From: Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
4 June 2009
This week's Chronicle of Higher Education has two articles by Peter Monaghan on endangered languages issues. The first is entitled Languages on Life Support: Linguists debate their role in saving the world's endangered tongues (viewable free on line, and includes material from interviews with Nick Evans, Michael Krauss, Richard Rhodes, Noam Chomsky, and myself. Some of the topics covered will be familiar to readers of this blog, like what Monaghan calls "a 'commando style' of recording trip" (something Jane wrote about as Fifo (fly in fly out) fieldwork).
A few of the quotes struck me as remarkable, like Noam Chomsky saying that the loss of a language:
"is much more of a tragedy for linguists whose interests are mostly theoretical, like me, than for descriptive linguists who focus on specific languages, since it means the permanent loss of the most relevant data for general theoretical work."
Nick Evans is also quoted as putting a price on documentation of the world's linguistic diversity.
"He has done the math: It costs about half a million dollars to train one qualified graduate student to glean and record enough of a language that it might be recoverable. That $500,000 covers a doctorate and two or three years of postdoctoral work. 'Multiply that by, say, 4,000 languages,' says Evans. 'That's two billion dollars. That's almost just a cut off the edge of a budget, in a lot of places. "
Interestingly, the first newsletter of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, dated 1 May 1995, set a figure of £35,000 (A$ 70,000) for two years work on a language to produce a basic grammar and dictionary, while Chapter 4 of David Crystal's 2000 book Language Death provides a figure of $/£200,000 per year for a full documentation project. Looks like Nick's estimate is somewhere in the middle.
The second article, entitled Another Kind of Language Expert: Speakers, is a bit shorter and discusses training courses and revitalisation programmes involving native speakers, including mention of the summer school in Ghana that SOAS staff and students were involved in last year (along with scholars from other institutions), and Ken Hale's work on recovery of Wampanoag with local linguists and activists (such as Jessie Little Doe, who isn't mentioned by name, however).
It is good to see that these issues are getting an airing in a general academic journal such as this.