrison, K. David.
The last speakers: the quest to save the world's most endangered languages / K. David Harrison.
       p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN: 978-1-4262-0668-9
1. Endangered languages. 2. Language attrition. 3. Language maintenance. 4. Linguistic change. 5. Linguistic minorities. 6. Sociolinguistics. I. Title.
P40.5.E53H37 2010
408.9—dc22

2010014720

Contents page, Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;,
Courtesy of Ironbound Films;
,
David M. Harrison;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
Kelly J. Richardson;
,
Kelly J. Richardson;
,
Gregory Anderson;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
Anna Luisa Daigneault;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
Katherine Vincent;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
Thomas Hegenbart/Contact Press Images;
,
Thomas Hegenbart/Contact Press Images;
, K. David Harrison,
courtesy Ramona Dick and Alan Yu;
, Courtesy of Swarthmore College Linguistics Department.

Photo insert:
Source: Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
Kelly J. Richardson;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
K. David Harrison;
,
K, David Harrison;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project;
,
Chris Rainier/National Geographic Enduring Voices Project
.

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For Khiem H. Tang

Koro speaker, near Bana village, Arunachal Pradesh, India

Dying languages succumb

more discreetly. Village by village

they go under—no shouting,

no watery ruckus.

Just a simple, sudden absence.

It takes a shrewd eye to spot

these silent catastrophes,

and a frugal, determined heart

to intervene.

—John Goulet

{INTRODUCTION}

MY JOURNEY AS A SCIENTIST
exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a fast-food restaurant in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers—dignified elders—who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth.

Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. They are often eager to share it, sometimes because they find so few of their own people willing to listen. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?

As the last speakers converse, they spin out individual strands of a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities that encircles all of us. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars, how humans adapted to hostile environments from the Arctic to Amazonia.

We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or in classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. This web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity—epics, myths, rituals—that celebrate and interpret our existence.

Pundits argue that linguistic differences are little more than random drift, minor variations in meaning and pronunciation that emerge over time (the British say “lorry,” Americans “truck” Tuesday is chooz-day for Brits, tooz-day for Americans).

These differences reveal—some claim—nothing unique about our souls or minds. But that's like saying that the Pyramid of Cheops differs from Notre Dame Cathedral only by stone-cutting techniques that evolved randomly in different times and places, revealing nothing unique in the ancient Egyptian or medieval French imagination.

All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. We might as well proclaim human history banal, and human genius of no value to our survival.

The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80 percent of plant and animal species unknown to science and 80 percent of languages yet to be documented. But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things but also complex interrelations among them.

Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer—entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

Linguistic survivors—the last speakers whom I profile throughout this book—hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths.

Johnny Hill Jr., a Chemehuevi Indian of Arizona, spent much of his life working in construction and farming. Now retired, he serves as an elected tribal council member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes and works to promote the Chemehuevi language.
1
Designated a “last speaker” of Chemehuevi, Johnny told his story in the 2008 Sundance documentary film
The Linguists
.

Raised by his grandmother who spoke only Chemehuevi, Johnny learned English at school seeking a path out of isolation. At the other end of his life span, Johnny finds himself linguistically isolated once again. “I have to talk to myself,” he explains resignedly. “There's nobody left to talk to. All the elders have passed on, so I talk to myself…. That's just how it is.”

Johnny has tried to teach his children and others in the tribe. “Trouble is,” he says with a sigh, “they say they want to learn it, but when it comes time to do the work, nobody comes around.”

Speakers react differently to loss—from indifference to despair—and adopt diverse strategies. Some blame governments or globalization, others blame themselves. Around the world, a growing wave of language activists works to revitalize their threatened tongues. Positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive, while negative ones can doom them.

Two dozen
language hotspots
—a term derived from biodiversity hotspots, referring to places where small languages both abound and are endangered—have now been identified globally. With funding from the National Geographic Society, my effort to map and visit all the hotspots, and to record as many last speakers there as possible, is well under way. Around the globe, numerous scientists and indigenous language activists are mounting similar efforts. But recording is not enough, we must also work to revitalize small languages.

New technologies are being mobilized to the cause. A Torres Strait Islander in Australia told me: “Our language is standing still. We need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words, because right now we can't say ‘computer.'”

The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige. Translated software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues, as I've heard among young speakers of Aka in India, infuses new vitality.

Language revitalization will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.

Listening to the elders, I am astonished by how little we know and how vast human knowledge is. We find ancient systems of knowledge—in many cases more sophisticated than what modern science knows—about the natural world, plants, fish, weather patterns, sea ice, and landscapes. We find amusing stories of reindeer, bears and fishes, weather patterns and stars, healing plants, mythical yeti-like beasts, and world-creating ducks. In short, we find a mental catalog of mankind's attempts to make sense of the world and harness its resources for human survival. The elders' stories often contain a history of the first contact between an indigenous people and colonial Europeans, an encounter that has driven most of the world's languages to the very brink of existence.

What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know—which we've forgotten or never knew—may someday save us.

This book consists partly of my findings in diverse locations where I've made recordings of some of the world's most obscure tongues. It is also a concerned global citizen's op-ed piece, urging readers to consider the dire consequences of knowledge loss and help reverse it. Finally, it is a channel for voices of elders around the world—voices otherwise seldom heard—who have shared with me their insights and their struggles to protect vanishing cultures.

We live at a time when we can still hear their voices, albeit muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking.

WHY SHOULD WE VALUE LANGUAGES?

Everyone values their mother tongue, and few people would be willing to part with it. Even if you ask a bilingual person which of his two languages he'd prefer to forgo, he is loath to choose one, sensing a loss regardless of the choice. Yet we live in a society that curiously undervalues bilingualism. Millions of schoolchildren spend countless hours drilling the verb forms of Spanish, while just a classroom or corridor away, millions of other children who speak Spanish with their parents at home and could be fully bilingual are shamed for having a slight accent and intimidated into giving up their Spanish. “English Only” is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naïve. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we were a nation.

When I speak to public school classes in my home city of Philadelphia, I ask for a show of hands: Who speaks another language at home, or hears it from their parents? In a typical tenth-grade Philadelphia classroom I find Albanian (both Gheg and Tosk varieties), Serbian, Hmong, Vietnamese, Malayalam, Polish, and Ukrainian. Spanish is of course ubiquitous, but students less often admit they speak it. The students' faces always reflect their surprise when they look around and marvel at the deep knowledge base of languages right there in their classroom. As their less-than-fluent teacher of Spanish drills them tediously on the irregular verbs, the other languages are withering for lack of use. Imagine the kind of games these kids could play creating parallel translations into many tongues, or the wealth of metaphors and wise sayings they could share.

Language plays a role in forming a strong personal identity, and diversity can be seen to threaten group cohesiveness. If the American project has indeed been a melting pot, that accounts for immigrant families' rapid abandonment of their heritage languages. Our society is linguistically less like a tossed salad, in which the distinct parts retain their individual shapes and textures while contributing flavor, and more like a soup, in which each ingredient is melted and masked by others. At the same time we devalue bilingualism, we spend millions of dollars to teach kids a rudimentary form of classroom French that will guarantee disdain when they try to order at a Paris McDonald's. Yet the problem is spread more widely than that. The Army lacks Arabic linguists and the CIA Kurdish specialists. Meanwhile, many bright American kids grow up speaking Arabic or Kurdish at home, but are made to feel ashamed of that fact in our educational system.

In one often repeated story, a Native American girl in Oklahoma raises her hand when the teacher asks, “Who here can speak a foreign language?” She replies: “I can. English,” incurring the teacher's disapproval. Yet for her—indeed, for all Native Americans—English is a foreign language. The power of their native tongues has lingered all over the land, as shown in rivers such as the Chattahoochee, Monongahela, and Susquehanna. Rarely do newcomers rename rivers; they merely mangle the old pronunciation. For instance, in Ojibwe
misi-ziibi
means “Great River.”

Languages abound in local knowledge, information that is not written down anywhere, that is not possessed by a single individual but is socially distributed. The problem of local knowledge was brought to the fore by F. A. Hayek in his work in economics, but it has a powerful parallel to language. He wrote:

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.
2

Though Hayek was not necessarily referring to indigenous peoples, his view of knowledge, like mine, assumes that most of it is hidden, “unorganized,” off the books, residing in people's minds. This vast body of knowledge exceeds what we like to think of as scientific (or book) knowledge.

By amassing this knowledge, and distributing it within a society so that it can survive the lifetime of any one individual, humans build up their cultures. Many of the rules and principles we unconsciously follow (how to greet someone, what is the common good, when to speak, whom to follow) are based on cultural learning that is transmitted to us, often with no awareness on our part, largely via language. We know more than our brain contains by virtue of being a member of a society. As Hayek points out:

We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

In the chapters ahead, we will visit remote communities in Australia, India, Papua New Guinea, and Bolivia. Each one gives a vivid example of how language connects humans to the local environment. If these local ties dissolve, our entire species has less connection to Earth, less ability to sustainably manage our resources, less knowledge of how to care for our planet. From the outback deserts to the Pacific Ocean's coral reefs, from the Andean glaciers to the Himalayan foothills, we find major stress points of human impact on ecosystems we don't fully understand. Endangered languages hold the key to a fuller understanding of these ecosystems and humankind's place in them.

We're now facing what I call a triple threat of extinction. Species and ecosystems are in collapse, while the traditional systems of knowledge about those species and ecosystems are vanishing as the small, unwritten languages that contain them disappear. Every one of the languages discussed in this book, and every story from the mouths of the last speakers, contains knowledge that is highly specialized and unique, holding keys to human adaptation in diverse environments and clues to our continued survival on this planet.

Linguists have been tardy to sound the alarm for dying languages, and even now we are not doing all that we could. We are far behind our colleagues in conservation biology in persuading the general public. Our scientific field is in many ways blinkered by our own theories and skewed priorities. One of the great discoveries of modern linguistics is that language is a part of the human genetic code—that all humans are programmed to know a language. The theory of universal grammar posits that all languages, at some deep level, share certain fundamental properties, which helps explain why any human child can effortlessly learn whatever language she hears during infancy, be it Icelandic or Igbo. Generations of linguists have been trained to search for these universals, constructing elaborate theories, all the while overlooking the particulars of individual tongues.

BOOK: The Last Speakers
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