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[From Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

Almost ten years ago, the late Ken Hale argued that global language destruction will lead to loss of important information to linguistics and other sciences. In an article called ‘On endangered languages and the importance of linguistic diversity’ published in Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response edited by Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley. Ken wrote:

“The loss of linguistic diversity is a loss to scholarship and science. … While a major goal of linguistic science is to define universal grammar, i.e. to determine what is constant and invariant in the grammars of all natural languages, attainment of that goal is severely hampered, some would say impossible, in the absence of linguistic diversity.”

and a couple of pages later:

“without linguistic diversity it would be impossible for us to perform the central task of linguistic science, i.e. the task of developing a realistic theory of human linguistic competence, realistic in the sense that it properly reflects not only the limits on the manner in which grammatical structure is determined by the properties of lexical items, for example, but also the impressive diversity of surface form in the observable structures of natural languages.”

Similar sentiments may be found in Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine’s book Vanishing Voices – they also point out that the range of data available in existing linguistic descriptions is but a tiny subset of language knowledge:

“[f]or scientific reasons alone, languages are worth preserving. Linguists need to study as many different languages as possible if they are to perfect their theories of language structure and to train future generations of students in linguistic analysis. … New and exciting discoveries about language are still being made. There is every reason to believe that what we know now is but the tip of the iceberg. … Satisfying answers to many current puzzles about languages and their origins will not emerge until linguists have studied many languages. To exclude exotic languages from our study is like expecting botanists to study only florist shop roses and greenhouse tomatoes and then tell us what the plant world is like.”

In the past 12 months it looks like other linguists have started to take up Ken’s idea and to present lots of evidence to support it. This time last year Matt Shibatani, J.C. Smith and I organised a workshop in Kobe, Japan, to discuss the topic (we hope to publish selected proceedings before too long). The Linguistic Society of America had a session at its 2007 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles in January this year at which Stephen Anderson, Mark Baker, Juliette Blevins and Heidi Harley, who have all worked on minority languages and linguistic theory, discussed how the study of endangered languages is important to phonology and syntax, and vice versa. Last month a book rather blandly entitled Endangered Languages edited by Andrew Simpson and me was published in Germany as a special issue of the Linguistische Berichte journal – this also discusses how information from endangered languages is crucial to understanding how languages in general work, and highlights theoretically and typologically unusual features found is lesser described languages.

Another recent addition on this theme is K. David Harrison’s book When Languages Die which came out in January this year and which I have just started to read. David’s book is aimed at the general reader and contains lots of fascinating material from a huge range of languages, most of which he has studied first-hand, on topics like culturally specific vocabulary, linguistically encoded geographical knowledge, unusual number systems, oral traditions (with an excursus into literacy), and a final chapter that introduces some nice issues in morphology and sociolinguistics called “Worlds Within Words”. The book is nicely written and illustrated, with lots of pictures of native speakers of threatened languages doing interesting things, and with ‘case studies’ scattered throughout illustrating the main points.

Renowned Africanist Paul Newman argued in 2003 in an article entitled “The endangered language issue is a hopeless cause” (in Language Death and Language Maintenance: Theoretical, Practical, and Descriptive Approaches, edited by Mark Janse and Sijmen Tol) that “Linguists don’t care enough” because theory rather than description of languages drives most university linguistics departments. It’s taken us a while, but I am hopeful that these are the sorts of workshops and books that will show Newman is wrong. I am also guessing that Ken would have enjoyed them.


One thing that worries me a bit is the increase in job ads which specify language specialties. There were a lot of ads this year for things like "Spanish and semantics" or "French and phonology". There have always been ads like this, but what was striking was the number of these jobs that were in linguistics departments, not language departments. I really hope this isn't a trend, because, as you can imagine, the number of ads with " and X" vastly outnumber " and X".

Great post Peter. I'm looking forward to reading the book. I wish there were something similar for music.

Languages, music, foodculture, religions and much more shows us that different cultures are enrichments.The key for there usefullnes is the way each of us secure his been (live). By inkluding and open mindfullnes everything different gets an enrichment throught dialog.We can see the variation in humman life, like flowers on a medow, instruments in an orchestra or foodintems in a god meal!.
By excluding and dogma everything different ends up in conflicts and domination. As more you learn and get fluent inn different languages, foodcultures, religions, music, poesi ... you will see how much all humans have in comman.Inspide of that I was born somewere in Europe (in Kerpen Buir)your and my mind comes from the same place into this life out of our mothers body. Her variation starts!
I think the most evil killer of all variation in cultural expression (incl. language-killer) is domination.
A university without mindfullnes and inkluding will not gain an univeral horizont. For me it is not a university, but turns to be a simple factory for domination!
The solution is to establish as much as possible multicultural meetingplaces where humans can feel with there hearth the taste of differences. Once you have taste it you never will go back to monoculture, its the most healthy addiction beside love!!

I am a student in Indonesia, interested in studying endangered languages. can youinform me about scholarships for such study???

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