is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area, where
she primarily reports on public policy. She writes the Idea
Lobby blog for Miller-McCune and is a contributing writer to
The Atlantic Cities.
languages don’t seem as self-evidently valuable as, say,
endangered species essential to the functioning of a healthy
ecosystem. If the world loses Chuj, a particularly endangered
Mayan language of Central America, or Itelmen, a language with
fewer than two dozen native speakers on an isolated peninsula
in the far east of Russia, people will still be able to communicate.
They’ll just do it in Spanish, or maybe Russian. And history
will move on.
language, though, encapsulates more than just different ways
to say to “hello.”
debate about the universality of language, that we all have
the same ideas and therefore language is just a function of
history, that we’re basically using verbs and nouns [to
say the same thing] -- that’s a hypothesis,” said
Anna Kerttula, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences
at the National Science Foundation. “Or maybe it’s
reached the level of theory. But that’s in no way been
the famous example says, Eskimo have numerous words to describe
what Americans would just call ‘snow’ and ‘ice.’
This suggests language systems don’t merely translate
universal ideas into different spellings; they encode different
concepts. And when we lose a language, we risk losing those
of concepts are on the edge of oblivion -- out of about 7,000
languages spoken in the world today, half are projected to disappear
by the end of the century, if not sooner.
an amazing amount of knowledge,” Kerttula said.
helps run a joint program of the National Science Foundation
and the National Endowment for the Humanities that’s been
trying for seven years to fund efforts at recording and documenting
endangered languages before they disappear. (The program received
an infusion of $3.9 million last week to pay for 10 fellowships
and 24 grants). The project may sound like a punch line for
another anti-science tirade from a small-government politician,
but its work touches on fundamental questions about how the
brain works, how people express ideas, how societies adapt and
how human history has evolved. And of how researchers benefit.
talking about neuroscientists, we’re talking about computer
scientists, we’re definitely talking about historians,
anthropologists and biologists in some cases” working
on nearly extinct language, Kerttula said.
Ten endangered languages the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered
Languages program has attempted to preserve:
1. Bangime, Northern Bali
2. Navajo, Southwestern U.S.
3. Kosati, Louisiana.
4. Witchita, Oklahoma.
5. Arawak, Brazil
6. Máíhiki, Peru
7. Cherokee, Southeastern U.S.
8. Chechen, the Caucasis
9. Southeastern Tepehuan, Mexico
10. Defaka, Nigeria
National Science Foundation actually has physical scientists
working with Inuit people to identify different aspects of ice
that aren’t captured in the English language but could
inform our understanding of the changing Arctic ecosystem.
you don’t understand and don’t have the language
for what ice is, what ice should be, you’re not going
to understand how it’s changing,” Kerttula said.
“Language is critical in recognizing change in your environment.”
researcher receiving the money allocated last week, Jürgen
Bohnemeyer at SUNY Buffalo, wants to know: If people talk differently
about objects in space, does that mean they also think differently
about them? He’ll investigate how spatial concepts are
represented in 25 languages on five continents.
researcher, Pedro Mateo Pedro, will study how children acquire
Chuj, the endangered Mayan language. Other projects will document
endangered native languages in Oklahoma and the construction
of Cherokee grammar. Some will develop learning and training
resources for communities to record their own language.
of the researchers will be working with languages spoken by
fewer than 30 elderly people. But the designation endangered,
Kerttula says, isn’t necessarily a measurement of the
small number of people still speaking a language. Rather, she
said, languages become endangered when children no longer speak
of 92 languages known to have been used in the Arctic, for example,
she says 72 still have some speakers. All but one (Greenlandic)
are endangered, the result of the steady encroachment of other
dominant languages like English into the domains of public schools
and legal systems, television and now the Internet.
soon, all of the domains of your life are in English, and the
only place where you get to speak your native language is to
your grandmother,” Kerttula said. “So how long is
that language going to last? It’s basically not.”
government program’s efforts of course won’t save
7,000 languages, that means 3,500 languages are going to disappear,
and we’re funding how many projects a year?” Kerttula
asked rhetorically. The National Science Foundation and National
Endowment for the Humanities aren’t the only ones doing
this work; some individual states, for example, have programs
that include keeping native languages on life support. But the
number of programs worldwide is small, and for each language
that one of them targets, there are exponentially more elements
to understand, from grammar to vocabulary to the cognitive processes
is effusive about the individual projects now trying to do this.
But, she adds, “It’s a Sisyphean task.”
I find it astonishing that a writer that has explored this topic
and claims to have interviewed the program officer for Arctic
Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation employs the
word 'Eskimo,' and more than once, to describe the northern
native peoples. This dumbs down the article and undermines all
credibility. It's not the 80s anymore. Thank you. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuit