[Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS ]
21 November 2010
At this year's American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting that winds up in New Orleans today, Jeremy Sabloff, President of the Santa Fe Institute, delivered the AAA's Distinguished Lecture with the title The Circulation of Ideas: Anthropology and Public Outreach. According to the AAA blog his talk:
"was effectively a battle cry for anthropologists. Our motto shouldn't be 'publish or perish, but rather, public or perish', archaeologist Sabloff said to a crowd of fellow anthropologists. He noted how other scientific fields have their iconic scholars‚ think Stephen Hawking, or Cornell West, or Jared Diamond. But anthropology? With the exception of the deceased (Margaret Mead) and the fictitious (Indiana Jones), not so much."
The blog author goes on:
"Part of the problem has been university departments' traditional avoidance of the limelight. Worse yet, anthropologists who speak out in the media are often criticized by their colleagues. 'We shouldn't be sniping, but rather supporting, our colleagues who write op-ed pieces', Sabloff said. The lecture, which was as inspiring as it was bold, was met with wild applause, a standing ovation and likely more than a few anthropologists considering their future (however large or small) in the public spotlight."
For languages and linguistics, I think we actually beat the anthropologists hands down when it comes to recognised experts who get called upon to express their views in public forums, including the popular press. In the UK we have David Crystal, public language expert par excellence, while Dick Hudson has worked tirelessly to promote linguistics in education. Geoff Pullum can be relied upon to express an opinion about grammar and language pseudo-experts (or "grammar mavens"), especially via his contributions to the Language Log blog, and John Harris gets called upon whenever pronunciation gets a mention. The US has a range of public figures who have things to say about language, including Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Dan Everett, Ben Zimmer, and so on.
In the area of minority and endangered languages, Gregory Anderson and David Harrison (who introduce themselves as "we're The Linguists"), in collaboration with National Geographic and the Living Tongues project, have achieved some prominence in public space around the world (the views of practitioners who are not "The Linguists" differ about the approach taken by Anderson and Harrison, as a snotty exchange in the Comments section of Language Log shows).
Anderson and Harrison's most recent venture, supported by the philanthropic arm of Google, is a dedicated channel on YouTube called "the National Geographic Enduring Voices YouTube channel". The goal is apparently to "allow many of [the world's smallest and most endangered] tongues to have a presence on the Internet for the very first time" so that "researchers, academics and communities can now collaborate more effectively on promoting language revitalization". This is a very worthy goal that is certainly in line with Jeremy Sabloff's call to arms.
So what is actually up there on YouTube, and does it meet the goal of promoting language revitalisation? Perhaps it is too early to say for sure yet, but I personally was disappointed by the available movie clips, especially in terms of their lack of contextualisation and the low production values some of them show. There are around 100 clips available and they range in length from 14 seconds to 25 minutes, with most being 2 to 3 minutes long. Some are "talking head" style lectures (like this one) while others are fascinating insights into local knowledge, like this clip about Koro medicinal plants -- except that it is in English!
One of the most popular clips (with 945 views) is a rap song in Aka performed by Songe Nimasow and Khandu Degio. It is surely popular because it is accessible and entertaining, but one has to wonder how it "promot[es] language revitalisation". The most popular clip (with 1,330 views), and one which I was fascinated to see, is Ganibe Sebo showing how to count in Foe, a language of Papua New Guinea. On several occasions I have heard Bernard Comrie present talks about what he calls "endangered numeral systems" and seen him demonstrate the use of body parts in Haruwai counting, but I had never before seen a native speaker present this. It's neat, but the context for why is is interesting and important rather than just bizarre (why 1 to 37 for heaven's sake?) is not given. Just imagine if the clip had begun with some contextualisation about how knowledge systems, like the use of body parts in counting, are under threat, perhaps even more than languages themselves, how much clearer the material now presented would be. I'm not wanting the clips to be didactic, just contextualised, and their significance clarified.
I could not understand the point of some of the clips, like this one of a Tuvan woman with her head down reading Russian but with no explanation of what it is that she is talking about (perhaps if I spoke Russian it would make more sense?). There is also this clip of a person sitting self consciously in front of an elaborate tapestry speaking about who knows what in who knows what language and for which the only information given is "Ay-Xerel Sambuu Interview". This kind of thing is reminiscentof the "look at the exotic animal" exhibits that zoos used to offer (though they usually had a sign up telling you which exotic animal it was).
So, this YouTube channel is an interesting idea and potentially an exciting place for endangered languages to "be public", but in its current form it falls far short of meeting its potential, in my opinion. I look forward to Anderson and Harrison doing something better in the future with the opportunities it offers.