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Documenting Endangered Languages

Dr. David W. Lightfoot Assistant Director National Science Foundation

How many languages are there?
   6,912 Europe 239 Africa 2,092  Papua New Guinea 820 (5.5m people) 4% of world’s population speak 60% of languages. Median number of speakers: 7,000

How to count:
   Norwegian and Swedish Chinese Serbo-Croatian > Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian Max Weinreich, 1945: A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

One? Human
The form of all languages must be fundamentally identical - they differ as physiognomies differ. Wilhelm von Humboldt 1836

6 billion?
One per person: David Lightfoot, Heidi Lightfoot

Languages dying
 -497 in a few years  -3,000 in a generation North America: 700 languages in 1492. Now 162; 75 spoken by a handful of older people; only a dozen spoken by 10,000 people c100 languages spoken in the Arctic but dramatic changes over the last 40 years.

The Arctic
     Northern peoples: c400,000 c200,000 speak the languages c100 known languages c20 already extinct By 2050, c20 Northern languages will remain, only 7 learned by large numbers of children

The North, often naively regarded as an “unspoiled wilderness,” is in fact one of the more devastated parts of the globe linguistically (Dr. Michael Krauss, U Alaska at Fairbanks)

Waves of extinction
 8,000-9,000 years ago people gave up foraging for farming and began to live in larger and less isolated communities.  2,000 years ago many indigenous European languages died out as Latin spread through Europe and later diversified into French, Portuguese, Spanish, Sardinian, Italian, Rumanian, etc.

When languages die
David Harrison 2007 When languages die. Oxford University Press (PBS The Last Speakers)

Dying languages are different:  More variation  More subject to change

Dr. Sharon Hargus
This project will collect first-hand accounts of polar climate change over the past 80 years in sections of Canada and Alaska, documented in 3 northern Athabaskan languages: Tsek’ene, Witsuwit’ensh and Deg Xinag. The language data will help assign the languages to the proper subgrouping of Athabaskan languages, indicative of their different grammatical and lexical structures. The comparison of the three languages should provide a window into what Athabaskan languages have in common and when (and possibly where) their ancestors may have diverged. In each community, time will be devoted to literacy training so that native people may help with aspects of text transcription and translation.

Word order:
SVO: Kim could VP[visit Berlin] SOV: Kim kann VP[Berlin besuchen] VSO: Fe welais I Megan PRT saw I Megan ‘I saw Megan’ Piratapuyo: OVS

E-MELD: Electronic Metastructure for Endangered Language Data GOLD: General Ontology for Linguistic Descriptions

         Lower Tanana Dictionary and Literacy U Alaska Fairbanks Ahtna Texts U Alaska Fairbanks Pedagogical Grammar of Gwich'in U Alaska Fairbanks Developing a Northern Indigenous Languages Archive: Yup'ik Alaska Native Languages Center Archives, Fairbanks Interrogative Structures and Clausal Architecture of Tlingit MIT Five Languages of Eurasia: Field Work, Analysis and Digital Archiving Colgate U Narratives & Conversations in Tlingit, Northern Haida, & Tsimshian Sealaska Heritage Inst Athabascan Languages Conference Humboldt State U Tlingit Language Documentation Sealaska Heritage Inst

New Awards
 Five Languages of Eurasia: Field Work, Analysis and Digital Archiving Colgate U  In Honor of Ken Hale: Special Session at the 2007 Athabaskan Languages Conference Swarthmore Coll  Alutiiq Living Words Project Alutiiq Museum  Athabaskan Personal Histories of Climate Change in Alaska and Canada U Washington  Documenting and archiving Deg Xinag, Tlingit, and other Northern languages U Alaska SE Juneau