BODY OF WORDS: Announcing our Guest Blog Series on Language Loss

by Anna Luisa Daigneault

What is a language? A cultural code, an invisible ink, the sonic architecture of how we think… A language is a breath of life, and when it is endangered, it becomes a fragile treasure. Webs of meaning start to fade, carrying with them stories untold, and impoverishing humanity as a whole.

What is a linguist? A wordsmith, a lover of terms…    A deep-sea diver of minds. A sorter, a hacker, a surgeon of the soul – a kind of acrobat who goes careening into structural unknowns. A linguist of under-documented languages is an explorer who seeks to study  languages that are well-known to its native speakers, but new to science.

Whether we speak one language or five, language defines our human experience. All of our interactions and communication are mediated by language. For those of us who love languages, we cannot deny the troubling nature of the following fact: more than half of the world’s languages and dialects are going to disappear in the next century. What does that mean for the speakers of those languages? What does it mean for humanity?

This unprecedented decrease in linguistic diversity is linked to globalization, among many other factors. It is time for the public to be aware about these issues, and to share opinions in the global dialog about endangered languages.

Along with two guest writers, Allison Taylor-Adams and Indira Sarma, I am starting a summer guest blog series entitled Body of Words. We hope that you will help us spread the word about our blog series, and respond to our posts with questions and comments.

We will be discussing various issues surrounding language loss and recovery, including: the impact of boarding schools on speakers of indigenous languages, the use of new technologies and social media in language revitalization, knowledge systems encoded in languages and what their loss means for mankind, challenges in language documentation and other relevant subjects.

By discussing these issues, we hope to dispel some of the misconceptions about endangered languages, celebrate language diversity and promote efforts currently underway to protect endangered languages. Stay tuned for our first article in the series, coming out on July 4th, 2012.

Living Tongues Institute regularly encounters perspectives on language endangerment that we believe our blog readers would find thought-provoking, fascinating, debatable and challenging. This guest blog series is a forum for such opinions. The views expressed belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by Living Tongues Institute.



3 thoughts on “BODY OF WORDS: Announcing our Guest Blog Series on Language Loss

  1. Hi Anna Luisa
    I am delighted that you are starting this new blog about language endangerment. Just one minor quibble: Having been around linguists as long as I have (as well as being one myself), I wonder though how many of them actually have anything like the shamanic gift of deep-sea diving into minds, to say nothing of soul-surgery. Quite a few hackers and sorters, for sure, an occasional wordsmith — although most linguistics articles have the stylistic appeal of soggy cardboard. Rather than puffing up the profession of linguist, I hope you & your Living Tongues colleagues inspire young — and not-so-young — linguists to get off their butts, turn off their computers, stop fretting about the latest refinements to Minimalism or HPSG or Arc-Pair Grammar or whatever the théorie-du-jour is presently called, and do fieldwork, before it’s too late. Good luck!

  2. Hello Kevin!

    hehehehe, “soggy cardboard” !! 🙂 You are right when you say that I perceive linguists as being sort of like shamans of language, although of course most of them do not perceive themselves as such, and they might not enjoy that description as much as I do. But they do navigate parts of the human brain that most people do not, so I feel that they occupy a special role in the manifestation of human potential. Outside of the field of linguistics, linguists are often an under-appreciated bunch, because people are unaware of the intricacies of their work, and don’t reflect on language diversity very often. So that is why I wanted to celebrate linguists a bit.
    Yes, my goal with this blog is to inspire more students to be interested in language documentation. With the years of hard work and dedication involved, it is not always glamorous profession, but there are definitely some moments where one feels that one is unlocking some cognitive keys. For example, I am working with Paraguayan indigenous language activist Andres Ozuna to edit a dictionary for his language, Yshyr/Chamacoco. There are some words in his dictionary that have multiple meanings that are interesting. For example, in Chamacoco “debich” means “difficult” as well as “expensive”. And “Ɨchɨbich” means “image”, as well as “spirit” and “silhouette”. And my personal favorite is the word “utusht” which can be used as “roots of a tree” as well as “human veins” – which that shows a beautiful semantic overlap that we do not necessarily see in other languages.
    I hope you are well Kevin, and it’s great to hear from you!

    Anna Luisa

  3. Greetings from Spain!

    The connections between language and thought are obvious, especially for a linguist, so learning about language/s, especially if you add the treasure of a feminist intelligence (or rational empathy in place of patriarchal rationality), equals learning about the human mind, and being able to choose how you want your thoughts to be expanded or changed, which in turn, has an impact on society/relationships. I know this as a language teacher, as an artist, as an activist (feminist and nonviolent), and follow the feminist revolution in using language as a tool for changing my own mind and society. Unstrangely enough, feminism hasn’t been heard so far, at least acknowledging its industrious and brilliant work in daily life, against odds which have not been overcome in centuries because they include all forms of violence. So linguists can definitely know a lot about human mind processes and the structures they produce, from Tradition to other attempts to organize the living togetherness on the planet. As a freelance linguist, I certainly read research on the human mind — neuroscience — not neurosexist interpretations to perpetuate world order, but the amazing way in which our brains house minds which can understand further beyond our present limitations — the limitations of minds refusing to develop their intelligence from rational empathy and discard violence as a tool for problem-solving.

    However, in my personal view, universities* lack life, an interest in life, and linguists trapped there have no chances of exploiting and developing some of the knowledge and skills they started achieving in the Academic World — a world specialized in killing all connection to the challenging of the System — the father of all systems that have been imposed so far.

    *I’m thinking of Spanish universities, though. Wonder if elsewhere there’s also this Kill Life, Fit into Our Prestigious Pigeonholes obsession!

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