Interview Seven questions for K. David Harrison, Nov 23rd 2010, 16:54 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
BY SOME estimates, half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century. K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College, has made a career documenting some of them—and advocating for keeping them alive. A film about his exploits (with a fellow linguist, Greg Anderson), “The Linguists“, was nominated for an Emmy award, surely a first for that academic discipline. Most recently, Mr Harrison has written a book with National Geographic: “The Last Speakers”. We asked him about what is lost when a language dies.
Johnson: What is a “language hotspot”, and what are the characteristics of the typical hotspot?
Mr Harrison: “Language hotspot” is a term I coined in 2006, inspired by the biodiversity hotspots model. Languages are unevenly distributed around the globe (both geographically and demographically), and they face uneven threats. The hotspots model helps us to visualise and track this global trend, and to prioritise resources. A language hotspot is a contiguous region which has, first of all, a very high level of language diversity. Secondly, it has high levels of language endangerment. Thirdly, it has relatively low levels of scientific documentation (recordings, dictionaries, grammars, etc.). We’ve identified two dozen hotspots to date, in places such as Oklahoma, Paraguay, India, Papua New Guinea and Siberia. With a scientific team from National Geographic, we are visiting the hotspots to take the pulse of some of the world’s most endangered languages.
The hotspots model yields some surprises: The Oklahoma hotspot has 26 languages belonging to 9 language families. It includes Yuchi (Euchee), an isolate language which may have as few as seven speakers and is now the focus of a community-led revitalisation effort. Bolivia, a country with just under 12 million people, boasts 37 languages belonging to 18 language families. Europe, with 164 languages and 18 language families, has significantly less diversity than Bolivia.
The hotspots model allows us to visualise the complex global distribution of language diversity, to focus research on ares of greatest urgency, and also to predict where we might encounter languages not yet known to science. This was recently borne out by our documentation of Koro, a small language in India that is new to science. (See National Geographic‘sEnduring Voices project for an interactive map.) For more information go to …