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The race to save our languages

Ironbound Films
Linguist Gregory Anderson, left, discusses counting systems with Oranchu
Gomongo, who speaks India's endangered Sora language.

The Indiana Jones movies make it look as if the archaeologists have all the fun - but if you really want to see lost worlds and uncover cultural riches, you should think about becoming a linguist. At least that's the message I got from "The Linguists," a documentary that makes the leap from the film-festival circuit to the airwaves on PBS tonight.

The 65-minute film traces the exploits of Swarthmore College professor K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson, director of the Oregon-based Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, as they listen to (and sometimes dance with) the natives in remote areas of Siberia, India and Bolivia.

In all three places, local languages are being crowded out by more widely spoken tongues. Armed with video cameras and computers, Harrison and Anderson are racing to document the endangered languages before they fade away completely - and, if they're lucky, figure out strategies to avert extinction.

Harrison estimates that somewhere around 7,000 languages are being spoken today, with an  endangered language dying out every couple of weeks on average. "We don't know the exact pace of extinction. ... It's often very hard to pinpoint where or who the last speaker is," he told me Wednesday.

How languages encode local knowledge
One culture's language usually fades away because it's suppressed or devalued by an encroaching culture. Siberia's Chulym language is a prime example. For decades, the kids have been schooled in Russian, and now only the elders speak the local language. The filmmakers follow Harrison and Anderson as they go from one rough-hewn house to another, looking for Chulym speakers who could still tell them the words and the tales of bygone days.

Ironbound Films
Nina Tarlaganova, left, one of the last speakers
of the Chulym language in Siberia, listens to
Swarthmore College linguist K. David Harrison.

When the linguists began their work, several years ago, there were nine or 10 native Chulym speakers left. Now there are just five or six. "That language is definitely going to go extinct," Harrison said.

It's a shame, in part because the language is so darn interesting. A whole sentence worth of English ("I went out moose hunting") can be compressed in Chulym to just one word ("Aalychtypiskem"). Harrison said Chulym encodes a vast amount of local knowledge unknown to most outsiders.

"For example, they had a lunar calendar that was very precise," he said. "It was actually more precise than our solar calendar, because it didn't need to be reset every four years with a leap day."

A language's medicinal secrets
And if you don't think the beauty of an exotic language is enough to justify its preservation, consider the case of Bolivia's Kallawaya language, spoken by shamans living around Lake Titicaca. Only about 100 people understand Kallawaya nowadays, but it is the lingua franca for talking about the region's medicinal plants and other concoctions. Unlocking the language's secrets could lead to new cures - such as the medicinal tea that Anderson was offered when he became sick as a dog.

"Generally we don't like to commodify languages," Harrison said, "but it's useful to have something to point to and say we can give an economic calculation of why it's valued."

Knowing how to speak Kallawaya is indeed a valuable skill - essentially, the Andean equivalent of a medical degree. "It's prestigious, it leads to a profession, it gives access to knowledge that has economic value," Harrison said. For that reason, the language appears to be holding its own.

"The lesson is that it's really all about linguistic pride and investing a sense of worth and value into your language. With a shift in attitudes, we could create a world in which multiple languages are valued," Harrison said.

The tribe has spoken ... but for how much longer?
One of the most exotic locales for "The Linguists" is in the jungles of India, where Harrison and Anderson tried to blend in with a tribe speaking the Sora language. Getting into the tribal lands is an adventure in itself, requiring special permission and official escorts.

It's almost humorous to watch a couple of white guys singing and the dancing with the villagers - and drinking more palm wine than maybe they should. The scene turns a little scary at one point when the white guys have trouble figuring out just how much of a "gift" they should hand over to the tribe's chieftain.

But once they get down to documenting the language, the linguists discover something that makes them forget all about the culture clash: It turns out that the Sora counting system blends two counting systems, base-12 and base-20. For example, the number 93 in our base-10 system is referred to as "four-twenty-twelve-one" in Sora.

"We should try to figure out what these different ways of knowing math are before they all get flattened out and vanish," Harrison says in the film.

Harrison told me that about 300,000 people speak Sora today, so it's not in imminent danger of extinction. However, like as many as half of the world's languages, Sora is becoming endangered. Younger generations of Sora speakers are being assimilated by the dominant Hindi/English-speaking culture. "It's a contracting language," Harrison said.

In the film, Harrison marvels at his profession. "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 in your lifetime," he says.

During our conversation this week, Harrison admitted that he's gotten some grief from French-language specialists over that remark. "No offense to French," he said, "but we are in a bit of a crisis mode right now. We're seeing the world's linguistic diversity disappearing right before our eyes, so I have an interest in recruiting people."

Swarthmore College linguist K. David Harrison discusses his work and the
film "The Linguists" with Mark Molaro on "The Alcove."

He also has an interest in keeping linguistic diversity as vibrant as possible, in part by devising ways to keep languages alive online. "When languages are shut out of technologies, when they have no presence on the Internet, when they can't be typed out, that lowers their prestige. ... We try to help languages cross the digital divide," Harrison said.

For the speakers of an endangered language, the mere fact that someone cares enough to do something for them can breathe new life into the old words - as the linguists discovered when they brought their laptops back out into the field and showed "The Linguists" to the people portrayed in the film.

"There's the joy of seeing themselves on screen and being validated in a way," Harrison said. "The idea that the outside world is going to become aware of them, that their stories are being told to the world, is very powerful. They've been moved to tears, some of them."

Check the schedule for your PBS station to find out when "The Linguists" will air. The film's producer-directors are Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger of Ironbound Films. This archived article tells you more about the perils facing the world's languages. To learn more about Harrison's work, check out his book, "When Languages Die."