sMAartblog

Why Half of the World’s Languages Are Dying Out

Posted on: 23/12/2009

Of the world’s 6,500 living languages, around half are expected to die out by the end of this century, according to Unesco. Just 11 are spoken by more than half the earth’s population, so it is little wonder that those used by only a few are being left behind as we become a more homogenous, global society. In short, 95 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only five per cent of its population – a remarkable level of linguistic diversity stored in tiny pockets of speakers around the world.

In a small office room in the back of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology – a place in which you almost expect Harrison Ford to walk around the corner at any moment, fedora on head, whip in hand – Turin looks over the contents of a box that arrived earlier in the morning from India. “[The receptionists] are quite used to getting these boxes now,” says the 36-year-old anthropologist, who is based at the university. Inside the box, which is covered in dozens of rupee postage stamps, are DVDs representing hours of chants, songs, poems and literature from a tiny Indian community that is desperate for its language to have a voice and be included in Turin’s venture.

For many of these communities, the oral tradition is at the heart of their culture. The stories they tell are creative works as well as communicative. Unlike the languages with celebrated written traditions, such as Sanskrit, Hebrew and Ancient Greek, few indigenous communities – from the Kallawaya tribe in Bolivia and the Maka in Paraguay to the Siberian language of Chulym, to India’s Arunachal Pradesh state Aka group and the Australian Aboriginal Amurdag community – have recorded their own languages or ever had them recorded. Until now. Turin launched the World Oral Literature Project earlier this year with an aim to document and make accessible endangered languages before they disappear without trace.

He is trying to encourage indigenous communities to collaborate with anthropologists around the world to record what he calls “oral literature” through video cameras, voice recorders and other multimedia tools by awarding grants from a £30,000 pot that the project has secured this year. The idea is to collate this literature in a digital archive that can be accessed on demand and will make the nuts and bolts of lost cultures readily available. As useful as this archive will be for Western academic study – the World Oral Literature Project is convening for its first international workshop in Cambridge this week – Turin believes it is of vital importance that the scheme also be used by the communities he and his researchers are working with.

Read more: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/the-beckoning-silence-why-half-of-the-worlds-languages-are-in-serious-danger-of-dying-out-1837179.html

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