YPSILANTI — What does it mean to see your language die?
It’s a question that we who speak languages such as English or Spanish never have to face. Yet speakers of thousands of languages across the globe confront it every day, as experts believe that we are losing languages at an extraordinary rate. By the end of this century, thousands will be gone.
But researchers at the Linguist List at Eastern Michigan University and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa are teaming up with Google to announce the Endangered Languages Project, a Web site that provides information on endangered languages and helps speakers preserve their languages and cultures.
The Web site will have far-reaching cultural and emotional effects, because for the many speakers of the world’s endangered languages, language loss is often bound up with human tragedy.
For instance, in the village of Ayapa, in the Mexican state of Tabasco, live Manuel Segovia, 76, and Isidro Velázquez, 70. They are the last two speakers of Ayapaneco, as others call it, or, in their own words, Nuumte Oote or “True Voice.” No one knows why, but they will not speak to one another. So the only time they use their language is to themselves or to their family members, who understand little of what’s being said.
In the Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, a woman named Boa Sr. died in 2010. She was the last speaker of the Aka-Bo language, a direct descendant of one of the languages spoken by some of the very first of our ancestors to migrate along the coast of the Indian Ocean from Africa. Whatever her culture knew of its past remains only in the few remnants recorded of her language and its stories.
And on March 10, Wilson “Tiny” Deacon died. He was the last fluent speaker of Holikachuk, a language spoken by the Athabascan people in Alaska’s interior. There are others who speak some of the language, but none as well as Deacon did.
These are tragedies for the human race, in the sense that every language encodes information about the peoples and cultures that use it. Such linguistic understanding and perspective is precious and should not be lost, which is why the Endangered Languages Project was launched Thursday at www.endangeredlanguages.com.
The statistics are daunting: Of the roughly 7,000 human languages spoken today, up to 90 percent may vanish within the next 100 years. Many languages are likely to disappear without adequate documentation.
Lost are thousands of years of cultural history and oral literature – a people’s lessons and life experiences. Embedded within languages is irreplaceable knowledge about the natural world: medical plants, zoological knowledge and sustainable agriculture.
A key feature of the Web site is the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, a comprehensive database of information on endangered languages. Visitors to the site will have access to language data, audio, text and video samples as well as bibliographic resources. Speakers and academics will be able to use this site to share information about their languages, upload samples and comments and communicate with each other. And, through knowledge sharing, community members and scholars can learn about and share best practices to improve their efforts to preserve endangered languages.
“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,” says Anthony Aristar, an EMU professor of linguistics and moderator of The Linguist List, the world’s largest online linguistics information resource. “We believe technology can not only strengthen efforts to preserve endangered languages, but also help more people get involved in preserving their language.”
The catalogue is a three-year project that began in fall 2011. Since then, the teams at EMU and UHM have gathered data on more than 3,000 endangered languages, corresponding with prominent linguists around the world to review and add information. The research is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation.