Ethnographers help save dying languages

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Courtesy Portland State Linguistics Department

Of the roughly 7,000 languages in the world, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, commonly known as UNESCO, and the scientific community at large estimate around 3,000 are in danger of going extinct by the end of the century.

The documentary film, The Linguists, sponsored by Portland State’s Departments of Anthropology, Applied Linguistics, World Languages and Literatures, and history, provides insight into the world’s endangered languages. The film crew follows ethnographers Dr. David Harrison and Prof. Greg Anderson as they encounter dying and endangered languages around the world. Together, they speak 25 languages.

“The way that knowledge is packaged in a language is unique. It doesn’t usually survive translation into other languages,” Harrison said of the disappearing languages and cultures. “It’s not just a list of things they know, but it’s a hierarchy of knowledge.”

About one language dies every two weeks, according to the film’s findings. Many of these languages have never been officially recorded, and The Washington Post reports around 2,000 have fewer than 1,000 speakers.

Languages are dying primarily due to institutionalized racism, violent economic unrest and the effects of urbanization on smaller communitiessuch as in Siberia, Bolivia, Arizona and Indiawhich inspired Anderson and Harrison to put their skills to work documenting languages.

In Bolivia, Kallawaya the language, previously thought to be extinct, was successfully documented after meeting Max Chura, a Kallawaya healer.

In Siberia, Anderson and Harrison embarked on documenting what was left of the Chulym language after coming across a dictionary produced by a former ethnographer over 50 years ago while in Tomsk. According to one native speaker Vasya, people were once forbidden from speaking the now near extinct language.  

In India, the team set out to document the Sora language. While there are roughly 300,000 speakers of Sora, the language is endangered due to urbanization and boarding schools where children often choose to stop speaking their ancestral language in favor of the dominant one. “People abandon languages because they feel it’s not important in the modern word,” Harrison said.

Although urbanizing communities and globalization pose a notable threat to these languages, more people are beginning to uncover the potential in becoming bilingual speakers. The film aimed to counter the belief that only a global language such as English or Spanish could be useful in the modern world, and that this belief is strictly ideological, not factual. “There are these pressures as we get increasingly urbanized,” Harrison said, “but people are beginning to successfully push back.”

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