Department of Ultimology

On the Afterlife of Endangered Languages


On the Afterlife of Endangered Languages

25 July 2017
The Teacher’s Club,
Parnell Square 

A presentation by Ross Perlin of the Endangered Language Alliance, New York.

Starting in the early 1990s, inspired by the push to protect endangered species facing the "Sixth Extinction", linguists launched an unprecedented push to document endangered languages, working with communities all over the world. It soon became clear that half of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages, devastated by centuries of imperialism, nationalism, and capitalism, were facing extinction within a century. Thus began a race to develop new tools and new strategies to record the words of last speakers, some of whom became well-known singular symbols of an otherwise unfathomable and relentless process of cultural and linguistic loss: Boa Sr. (Aka-Bo), Marie Smith Jones (Eyak), Cristina Calderón (Yaghan), and others. Yet the focus on last speakers, in the media and in the popular imagination, has obscured the more complex reality of linguistic traditions remembered, half-remembered, or carried on among a scattering of people, in many different ways.

Drawing on his work as a director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a non-profit in New York, Ross Perlin discussed the world of endangered languages and what linguists and activists are doing to document, maintain, and archive them. As the reality of language loss sets in, the focus is shifting in some parts of the world to revitalization — a kind of linguistic de-extinction, resulting in something both old and new — and to a variety of strategies which may allow languages, with the help of the internet, to enjoy a strange “post-vernacular” afterlife. 

“As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them. Ken Hale, an MIT professor and language activist once said that losing any one language “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre”. – Endangered Language Alliance