Recording last words

The New York Times reported yesterday on the crisis of language loss, and the work of linguists to document languages that are on the brink of vanishing without a trace. This picture of linguists David Harrison and Greg Anderson, and Charlie Muldunga, the only known speaker of Amurdag (a language of the Northern Territory previously thought to be extinct), shows that the tools of this enterprise are quite simple and inexpensive: an audio or video recorder and good ol' paper and pencil. With the right training, even short periods of work between linguists and speakers can yield a wealth of valuable documentation.

In the past, linguistic documentation like the kind being made here was distilled into scientific publications that illustrated unique features of a language, or that supported or disproved particular theories of grammatical structure. Now, with heightened awareness of the impending loss of global linguistic diversity, language minority researchers and advocates are realizing the tremendous value of this documentation itself. It can be used by many people, for many different purposes – by scientists interested in the grammatical or typological properties of language, to communities whose heritage culture is represented and embodied by these languages. With enough interest, motivation and effort, this documentation can even provide the seeds of language revitalization, where communities reinvigorate a language and bring it back into active use.

But there is another concern: these incredible resources can become endangered themselves – mouldering on dusty shelves, forgotten in people's attics or garages, until daughters or grandsons find them and not knowing their value, sweep them into the dustbin. Even digital documentation is at risk, if not from lapsing into similar obscurity, then sinking into a digital format obsolescence that renders them practically unrecoverable. A growing number of archives and digital efforts like The Rosetta Project are working to prevent this from happening, by providing format conversion, safe storage, and most importantly public access. In the end, it is people knowing and caring about these languages that will help bring them back from the brink.

Note: It turns out we can't link to the Amurdag language in The Rosetta Project, since its not on the books, so to speak. It was previously thought to be extinct until this single speaker Charlie Muldunga was found. Yeah -- oops! But this turns out to be a known phenomena in Australia, and has to do with ideas of multilingualism, language identity, and who can claim to be a speaker of a language.

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