When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge

When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge

When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge

When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge

Synopsis

It is commonly agreed by linguists and anthropologists that the majority of languages spoken now around the globe will likely disappear within our lifetime. The phenomenon known as language death has started to accelerate as the world has grown smaller.

This extinction of languages, and the knowledge therein, has no parallel in human history. K. David Harrison's book is the first to focus on the essential question, what is lost when a language dies? What forms of knowledge are embedded in a language's structure and vocabulary? And how harmful is it to humanity that such knowledge is lost forever?

Harrison spans the globe from Siberia, to North America, to the Himalayas and elsewhere, to look at the human knowledge that is slowly being lost as the languages that express it fade from sight. He uses fascinating anecdotes and portraits of some of these languages' last remaining speakers, in order to demonstrate that this knowledge about ourselves and the world is inherently precious and once gone, will be lost forever. This knowledge is not only our cultural heritage (oral histories, poetry, stories, etc.) but very useful knowledge about plants, animals, the seasons, and other aspects of the natural world--not to mention our understanding of the capacities of the human mind. Harrison's book is a testament not only to the pressing issue of language death, but to the remarkable span of human knowledge and ingenuity. It will fascinate linguists, anthropologists, and general readers.

Excerpt

The entire world needs a diversity of ethnolinguistic entities for its
own salvation, for its greater creativity, for the more certain solution
of human problems, for the constant rehumanization of humanity
in the face of materialism, for fostering greater esthetic, intellectual,
and emotional capacities for humanity as a whole, indeed, for
arriving at a higher state of human functioning.

—Joshua A. Fishman (1982)

When ideas go extinct, we all grow poorer. The voices of the last speakers of many languages are now fading away, never to be heard again. Linguists like me, too few in number, rush to record these tongues, while a few native communities struggle to revive them. Some of these last voices will be preserved in archives, in print, or as digital recordings. Those last speakers who have generously shared their knowledge with others may see their ideas persist a bit longer, perhaps published in books like this one. Most ideas live on only in memory, and with the extinction of languages vanish forever.

Why we should care about this? Isn’t it simply the natural order of things? Empires come and go, languages ebb and flow. Is any individual’s knowledge really so special? Can’t it be re-created later? What exactly is lost when a language, the most massive, complex constellation of ideas we know, ceases to be spoken?

This book is my attempt to explain why language death matters. On a personal level, I have formed close personal friendships with the last speakers of many languages, and with their children and grandchildren. I have spent countless hours interviewing them, in settings ranging from medieval Lithuanian towns to nomads’ camps in Mongolia, from remote . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.