The last speakers: the quest to save the world's most endangered languages

by K David Harrison

Posted on
linguistics science

This book argues that language loss is always bad, but that we can do something to save it. While the stories in the book leave me feeling like every language lost is a terrible cost, I think it’s inevitable as our species merges into a global society due to technology. I think we ought to prioritize the proper treatment and respect of marginalized and alternative cultures, including their languages and how these cultures want to maintain them. But there is a cost to stopping all language loss that is just not worth it once a language has been documented for research purposes.

tacit knowledge permalink

Saying linguistic differences are just random and uninteresting is like saying architecture around the world doesn’t really change.

America has been a melting pot in the sense that it has tried to force people to forget their old languages. (But I think that might just be because so many different kinds of people come that there needs to be a lingua franca.) Threatened languages carry knowledge about wildlife, geology, weather, and many other things. Much of human knowledge is not scientific, and often not even on the internet. It’s too specific and often only shared verbally. This knowledge is the knowledge that has to do with our survival in varied environments.

Here’s Hayek as quoted in the book:

We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

Linguistics has been distracted with phonology and grammar and so it’s missed what people actually have to say. Harrison is a “reverse missionary linguist”– he goes to soak up their knowledge and beliefs, and convert to their worldview.

Tuva was the first place Harrison went to, and it changed his views on what language was, and how culture is a survival tool. Tuvans have special sounds they make at domesticated animals that make them compliant.

Harrison is dismissive of armchair linguistics because it’s just reinterpreting someone else’s data.

When we talk about grammar as learned in school, we’re really talking about writing style. Actual grammar is tacit knowledge, meaning that we know it, but we don’t know we know it and we can’t really articulate it.

Languages animate objects by giving them names, making them noticeable when we might not otherwise be aware of them. For example, Tuvan has a word for the short side of a hill. The lexicon affects perception and thought, and we don’t know by how much. We need to study languages in their natural habitats to understand this effect. The word for “go” in Tuvan is highly conditional on geography and awareness of the locations of others. Tuvans always know where relatives and friends are and will be.

Folk taxonomies (like classifying yaks by colors and patterns) are how languages build up knowledge of how the world interacts with humans.

Studying the rare languages plays an outsized role in helping us understand what a language can be.

linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity permalink

If there’s only one speaker left, a language effectively does not exist because there’s no conversation. And no one person knows all of English or any other language. A language evolves across the minds of those who speak it. So it’s hard to say that the thing called “English” can be expressed as a lexicon and a set of rules operating over it.

(I think our culture seems to view individuals as the ultimate actors who are free to choose their lives as they please, but other cultures, including our past ones, give people more rigid roles. Maybe ours is not necessarily better, just different.)

The strong form of linguistic determinism has been discredited (i.e. language does not limit what we think or can say). The weak form (linguistic relativity) says language influences our experience of reality, and this is probably true. Instead of thinking of language as a kind of blinder that prevents us from seeing or saying certain things, we can think of it as a magnifying glass that focuses our attention, requiring us to pay attention to certain details. So, for a Tuvan speaker, because he must know the direction of the river current in order to say “go,” the language is forcing him to pay attention to river flow and to be aware of it at all times.

Linguists make fun of “There are x words for y in z language”, but the reality is that languages can “[encode] all this knowledge in complex ways in hundreds of specialized and highly descriptive words.”

I think Harrison is too quick to find value in all the specialized words in all the languages. When he’s talking about knowledge embedded in these languages, what he’s really talking about is cultural knowledge that can be shared in any language, albeit not as easily.

indigenous rights permalink

The case of the Mapuche people sueing Microsoft for making a Mapudungun version of Windows is interesting. At first, it seems silly for a cultural institution (even indigenous) to say who can and can’t use the language. But two things made me think otherwise:

  1. The Mapuche people were not consulted in the process.
  2. They were introducing a new orthography for the language.

We need to respect the way indigenous groups want to protect and share their language.

Kallawaya is a language invented specifically to store the knowledge of medicinal plants. Harrison argues they have the right to protect their knowledge by keeping their language a secret.

language hotspots permalink

The idea of a biodiversity hotspot or language hotspot communicates how the species and language density varies dramatically across the world.

Northern Australia is the top hotspot both in diversity and endangerment.

Indigenous people have a connection to the land that is almost impossible for a world traveler or a member of a colonial culture to understand.

One man from the Ishir people in Bolivia who’s about 85 remembers pre-contact and post-contact life. What a ride from hunter-gatherer society to airplanes, motorboats, and cell phones in a single lifetime.

Some languages are thriving against odds, often due to cultural pride and tight-knit community. There’s even the Maka language spoken by a small group right in the middle of AsunciĆ³n, Paraguay.

A hidden language is one that’s known only locally and don’t show up on official records. Koro has had stability despite so few speakers because people choose to speak it. They do not accommodate when someone else knows it.

Harrison considers language features to be a technology.

We must not “exoticize” groups, but describe them as they see themselves.

linguistic shame permalink

How did these stories almost slip away? Why were they hidden? The Chulym shaman story was hidden out of fear, because native religion was banned. Vasya’s writing was hidden out of shame, because he was made to feel inferior for his ethnicity and language. And the ancient underworld quest story of the “Three Brothers” was hidden partly by neglect—as new forms of entertainment like television replaced storytelling—and partly by politics, as the Chulym were never allowed to write their stories down in books or teach them in schools.

Whatever the reason for hiding a language, silencing a story, or subduing a song, on our linguistic expeditions we do the spadework that brings these hidden words back to light. At the very least, we can give them a continued existence in the pages of books or in digital archives. Beyond that, we hope to encourage a new generation to continue telling and singing them. Without our human stories, as diverse or as similar as they may be across time and space, we are not fully ourselves.

I think he’s nostalgic for these stories, and it’s good to try to save them, but I don’t think we can stop globalization of culture from causing us to tell worldwide stories.

social groups permalink

Languages are the most effective ways to signal group membership. Papua New Guinea has 800+ languages among only 7 million people who are in pretty good contact. Many of the Guinean languages have around 600 tightly knit speakers, as if your Facebook friends all knew each other. From a theoretical perspective, you could see a language like that changing really quickly or really slowly. (This question isn’t clearly answered in the book.)

New Guineans have a local identity, tribal identity, and clan (with initiation rites).

Wherever George goes, he is instantly recognized and taken care of by clan members. He has mutilated his flesh to show respect for his totem, the crocodile. This level of dedication far exceeds the tattooing of a loved one’s name on your arm or devotion to a religious cult, and probably cannot be understood by outsiders who do not abide in the faith of the crocodile and do not share a worldview in which river spirits determine human destinies.

language survival permalink

Children are the decision-makers of language survival, so school has a big impact. But kids can learn to be bilingual, so school can be where kids learn a global language but they can still keep a close-knit ethnic community.

A language activist is someone with a deep conviction that their own tongue surpasses all others in its intimacy and power of expression.

The languages of cultures under threat are often misunderstood by those of us in dominating cultures.

A language is a dialect with an army and a school system.

The body counting number systems used in Papuan languages aren’t just cute, they’re actually very mathematically powerful. Some can multiply, for example.

The Ho creation myth turns around the Adam and Eve story:

Once there was old man Luku and old woman Lukumi.

They two were alone on Earth.

There were forests and mountains everywhere.

There were beautiful springs, with fruits, flowers, leaves, trees and stones.

Old man Luku and old woman Lukumi were very happy eating fruits in the trees.

They two had no sinful thoughts in their minds.

As for clothes, they didn’t have any on their bodies.

God thought, “If they stay like this, there will be no more generations.”

So God came down, and taught them how to make liquor from grass seeds.

They drank liquor in a cup made from leaves of the sarfruit tree, and got drunk.

Then their minds felt another type of joyful thoughts;

About coming together as a man and woman.

They started copulating, and felt shame and arousal.

So they covered each other up at the waist with tree bark.

Ten months later from Lukumi’s body, a boy child was born.

In this manner, they bore seven boys and seven girls.

Thus they spread us humans on this Earth.

It was a Golden Age at that time.

There was no cheating, quarreling, cruelty, nothing bad.

There was no cold or starvation, fever or sadness.

The people remained in joy, happiness and peace.

This is called paradise.

storytelling permalink

Storytelling was the method for protecting and transferring human knowledge before writing. Harrison thinks that “writing … ensures that a story will become fossilized, trapped on paper, no longer able to adapt,” and “we’ve grown mentally lazy” by no longer needing to memorize these stories.

Harrison claims that “most of what humans know today, and nearly everything they have known throughout history, exists purely in memory and is transmitted orally, from speaker to listener.” It’s at first hard to see that this is the case, but I think I could see it when I thought about all the stuff you learn as a kid from your parents, and then multiply that by all the cultures of the world, some of which are in decline and may disappear.

Up to 80 percent of the world’s languages have not yet adopted writing at all or have done so only on a very limited scale.

… As languages fall into forgetfulness, stories, songs, and epics approach extinction. We stand to lose entire worldviews, religious beliefs, creation myths, technologies for how to cultivate plants, histories of human migration, and collective wisdom.

The most interesting elements of a language are often the productive systems (which allow speakers to succinctly communicate new ideas). Irregular verbs in English, for example, aren’t very interesting. There’s a minor dialect of Tuvan that has a productive system of sound-symbolic words that can describe the types and qualities of new sounds to other speakers.

Russians are total jerks to native Siberians.

Here’s an interesting note about Siberia:

The Trans-Siberian Railway wends for more than 5,700 miles across one of the most boring landscapes imaginable. If you spend three, four, or even six days riding the train, which slugs along gently at a speed of about 40 miles an hour, you can literally see nothing but birch trees and grass all day long. Most of Siberia is a vast water world, a swampy delta, the mushy ground interspersed between some of Earth’s largest rivers, the Yenisei, the Ob, and others. Underneath, not so very far down, lies permafrost, which is now melting and will fill our atmosphere with more methane than any other polluting source on the planet. So potent is the methane from melting permafrost that in midwinter you can take an ax, walk out onto a lake that has a foot-thick cover of ice, chop a slit in ice, and light a match over it. You’ll produce an enormous whoosh of flame that shoots out of the ice as the methane burns. Siberia is both literally and figuratively Earht’s coldest hotspot.

The Tofa initially converted to a Turkic language a long time ago, and now that’s happening again with Russian. But that first conversion left thousands of older words from the first language. Many of them are around sacred taboo words, like “bear”.

Anthropologists take people for walks in the woods to help them describe their surroundings and elicit environmental knowledge. Harrison takes on some hilarious arguments against the value of documenting and preserving all languages.

Here I think Harrison makes his strongest argument that language loss is equivalent to knowledge loss:

In switching over to speaking exclusively Russian, Marta’s grandchildren have shut themselves off from much of the knowledge of nature, plants, animals, weather, and geography that their grandmother would have been able to pass on to them. This knowledge is not easily expressed in Marta’s less-than-fluent Russian. We might go a step further and say that the knowledge Marta has cannot be expressed in as intact or efficient a way in the Russian language. Russian lacks unique words for Tofa concepts like “smelling of reindeer milk” or “a three-year-old male uncastrated rideable reindeer.”

Though the basic ideas can be expressed in any language (as I just expressed them in English), the concepts are packaged in such a way that much is lost when people shift from speaking one language to another. Newcomers to an ecological niche, speaking a language that has not yet developed specialized terms for its plants and animals, can quickly invent or borrow names as needed. But much of this is done by metaphorical extension, and it often obscures or overlooks important connections that people previously living there had forged over time. Anybody can make up new names for newly encountered creatures… But discerning the subtle connections, similarities, and behavioral traits linking animals, plants, and humans demands careful observation over generations. This process of observation and testing is what we, in our culture, would call science. It is this science, encoded in languages like Tofa, that is now eroding.

Here he also documents what it looks like for a community to lose its traditional culture and language:

Saddened, we departed Nersa, village of mostly forgotten stories. Loaded down with gifts of bread and berries, and our precious videotapes of Tofa stories, we set out with a native guide to return to Alygdzher, situated just 15 miles upstream as the crow flies. The villagers assured us it was a five-hour trek. Our guide, a young man of 25, led us on foot into the mountain forest at 6 a.m. Eight hours later, as dusk fell, our guide seemed confused. We grew impatient, but our guide seemed unsure as we crossed yet another river. Balancing our clothing on our heads, we formed a human chain to wade across in the frigid chest-high currents. We did finally reach the main village—at 2 a.m., shivering and dehydrated.

We found ourselves the object of sympathy and considerable village gossip. “How could you hire such a guide?” people marveled. Elders shook their heads in dismay. “Our young people don’t know their own forests nowadays,” Aunt Marta opined. She had spent decades hunting squirrels in the forests and herding reindeer and knew by name every tributary and ridge, cave and hollow. The very idea that a local could get lost in the woods meant that her world had turned upside-down. For her, this was not only a mental but a spiritual decay.

And here is an interesting fact about hunter-gatherer societies:

There is a misconception, dating all the way back to early encounters between Native Americans and the Pilgrims arriving on American shores, that hunter-gatherers do not own land, but merely use it freely. The Tofa, with their detailed geographic knowledge, are proof that this is not always the case. In Marta’s younger years, the entire Tofa territory was divided into ancestral hunting grounds for exclusive use by individual clans. Boundaries existed solely in memory, passed down from father to daughter and son, and were strictly observed. Though one could roam freely anywhere, every important stream, rock outcropping, or distinctive landscape feature had a name, a legend, a resident local spirit, and a human owner. Territory was strictly enforced, and no Tofa hunter would think of poaching on the territory of another clan, out of fear both of angering that clan and of arousing local spirits who might do harm. When hunting on their own clan territory, the Tofa offered tea, meat, and reindeer milk to local gods to repay them for success in hunting and the use of the land. The land was to be venerated, and it bestowed blessings in return.

Once our guide sobered up, fully three days after our trek, I forced him to admit that he had never traveled between the two villages on his own and had last made the journey four years earlier. Trails between these two villages—the only two human habitations for hundreds of miles—had become overgrown from lack of use. Marta and the elders had once trodden these paths regularly. They knew every spring and mountain ridge intimately and remembered a time when success in hunting and reindeer herding, indeed survival itself, depended on applying such knowledge. As their language vanishes, so the mental map they once possessed is fading away, and they are detached from the land that once nourished their people.

arguments for and against language preservation permalink

Arguing that the reason our language is still around is because we can express modern concepts is “a kind of cultural triumphalism (believing we are the apex of civilization)”.

Solving the language extinction problem would help with the species extinction problem because many of these languages contain an understanding of the local natural environment.

To use metaphors from ecology can be a little condescending.

Lake Tahoe is sacred to the Washoe people. I imagine this would feel something like if a foreign group came and started playing soccer in Solomon’s temple or the Kaaba in Mecca.

Listen to this story of language loss:

Why don’t I understand Maliseet? My first language is Maliseet. … When I started first grade, I did not speak English. The one memory I have of first grade is sitting in the front seat of the school bus. The bus driver, sitting in his seat, was twisting around to talk to me. His mouth was moving and sounds were coming out of his mouth. I did not understand anything he said. It was a shock to realize that everything I experienced in my life up to that point was rendered meaningless and irrelevant. Being a solitary Maliseet child in a largely white elementary school was alien enough. But to have my entire worldview muted and rendered meaningless made me feel silent and vulnerable. My mother made the decision that day that I would learn English because, and I quote, “If my son is to survive out there, he’ll have to master English.”

Harrison points out that many people around the world successfully “master English” without losing their native languages. Many kids grow up bilingual, so the loss of the language must to come down to “the pressure to conform and assimilate”.

how to save languages permalink

There is not enough data to know what works, but here are some ideas Harrison has encountered:

  1. Keep it secret, private, and restricted. This is what the Kallawaya and the Hopi do. It’s a bit risky, but may heighten the group’s sense of ownership of the language.
  2. Make it public, visible, and freely shared. This is what the Welsh and the Lenape do. This is generally how large languages behave as well.
  3. Keep it strictly oral, only spoken.
  4. Make it literate, write it down. Expand its use into Facebook and texting and road signs.
  5. Elevate it, promote it, express pride in it. “A positive attitude toward a language is the single most powerful force that will keep it alive, especially when that attitude is transmitted to the youngest members of the community.” A few of the speakers Harrison knows speak to him first in their language and then in English, and Harrison reads the message as “We love and value our languages, and we respect both them and you by sharing it publicly.” You have to combat any efforts to beat down a language, saying it’s not fit for modern life or popular culture.
  6. Replenish the language with new words.
  7. Embrace new technologies. This means texting, Wikipedia, social media, movies, etc.
  8. Document it. “Some indigenous communities feel documentation is exploitative or does not serve their interests,” and that needs to be respected. But if not, documentation could be useful. Here’s a powerful argument against documentation: “Some say that having their language only in recorded media would be the ultimate triumph of colonialism—the language would have been captured and placed in an archive; it would be better to have it disappear entirely than to suffer that fate.”

globalization permalink

Tyler Cowen thinks that globalization is good because it brings our innovations together, as in the case of the book. Here’s Harrison’s response to Cowen:

Cowen’s view of the market operates at the elevated level of empires and nation-states, entirely neglecting the thousands of smaller peoples and cultures that comprise them. Occasionally, we find breakthrough phenomena such as Tuvan throat singing, where a cultural product from a tiny nation becomes a globally famous and valued art form. More often, the process goes in the other direction, where art forms valued by large nations become adopted by thousands of smaller cultures who, even though they may improve the original, enjoy no reciprocal exchange. For example, nothing from Aka culture is borrowed back into American culture as the Aka absorb hip-hop. Americans are deprived, in this one-way cultural exchange, of partaking of the knowledge and cultural richness of the Aka.

Harrison doesn’t think it’s all bad, and agrees with Cowen that globalization gives us a richer, more diverse landscape of culture. But “the downside to globalization occurs when big languages crush small languages and the knowledge they contain.”

In an imaginary future, English will continue to expand, as will Chinese and Arabic, yielding a trilingual world. But at the same time, English, Chinese, and Arabic will branch into hundreds of local varieties, perhaps only connected by a kind of newscaster-speak or written form that is comprehensible across the dialects. We would live in a world of new and superficial language diversity, having lost deep bodies of knowledge when the other 6,997 languages vanished.