historical linguistics?

March 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

As mentioned before, when people hear you are a linguist, they often ask you how many languages you speak. Apart from their mother tongue, most linguists know more about other languages than actually know those languages. That is, they can describe them, but don’t do much conversationally with them.

In the future, that may just be the way it is. Linguistics will be a historical pursuit, hunting down lost archives containing wordlists and scraps of text. Linguistic diversity on our planet is shrinking at rates faster than the decline of biological species. Many linguists agree with the alarming projection, that in 100 years, the 6000 or so languages spoken by human communities today will have shrunk to just 600.

Already a language dies every fortnight. When that last speaker goes into the great silence of death, the conversation has ended; their language has already passed through before them. Without another to speak to, the language is already gone.

When language dies, there are some cynics who suggest that linguists are the only real losers – one less language to learn, to make a career out of. But surprisingly few linguists work in the field of language documentation, and those that do are not the big names in the field, the ones that might have caught the non-linguists’ attention. Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker for example are unlikley to have carried out field work with communitites whose languages face that silence. That is just not the kind of linguists they are. Pursuing more theoretical aims, they use the data from in Pinker’s case experiments, and in Chomsky his own intuitions about his language and published data from mostly pretty well known languages. The documentation linguist may find his/her data used by the so-called armchair linguists to support a theory or two, but they hardly get invited to readers/writers weeks!

That is not to say that there is no reward or satisfaction in the work. Labouring alongside speakers to collect analyse and explain phenemona is full of Eureka moments like any kind of learning. The exposure to a culture through learning the language and culture is reward enough. Helping communities to begin to write their language and to write their stories, making their own histories rather than subjects in outsiders histories, giving them agency in decisions about recording their culture.

Time is running out. The loss of linguistic diversity is increasing not slowing. The academy, the theoretical linguists and the documentary linguists alike, and the university structures that support them need to step in and train generations of linguists to work with these communities under threat and help them should they value their languages as a storehouse of culture and identity.

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