Government program seeks to preserve dying languages

Thursday, August 11, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Every two weeks or so the last elderly man or woman with full command of a particular language dies. At that rate, as many as 2,500 native tongues will disappear forever by 2100.

David W. Lightfoot is helping spearhead a government initiative to preserve some of these dying languages, believing each is a window into the human mind that can benefit the world at large.

"If we are going to lose half the world's languages, that endangers our capacity to understand the genetic basis of language," said Lightfoot, who heads the directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation.

The foundation recently joined the National Endowment for the Humanities in the effort to preserve languages.

The project has awarded $4.4 million to 26 institutions and 13 individual scholars to investigate the status of 70 languages that are believed to be endangered and to help preserve them. The project is now asking research-ers to apply for additional grants, with the expectation that at least $2 million a year will be available.

Some experts say there are up to 10,000 different languages left in the world; others put the estimate thousands lower depending on how many are characterized as dialects of another language.

Languages aren't just words, linguists say, but a people's way of looking at the world.

Lightfoot gives the example of Guguyimadjir, spoken in Queensland, Australia. They have no words for "left" or "right" but orient themselves and their world by the points of the compass.

People in Brazil's Amazon rain forest who speak Piratapuyo say "The cake ate John" where English speakers would say "John ate the cake" -- in other words, they put the object of a verb first and the subject last.

Such peculiarities feed re-search on how the human mind works, how it perceives relations in space, how children learn complex languages so quickly and easily, Lightfoot said.

These types of research will be aided by one method of saving languages: by recording their speech, analyzing their grammar, and preserving them digitally.

Other researchers are interested in a broader range of knowledge that is more difficult to save. To do so requires encouraging younger people to learn their language from their elders, preserving not only the words themselves but unwritten traditions, arts, religion and more.

As Wade Davis, an anthropologist who roams the world as an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, wrote: "Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities."

For example, plants used by traditional healers around the world have led to the discovery of new medicines, including aspirin. Some small and declining tribe in Africa or in Papua New Guinea -- a country where there are 820 languages among fewer than 5.5 million people, by one count -- may know something about a plant that could help treat cancer or Alzheimer's.

For decades children in American Indian schools were discouraged from speaking tribal tongues and punished when they did. That policy has long been abandoned, but generations were lost to many languages.

Anthony Woodbury, who heads the linguistic faculty of the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that if the motivation is strong enough, even a virtually dead language can be revived. He points to Hebrew, a language learned for centuries only in its ancient written form. A modern version is now a vital part of life in Israel. Another example: Irish has survived with political support.

At a conference sponsored by the two federal agencies, the NSF described how technology helps. Scholars used to embalm a little-known language in a single book, available in a few research libraries. Now data, including the actual sounds, will be widely and cheaply available on the Internet, standardized so it can be compared with data on other languages.

Susan Penfield runs a project at the University of Arizona on two disappearing Indian languages along the Colorado River, where she has been working for over 30 years.

One is Chemehuevi, a tongue related to the one spoken by the ancient Aztecs in Mexico and Central America. She knows only five fluent speakers and told the conference she was especially proud of one, Johnny Hill Jr., who at 51 is comparatively young and also has a good command of English.

She told of training him and other fluent speakers in collecting data on the language, exploring aspects that have not yet been preserved and recording material digitally.

As Wade Davis, an anthropologist who roams the world as an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, wrote: "Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities."

Starbucks liked the statement so much that the company is printing it on coffee cups, becoming another voice that is making the case for saving dying languages.

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