Archive for Endangered languages

Create a language, go to jail

I've received several messages with links to this NYT piece since its appearance online on Sunday. The piece is on Dothraki, a constructed language used in the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and invented by David J. Peterson, founder and President of the Language Creation Society and (as it happens) a former PhD student here in the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza. The piece also talks about constructed languages ("conlangs") and language constructors ("conlangers") a bit more generally, and most specifically with respect to their use in Hollywood. (That 'their' is purposely ambiguous.)

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Myaamia revitalization and Meskwaki insults

Two conferences I really want to attend are currently in progress. The one I'm at is in Milwaukee, on Language Death, Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization; there have been some wonderful talks here, highlighted by "Searching for our talk" by Daryl Baldwin, head of the Myaamia Project at Miami University (that's Miami in Ohio, not Florida): an inspiring and moving description of his and his tribe's efforts to revive and revitalize the Miami language, an Algonquian language that had not been spoken (until Baldwin began his personal journey) for over a hundred years but that is richly documented from past times, from Jesuit missionaries onward.

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New search service for language resources

It has just become a whole lot easier to search the world's language archives.  The new OLAC Language Resource Catalog contains descriptions of over 100,000 language resources from over 40 language archives worldwide.

This catalog, developed by the Open Language Archives Community (OLAC), provides access to a wealth of information about thousands of languages, including details of text collections, audio recordings, dictionaries, and software, sourced from dozens of digital and traditional archives.

OLAC is an international partnership of institutions and individuals who are creating a worldwide virtual library of language resources by: (i) developing consensus on best current practice for the digital archiving of language resources, and (ii) developing a network of interoperating repositories and services for housing and accessing such resources.  The OLAC Language Resource Catalog was developed by staff at the Linguistic Data Consortium, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, and the University of Melbourne.  The primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation.

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Enduring Voices channel on YouTube

I'm a bit tardy in reporting this, but better late than never: the endangered language research team of K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson, in collaboration with National Geographic, have started a YouTube channel for their Enduring Voices mission. (Read more about it here and here.)

Enduring Voices on YouTube

The last time I'd mentioned Harrison and Anderson on Language Log, back in July, their documentary The Linguists had just received an Emmy® nomination for "Outstanding Science and Technology Programming". Since then, Harrison's book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages has been published (in September), and there was an associated splash in the media (in October) concerning Harrison and Anderson's discovery of the 'hidden' Tibeto-Burman language Koro. Sorry, I've been away from my desk. I'll try to do better.

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"Pure" Inuit language, and bucking the snow-word trend

The Guardian has an article today entitled, "Linguist on mission to save Inuit 'fossil language' disappearing with the ice," about a forthcoming research trip by University of Cambridge linguist Stephen Pax Leonard to study Inuktun, an endangered Polar Inuit language spoken by the Inughuit community of northwest Greenland.

It's always great to see this kind of coverage for anthropological linguistics, and the article is worth a read — though I'm a bit suspicious of the claim that Inuktun "is regarded as something of a linguistic 'fossil' and one of the oldest and most 'pure' Inuit dialects." Regarded by whom? The scare quotes (or claim quotes) around "fossil" and "pure" fail to indicate whose notion of ethnolinguistic purity is at play here. (The "language" vs. "dialect" confusion throughout the article doesn't help, either.)

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the news article is what it doesn't include. From the Guardian Style Guide's Twitter feed:

We have managed to carry a story on Inuit language without the cliche "number of words for snow". Well done Mark Brown.

Well done, indeed. Once again, it's good to know that our perpetual gripes about the snow-word myth are not just empty howls echoing across the tundra.

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The Linguists receives an Emmy® nomination

Nat Geo E-TeamThe documentary film The Linguists has just received an Emmy® nomination for "Outstanding Science and Technology Programming". The press release can be found ; for those of you who would like a downloadable keepsake, the relevant nomination can be found on p. 25 of the PDF and Word versions of the press release.

In related (and even more awesome) news, the stars of The LinguistsK. David Harrison and Greg Anderson — are also featured members of the Nat Geo E-Team on the National Geographic Kids website. You can spot their cartoon likenesses in the full image fairly quickly: they're the only ones who are talking. But there they are on the right for those who just want a quick peek.

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Oh, we got endangered languages / right here in New York City

[ Note: the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza is about as far from NYC as you can get in the continental U.S.; I just couldn't resist the title. ]

Surely, most if not all of our devoted Language Log readers have by now noticed the recent NYT story "Listening to (and Saving) the World's Languages", about some of the work being done by the Endangered Language Alliance to document and preserve endangered languages spoken in New York City. (And in case you hadn't noticed it, there it is. Check it out.)

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Talking Osage

An interesting discussion by Ryan Red Corn about efforts to revive the Osage language:

No longer than a short while after the program got up and running did the tribe watch its last first language Osage speaker pass away, Lucille Roubedeaux.

As Uncle Mogre explained, “This is the last train out. If we can’t get it done this time around, then that’s it. There is no more after this. That’s it.” Everyone who ever heard those words fully understood the gravity of the situation, and decided that they did not want the language dying on their watch, including myself. […]

With the introduction of the language department, dedicated students and teachers started to create new speakers for the first time in only God knows how many years. It’s quite literally been close to 200 years since the last time the number of Osage speakers INCREASED. It’s difficult to take into account what this scrappy bunch of Osages has done until you put it into perspective. The Vatican even called to verify the miracle (Ok I made that last part up).

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Sahaptin Dictionary

The first modern dictionary of Sahaptin has been published. Sahaptin is a language of the Northwestern plateau, spoken in the drainage of the Columbia River in southern Washington, northern Oregon, and southwestern Idaho. There are now no more than 200 speakers. This dictionary is of the Yakima dialect, called by its speakers Ichishkíin Sɨ́nwit.

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So many languages, so much technology…

Suppose you had 100 digital recorders and 800 small languages, all in a country the size of California, but in one of the remotest parts of the planet.  What would you do?  What would it take to identify and train a small army of language workers?  How could the recordings they collect be accessible to people who don't speak the language?  My answer to this question is linked below – but spend a moment thinking how you might do this before looking.  One inspiration for this work was Mark Liberman's talk The problems of scale in language documentation at the Texas Linguistics Society meeting in 2006, in a workshop on Computational Linguistics for Less-Studied Languages.  Another inspiration was observing the enthusiasm of the remaining speakers of the Usarufa language to maintain their language (see this earlier post).  About 9 months ago, I decided to ask Olympus if they would give me 100 of their latest model digital voice recorders.  They did, and the BOLD:PNG Project starts next week.  Please sign the guestbook on that site, or post a comment here, if you'd like to encourage the speakers of these languages who are getting involved in this new project.

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The people question, Hagège answers

It seems you can't swing a dead cat in a bookstore these days without hitting a recent book on language endangerment and language death. One of the newer entries is Claude Hagège's On the Death and Life of Languages (Yale University Press, 2009). Schott's Vocab (at the NYT) recently invited people to ask Hagège questions about language endangerment and death; and some of them (plus answers, of course) were published yesterday. Check 'em out.

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The colleagues down the hall

This is a long-overdue follow-up to my post (from April 26), announcing the availability of the film The Linguists on A couple things that I failed to point out in that post: first, the version of the film on Babelgum is the DVD version, not the slightly shorter cut that has aired on PBS; second, there are several additional clips that you can watch separately on Babelgum that are on the DVD. Search for "the linguists" on Babelgum and you'll find links to the trailer, the film, and the additional clips. These are all available for some unspecified limited period, so watch 'em now if you're interested.

What I'm really following up on here, though, is this comment by Jesse Tseng.

I was struck by this sentence [in the film, spoken by David Harrison–eb]:

I don't see how you can justify devoting your research career to the syntax of French (a language with millions of speakers), when the skills that you possess could help document a language that is going to go extinct within your lifetime.

Hmm. The fieldwork skills I possess would make me go extinct long before any tribal language I helped to document. And good luck doing any syntax at all with your 15 sentences of Kallawaya…

Seriously, I was disappointed to hear this gratuitous swipe at the colleagues down the hall. I would like to believe that we are all engaged in a common endeavor, with the same justifications. And when linguistics departments get cut, all the sub-fields of linguistics go down together. Or are they hoping that the money then gets funneled into Anthropology?

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Experiencing language death

Usarufa speakers experience the webUsarufa is a language of Papua New Guinea with just 1200 speakers (ISO-639 code "usa").  There's no fluent speakers under the age of 25, so the language must be considered moribund.  Before posting recordings of this language online, I needed to get informed consent, so I introduced some speakers to the World Wide Web.  We poked around for a while, finding useful sites about about insecticides for dealing with the taro beetle.  Then we turned our attention to audio.

I played them a recording of the "last words" of the Jiwarli language of Western Australia.  After some questioning looks I explained that this language is now dead, and we were listening to its last speaker before he died.  As one they all looked down, shaking their heads in disbelief and saying sorry, sorry, sorry….  It was as if I told them a mutual friend had died.  They urged me to put that recording on a cassette tape so they could take it back to their village.  That way, everyone would surely understand what will happen to the Usarufa language unless there are serious attempts to revitalize it.

I wasn't prepared for the intensity of their response.  Now I'm wondering if a collection of such recordings might be a useful tool in promoting language revitalization, and also in explaining the concept of language archiving.  (Thanks to Ima'o Ta'asata, James Warebu, Sivini Ikilele, and Waks Mark for their dedication to the preservation of Usarufa oral culture, and to Aaron Willems and SIL-PNG for facilitating this work.)

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