nb-when languages die


2007 Harrison, K. David. When Languages Die. The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. London: OUP.

author's project website, Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages

P 40.5 .L33 H37
*nb: Chapter-6 (pp167-203), "Endangered Number Systems: County to twenty on your toes" =numeracy/mathematical practices;
p185 Language:Culture:Thought
figures= pp.173-6

Hotlinks

237> Lenape words (Deleware; Delaware), www.delawaretribeofindians.nsn.us.
Talking dictionary, www.talk-lenape.com
246 Halkomelem elders; folkbiology, www.sfu.ca/halk-ethnobiology [NW coast]
249 [Baltic: Karaim chanting prayers/religion ceremonies online] www.karaimi.home.pl/index/php?p=4
AND http://daugenis.mch.mii.lt/karaimai/literature1.htm
250 [video clip] http://tuvan.swarthmore.edu
256 www.ethnologue.com >population estimates for many languages; e.g. India's many languages
270 Myth: Signs are glorified gestures. Online at http://facstaff.gallaudet.edu/harry.markowicz/asl/myth4.html.
278 Hawaiian Dictionary. Online at http://wehewehe.org/gsdl2.5/cgi-bin/hdict?l=en

11 We often find the greatest diversity in parts of the globe where populations are small and sparsely distributed. For example, the 65 inhabited islands of Vanuatu (together about the size of the state of CT) support 109 distinct tongues in a population of just 205,000 people. That is one entire language for every 1,880 speakers.
     The vast deserts of Chad, inhabited by many nomadic groups, support 132 tongues in a population of 9.8m. These languages enjoy much larger speaker bases, an average of 74,000 each. Like islands, this enormous and sparsely populated desert land, with just over 12 persons per sq. mi.,appears also to encourage linguistic diversity.
     Even in America, we see great diversity in Alaska, immense and sparsely populated, with just 1 person per av. sq. mi. AK's native population of 86,000 commands 21 languages --most spoken nowhere else on earth...

13 The world's 6.34B people speak, at latest count, 6,912 languages. If speakers were divided evenly among languages, each tongue would have 917,000 speakers... The top 10 biggest languages have hundreds of millions of speakers each, accounting for just over 50% of humans. If we expand this set to include the top 83 languages, we have covered nearly 80% of the world's population.

14 The median number of speakers for a human language is only about 5,000 speakers. Half the world's languages have fewer than 5,000 speakers, placing them in a potentially precarious situation.

27 ...strategies of information packaging... vocabulary of special terms to accurately and quickly describe any given reindeer in terms of its age, sex, rideability, fertility, and tameness... As unique adaptations of a particular people, to a particular place and lifestyle [livelihood], they must count for something.

35 mankind... classifying, grouping, and describing plant and animal life, behavior, and usefulness to humans. Scientists refer to this practice as taxonomy: naming individuals and groups, sorting things into groups, discovering relations among them.

36 We are still largely in the position of pressing our noses to a glass case in a museum to observe an isolated specimen, imposing our notion of order on the world, while remaining blissfully ignorant of entire systems of knowledge arrayed all around... spring from rational human minds and because they represent the accretion over many centuries of close observations of nature - to contain knowledge worthy of attention and respect. If we dismiss of downplay such systems, we repeat the arrogant mistakes of colonial era naturalists. Folk taxonomies... merits urgent scientific attention now.

38 Organisms may be classified according to social factors --usefulness to humans --or environmental factors like habitat, diet, shape, appearance, sound, and movement. Folk taxonomies may sacrifice exactness in one area of description (genetics), but they gain usefulness and precision in many others.

41 Folk classification has a broader and much different mandate: it must provide ways to sensibly organize the plants and animals in a way that facilitates human interaction with, control of, and exploitation of them. In this light, plants and animals are either sources of nutrition, useful for making things, and so on, or they are poisonous dangers or aggressive beasts to be avoided.

53 Languages package and structure knowledge in particular ways. You cannot merely substitute labels or names from another language and hold onto all of the implicit, hidden knowledge that resides in a taxonomy or naming system... [rate of knowledge loss] "Using data on knowledge of forest trees by 20 Bari collaborators over nearly 17,000 naming events, I estimate that the real loss of ethnobotanical knowledge from one generation to the next may be on the order of 40-60%. This process has occurred over the 30 years since they were contacted."

57 [reindeer words] Dongur. It is a powerful word. It means 'male domesticated reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating', and it allows a tribe of nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia to identify and describe with a single word what would otherwise require a full sentence.

58 ...uncle may be a mother's brother, or a mother's sister's husband, or perhaps just his parents' adult male friend. While our mind readily grasps the various types of 'uncle', English provides no ready-made, unique labels to distinguish them. Conversely, in cultures like Tofa with more socially important kinship relations, there exists no general word for 'uncle'. Five different type of uncles would have five completely different labels. By simply learning these labels, the child implicitly learns that these are distinct kinship roles. [unique identifiers]

93 Natural calendar lore served as a bond firmly connecting humankind to the natural world; this bond weakens when languages die.

106 After the demise of reindeer herding in the 1980s, and a subsequent decline in hunting, young Tofa ventured les and less often into the forests. Many no longer knew the location of their ancestral hunting grounds and had never learned names of major rivers and mountains. Elders should possess the knowledge are no longer able to roam the forests, while youngsters remain in the villages ignorant of the forests and lacking any need to herd deer or hunt. All this knowledge, an entire atlas in the mind, has vanished in just two generations. We can, of course, view the Uda River basin from satellites or on Google Earth, capturing even the most minute details. But these land features no longer have a human geography, they no longer have Tofa names. This remote land, once criss-crossed with human footpaths and well mapped in Tofa stories, has once again become untraversed and largely unnamed territory.

134 Certain languages, due to a process of long adaptation to a landscape, will force their speakers to notice and specify certain properties such as direction of river flow. They provide both greater efficiency and a greater cognitive burden. The efficiency comes by the fact that when knowledge is automatically encoded, it is always available to the learner and thus learned without effort. The burden comes from the fact that speakers may be required to notice a certain property (e.g. direction of river flow) in order to be able to express the thought at all.... [135] If the small culture in question is also indigenous to its land, then the language reflects centuries of accumulated observations and generations of geographic wisdom.

142 In Tuvan tales, there is a poor lad named 'Orphan boy', who lacks any obvious advantages or clear goal in life but possesses wit, persistence, and strength of character. Orphan boy outwits and ultimately vanquishes an evil khan to gain a prize (perhaps a bride or wealth).

145 [recorded vs. live storytelling tradition/owning the tradition] ...written stories are only a very impoverished form of spoken ones. Nowhere in a written text can you discern the tone of voice, loudness, excitement, gestures, facial expression, or tempo... all those things that make a story come alive... Nora Dauenhauer, a scholar and native speaker of the native Alaskan language Tlingit (845 speakers), describes how writing alters oral traditions:

The writing down of oral literature, no matter how well-intentioned or how well carried out, petrifies it... A petrified log may look like wood, but it is actually stone... Petrification is not entirely without its benefits: we have the Iliad and the Odyssey. But, as magnificent as they are, the Homeric epics as we have them are petrified fossils, not the oral performance experienced by the ancient Greeks.

146 [Walter Ong] Language s so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages --possibly tens of thousands-- spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3,000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature...

[Elizabeth Buck] " It is difficult for those who have internalized the processes and assumptions of writing to understand the thought and social processes of cultures i which *words, once spoken, have no residue except for their trace in the human memory*." ...[failure of colonial overlords to appreciate non-literature aesthetics] tended to see unwritten cultures as 'primitive' or 'inferior' and utterly failed to appreciate verbal arts of these societies as the pinnacle of creativity they were... Western canon itself springs from works like the Iliad that could only have emerged in the absence of writing... yet we continue to view non-literacy as a social deficiency.

...what it means to be a purely oral, non-literature culture. No grocery lists, no letters or e-mails, no memos, no text messages on cell phones, no books, no report cards, [no junk mail, direct mail, bills, email], no instructions on how to assemble artificial Christmas trees, no owner's manuals, no dictionaries, no newspapers, no libraries. This is the *normal* state of affairs for most human languages. [and therefore societies]

147 Without writing, all linguistically encoded knowledge is always only one generation away from extinction. If it is not passed on verbally, it is lost. This means that what does get passed on is somehow essential, important, and not frivolous or tangential to human life. It also means that there is only received wisdom, and that each person who passes on information must modify, embellish, and filter it through their own experience. Everything is like improv comedy, subject to individual memory and creativity, nothing is set in stone.
     In 'primary oral' cultures, people draw on an impressive arsenal of speech strategies: narrative, talk, gossip, conversation, pauses, intonation, silence, loudness, word-choice, story, and myth. They rely solely on social learning to transmit and receive everything that can be encapsulated in language. Information must also be structured for ease of memorization . There are many devices, such as alliteration, rhyme, and parallelism, that aid in remembering long texts. In English and other large languages with literary traditions, such devices are more an art form that a daily cognitive necessity. For unwritten languages, relying on such mnemonics allows people to accumulate and recall large bodies of everyday or esoteric knowledge... And knowledge is passed on in ways that divvy it up among people that need it, and who bear the responsibility for remembering. For example, among the Batangan people of the Philippines (8,000 speakers), only boys are taught folk medicine, while only adult males are taught religious chants and rituals. [oral >written+oral >telecommunicating oral AND written, audio and video]

148 [literacy as convenience to governing apparatus] World Bank estimates for 1970, at 55%... 1990, at 71% ...[campaign in India] from a mere 18.33% in 1951 to 64.84% by 2001... 'literacy' usually means ability to read and write solely in the dominant national or regional language [e.g. Chinese language in Tibet or NW, Muslim areas]

158 For some languages [repeated case endings] rhyming is neither poetic nor memorable: other cognitively salient patterns must be found... To create poetry, Tuvan, like many small languages, must look elsewhere, beyond rhyme and meter. Tuvan poets employ cognitive strategies like alliteration (repeating first letters of words), assonance (repeating vowels within words), and parallelism (repeating words or phrases). All three of these powerful memory hooks figure prominently in Tuvan poetics.

185 One thing that languages can do is to direct speakers' attention to certain aspects of the world by forcing them to talk about these. For example, in Spanish, it is impossible to use any noun (even a made-up word) without first deciding if it is masculine or feminine gender. Though most non-living objects lack true gender (is a teapot feminine or masculine?), Spanish requires everything in the world be sorted into these categories. IN English, it is similarly impossible to use nouns in most circumstances without first deciding if it is definite or indefinite ('a' vs. 'the'), a distinction that is crucial in English but completely absent in many languages.

208 Queen Elizabeth II's speech has changed noticeably in the 50 years since she ascended the throne. Measurements of her vowels in her annual Christmas radio speeches showed that from the 1950s to the 1980s she shifted noticeably away from the "Queen's English" and towards pronunciations favored by the lower social classes.

209 [how to discuss the dimensions of sophistication or complexity] We lack any agreed-upon unit for measuring complexity, especially acros distinct domains such as vowel pronunciation and sentence building. And complexity arises from many disparate factors, staring certainly with the innate ability of the human brain, but also including the size of the speech community, the level of contact among speakers, the range of uses of a language, the modality (spoken or signed), and intricate historical processes of language change. [cf. http://docs.google.com spell checker and reader 'level']

210 Rotokas (spoken in New Guinea by 4,320 people) reportedly gets by with a mere six consonants: p, t, k, v, r, and g, while Ingush a language of the Caucasus (230,000 speakers) boasts a whopping 40 consonants. Besides many common sounds like 'p', 'b', and 'f', Ingush uses a special series of ejective consonants that are produced by closing and raising the vocal chores to compress air inside the pharynx, then releasing the pressure suddenly to create a popping sound to accompany the consonant. Ejectives are moderately rare, occurring in only about 20% of the world's languages. To employ *seven* distinct kinds of ejectives, as does Ingush, is exceedingly rare. But even Ingush is not the upper limit: Ubykh, which reportedly had 70 consonants, lost its last speaker in 1992.
     ...Ingush appears more complex, allowing multiple consonants to sit next to each other, for example, bw, hw, ljg, and rjg: bwarjg 'eye'   hwazaljg 'bird'

214 [Tuvan] rich vocabulary to describe and imitate natural sounds. Of course, all languages have onomatopoeia: English has words like 'sizzle', 'bang', and 'rustle', all giving an imitative sense of the actual sound. But English speakers cannot really make up a new onomatopoetic word on the fly and be understood. If I want to describe the sound of a cow chewing its cud, I might say 'munching' or 'chomping', but I cannot just invent a whole new word, say, 'flarping', and expect to be understood. Tuvan speakers *can* do this. Their language allows them to describe a very wide range of natural sounds using both ready-made words and newly coined ones. Tuvan provides means for speakers to creatively make up brand new words to represent sounds and be immediately understood by others.

NOTES to text

243 Russian and Polish and other languages have a term that means "a whole 24 day," while English lacks this word.
246 [seven day week/calendar] first came into use in ancient Babylon, but a 10-day week was adopted by the Mayan Empire, and some Bantu civilizations in Africa adopted a six-day week.
261 [inventory of sign languages] ...about 700 sign languages in the final count

Bibliography, including p.242>

  Atran, Scott 1998. Folk biology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive universals and cultural particulars. Brain an Behavioral Sciences 21: 547-609.
  Bradley, John 1998. Yanyuwa: 'Men speak on way, women speak another'. In Jennifer Coates (ed.), Language and Gender: A Reader, pp. 13-20. Oxford: Blackwell.
  Fishman, Joshua A. 1982. Whorfianism of the Third Kind: Ethnolinguistic diversity as a worldwide societal asset. Language in Society 11: 1-14.
  Gallaudet College 1977/1978. Myth: Signs are glorified gestures. Online at http://facstaff.gallaudet.edu/harry.markowicz/asl/myth4.html. [html by Harry Markowicz 2001]. Accessed February 2006.
  Gordon, Raymond G. (ed.) 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas: SIL International. [also online, Ethnologue.com]
  Harrington, Jonathan, Sallyanne Palethorpe, and Catherine I. Watson 2000. Does the Queen speak the Queen's English? Nature 408: 927-928.
  Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew Dryer, David Gil and Bernard Comrie (eds.) 2005. The World Atlas of Language Structures. Oxf: OUP.
  Hillis, David M, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell 2003. Tree of Life. Online at http://www.zo.utexas.edu/faculty/antisense/Download.html. Accessed January 2006. [As published in Science 300: 1692-1697]
  Hinton, Leanne 2002. How to Keep Your Language Alive. Berkeley: Heyday Books.
  Hinton, Leanne, and Ken Hale (eds.) 2001. The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. San Diego: Academic Press.
  Kakudidi, E. K. 2004. Folk plant classification by communities around Kibale National Park, Western Uganda. African Journal of Ecology 42(1): 57-63.
  Kiesling, Scott F. 2004. Dude. American Speech 79(3): 281-305.
  Medin, Douglas L., and Scott Atran 1999. Folkbiology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  Nettle, Daniel, and Suzanne Romaine 2000. Vanishing Voices: The extinction of the world's languages. New York: OUP. [ch.3 "Lost Words - Lost Worlds"]
  Niraula, Shanta, Ramesh C. Mishre, and Pierre R. Dasen 2004. Linguistic relativity and spatial concept development in Nepal. Psychology and Developing Societies 16(2): 100-124.
  Nonaka, Angela M. 2004. The forgotten endangered languages: Lessons on the importance of remembering from Thailand's Ban Khor sign languages. Language in Society 33: 737-767.
  Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert 2003. Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: U HI P. Online at http://wehewehe.org/gsdl2.5/cgi-bin/hdict?l=en. Accessed January 2006.
  Weisstein, Eric W. 2005. Base In MathWorld - A Wolfram Web Resource. Online at http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Base.html. Accessed August 2006.

NB:
p.x Ironbound Films, "The Last Speakers" (Siberia documentary). NGeo project on endangered languages.
Living Tongues Inst for Endangered Languages >google URL [ainu folks?]