Languages Die, but not Their Last Words

My friend David Harrison had an article featuring him published in the New York Times today. He does great work to capture samples of languages that are dying off:

David in Australia

In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore, said that more than half the languages had no written form and were “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” Their loss leaves no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.

I can’t help but wonder if social tools and their place on the internet will lead to the preservation, or homogenization of language… Perhaps David will have a look at this post and comment 🙂

One comment

  1. David Harrison

    Technology can be a bane or a blessing for small and endangered languages. Take, for example, the most basic technology that applies to language, namely writing. Many (probably most) of the world’s language have no written form at all. Far from being a defect, this may actually be an advantage, because purely oral languages foster social cohesion and pose greater challenges to memory and cognition, thus sharpening both. Some endangered language communities are fully aware of literacy but have chosen NOT to adopt it for their languages. Others are rushing to adopt it, but may still be wary because literacy is a known vector for the spread of “killer” global languages at the expense of small ones. The same goes for higher level technologies, internet, unicode, software, etc. These may be viewed as a threat, an inevitability or a pathway to revitalization. Some endangered language communities (see are leveraging the latest technologies in the service of language revitalization. There is much talk about the “digital divide”, but little acknowledgment that most human languages are oral, not written, and that they should not be dragged forcibly across the digital divide without considering the consequences for their survival. We are fortunate to live in a world where many languages are still only oral, only existing in human memory. GIven global language extinction trends, we will soon live in a world dominated by global languages, not even knowing what it is we have lost.

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