[ 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.)
There are no comments on the article directly, but there's a link to "Land of Lonely Tongues", an NYT City Room blog post (with a video clip and survey-based identification of "the least-spoken languages in New York") and there are
27 32 comments there as of this writing update. Several of them are friendly to endangered language research, but one early commenter ("155 in 55″) calls the work "nonsense", wonders whether "the rest of the world [should] care", and claims that "[the] whole thing sounds like academia making work for themselves and justifying their existence." (Other commenters respond, and 155 in 55 engages again; read for yourself.)
We all have our own views on the value of endangered language research, and 155 in 55 is of course entitled to his or her own views on the matter. However, the claim that this is all just a ruse to give linguists something to do is spectacularly uninformed. Until very, very recently, documentation and preservation work on endangered languages has been some of the most underfunded and academically thankless work that a linguist can do; even now, with the relatively positive attention this work gets in the media and with a few more dedicated (but still relatively small) sources of funding available, the good folks who do this vital research find themselves struggling to justify the worth of many of the products of their work to their colleagues. The problem is acute enough to have prompted the Linguistic Society of America to propose the Resolution Recognizing the Scholarly Merit of Language Documentation, right now on the ballot for LSA members to vote on. (Note to LSA members: don't forget to vote before June 1.)
One of the linguists responsible for the positive attention that language documentation research has received lately is of course K. David Harrison, and there are two bits of news to share about his work. First, his 2008 book "When Languages Die" was reviewed in Science this week (apologies if you can't access it). Second, he has a new book to appear in September: "The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages" — pre-order your copy now.
[ Hat-tip to Grant Goodall and Barbara Partee. ]
[ Update: Arnold Zwicky writes to tell me that the article appeared on the front page of the hard-copy national edition of The New York Times, 4/29/2010. ]