Endangered languages don’t seem as self-evidently valuable as, say, endangered species essential to the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. If the world loses Chuj, a particularly endangered Mayan language of Central America, or Itelmen, a language with fewer than two dozen native speakers on an isolated peninsula in the far east of Russia, people will still be able to communicate. They’ll just do it in Spanish, or maybe Russian. And history will move on.
Human language, though, encapsulates more than just different ways to say to “hello.”
“The debate about the universality of language, that we all have the same ideas and therefore language is just a function of history, that we’re basically using verbs and nouns [to say the same thing] — that’s a hypothesis,” said Anna Kerttula, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation. “Or maybe it’s reached the level of theory. But that’s in no way been proven.”
As the famous example says, Eskimo have numerous words to describe what Americans would just call “snow” and “ice.” This suggests language systems don’t merely translate universal ideas into different spellings; they encode different concepts. And when we lose a language, we risk losing those concepts.
A lot of concepts are on the edge of oblivion — out of about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, half are projected to disappear by the end of the century, if not sooner.
“That’s an amazing amount of knowledge,” Kerttula said.
She helps run a joint program of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities that’s been trying for seven years to fund efforts at recording and documenting endangered languages before they disappear. (The program received an infusion of $3.9 million last week to pay for 10 fellowships and 24 grants.) The project may sound like a punch line for another anti-science tirade from a small-government politician, but its work touches on fundamental questions about how the brain works, how people express ideas, how societies adapt and how human history has evolved. And of how researchers benefit.
“We’re talking about neuroscientists, we’re talking about computer scientists, we’re definitely talking about historians, anthropologists and biologists in some cases” working on nearly extinct language, Kerttula said.
Ten endangered languages the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered Languages program has attempted to preserve:
1. Bangime, Northern Bali
2. Navajo, Southwestern U.S.
3. Kosati, Louisiana.
4. Witchita, Oklahoma.
5. Arawak, Brazil
6. Máíhiki, Peru
7. Cherokee, Southeastern U.S.
8. Chechen, the Caucasis
9. Southeastern Tepehuan, Mexico
10. Defaka, Nigeria
The National Science Foundation actually has physical scientists working with Inuit people to identify different aspects of ice that aren’t captured in the English language but could inform our understanding of the changing Arctic ecosystem.
“If you don’t understand and don’t have the language for what ice is, what ice should be, you’re not going to understand how it’s changing,” Kerttula said. “Language is critical in recognizing change in your environment.”
One researcher receiving the money allocated last week, Jürgen Bohnemeyer at SUNY Buffalo, wants to know: If people talk differently about objects in space, does that mean they also think differently about them? He’ll investigate how spatial concepts are represented in 25 languages on five continents.
Another researcher, Pedro Mateo Pedro, will study how children acquire Chuj, the endangered Mayan language. Other projects will document endangered native languages in Oklahoma and the construction of Cherokee grammar. Some will develop learning and training resources for communities to record their own language.
A few of the researchers will be working with languages spoken by fewer than 30 elderly people. But the designation “endangered,” Kerttula says, isn’t necessarily a measurement of the small number of people still speaking a language. Rather, she said, languages become endangered when children no longer speak them.
Out of 92 languages known to have been used in the Arctic, for example, she says 72 still have some speakers. All but one (Greenlandic) are endangered, the result of the steady encroachment of other dominant languages like English into the domains of public schools and legal systems, television and now the Internet.
“Pretty soon, all of the domains of your life are in English, and the only place where you get to speak your native language is to your grandmother,” Kerttula said. “So how long is that language going to last? It’s basically not.”
The government program’s efforts of course won’t save them all.
“With 7,000 languages, that means 3,500 languages are going to disappear, and we’re funding how many projects a year?” Kerttula asked rhetorically. The National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities aren’t the only ones doing this work; some individual states, for example, have programs that include keeping native languages on life support. But the number of programs worldwide is small, and for each language that one of them targets, there are exponentially more elements to understand, from grammar to vocabulary to the cognitive processes of children.
Kerttula is effusive about the individual projects now trying to do this. But, she adds, “It’s a Sisyphean task.”