Newswise — Although the exact number of human languages spoken today remains unknown, most estimates put the number at about 6,800. A Swarthmore College linguist has found another one that was previously unknown to the scientific community and says its approaching extinction illustrates the problem of language endangerment.
K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics, will present his findings on the language spoken by an indigenous community in a remote part of central Siberia at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Seattle on Feb. 15. "The Chulym people have a unique way of talking about the local ecosystem," he says. "When they lose it, they will lose all the specialized knowledge the language contains."
In July, Harrison was accompanied on his expedition to Siberia by a small documentary film crew, who present his discovery in their forthcoming film "Vanishing Voices." "We went looking for a language we weren't sure even existed," he says. "It had been misidentified and falsely lumped together with other languages in Russia for convenience and political reasons, and we didn't know if any speakers were left. No scientists had visited them in 30 years, and no one had ever recorded a single word of the language."
Harrison says the Chulym people continue to practice their ancestral lifeways of hunting, gathering, and fishing, but because of a variety of social, political, and demographic factors are now clearly losing their ancestral language. "They live in six small, isolated villages, often intermixed with a majority Russian population," he says. "Only 35 people out of a community of 426 still speak it fluently, and we didn't find any fluent speakers under age 52. The remainder of the Chulym have switched to speaking only Russian. It's now considered a moribund language."
Harrison says the unique Chulym number systems, grammatical structures, and classification systems may be lost with the language. Their highly specialized knowledge of medicinal plants, animal behavior, weather signs, and hunting and gathering technologies is also threatened. "Not least of all," he says, "their rich pre-literate oral tradition, including religious beliefs, stories, and songs, will soon be completely lost, both to themselves and to science." Harrison hopes to preserve some of that tradition by returning in 2005 to produce a grammar of the language and a children's storybook.
"Each language that vanishes without being documented leaves an enormous gap in our understanding of some of the many complex structures the human mind is capable of producing," Harrison says. "As a field linguist, the excitement of going out and identifying and recording a language that was never previously documented is much like that of a zoologist finding a new species."
Harrison, a specialist in Tuvan and other Siberian languages whose work is supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, has conducted field research on endangered languages of South Siberia and Western Mongolia since 1996. During field expeditions, he lives and travels with nomadic people, accompanying them on their seasonal migrations as they herd camels, horses, yaks, and sheep. He has also worked with one of the last speakers of the Karaj language in Lithuania and documented language and ethnography in the Philippine highland rice terraces.
Located near Philadelphia, Swarthmore is a highly selective liberal arts college whose mission combines academic rigor with social responsibility. Swarthmore, with an enrollment of 1,450, is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country.