Researchers from Eastern Michigan University’s LINGUIST List project have teamed up with the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and Google to create a website for the Endangered Languages Project, which is an online resource to record and share research on endangered languages.
Experts believe we are facing a massive language extinction because they’re disappearing at an unprecedented rate, according to the project’s website. About 50 percent of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages spoken today are at risk of disappearing entirely within the next 100 years.
The extinction of languages is not a new phenomenon, as linguists will tell you languages are fluid in nature and are in a constant flux. However, members of the project believe technology and the tools of today may be a “game changer” in our ability to preserve and teach endangered languages.
The Endangered Languages Project’s purpose is to confront the language endangerment problem by enabling linguistic experts to document, preserve and teach endangered languages through recorded texts and audio or video files. Sharing such information can also help native speakers preserve their languages and cultures.
When a language dies it can take with it a culture’s heritage; scientific, medical and agricultural knowledge; oral stories; the world views of a particular culture; and as the project’s website says, “the expression of [a] communities’ humor, love and life. In short, we lose the testimony of centuries of life.”
EMU professor of linguistics Anthony Aristar is a member of the Alliance Advisory Committee, which oversees the Endangered Languages Project, and the director of EMU’s Institute for Language Information and Technology, which manages the LINGUIST List of which he is also a moderator.
Aristar gave an example from Southern Africa, of how languages can carry historical information encoded within them.
“The modern San [Bushmen] people still talk about how they hunted an animal, that had a basic yellow color and a few stripes, like a Zebra which only had stripes around its neck. This turns out to be an animal called the ‘quagga,’ which has been extinct for almost two centuries,” he said.
Aristar earned his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984, and his masters in Semitic languages from the University of Chicago in 1980, but said his interest in the field began much earlier in life.
“I’ve been interested in linguistics and languages since I was a child,” he said.
Aristar said he hopes the project will make people realize the valuable cultural and historical information endangered languages carry, and the need to preserve them; encourage members of communities linked to endangered languages to learn them, and thereby help revitalize shrinking languages; encourage research funding in this area of the field; and encourage more EMU students to study linguistics.
“Our hope is that this project will help accelerate language documentation and preservation, and build the most complete and dynamic catalogue of endangered languages that can be used by speakers to preserve their languages,” Aristar said in a June 21 press release by EMU’s Executive Director of Media Relations Geoff Larcom.
The catalogue Aristar spoke of is a three-year research project that began in fall 2011, and contains data gathered by the teams at EMU and UHM on more than 3,000 endangered languages. The research is being supported by a team of experts from around the world and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The catalogue is accessible on the project’s website, www.endangeredlanguages.com.
As a testament to the feasibility of the project’s plan of attack, Google reported the following in a June 21 blog post:
“The Miami-Illinois language was considered by some to be extinct. Once spoken by Native American communities throughout what’s now the American Midwest, its last fluent speakers died in the 1960s. Decades later, Daryl Baldwin, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, began teaching himself the language from historical manuscripts and now works with the Miami University in Ohio to continue the work of revitalizing the language, publishing stories, audio files and other educational materials. Miami children are once again learning the language and—even more inspiring—teaching it to each other.”
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