sexta-feira, 26 de novembro de 2010

Interview with linguist K. David Harrison

Source: The Economist -
Sent by my colleague Robert Hall

Seven questions for K. David Harrison
Nov 23rd 2010 - 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.

Johnson: What do we lose when we lose a language?
Mr Harrison:
The human knowledge base is eroding as we lose languages, exacerbated by the fact that most of them have never been written down or recorded. In "When Languages Die" (2007) I wrote "When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday." Only some cultures erect grand built monuments by which we can remember their achievements. But all cultures encode their genius in their languages, stories, and lexicons.

Each language is a unique expression of human creativity. We find millennia of careful observation of the natural world and human behaviour, knowledge of flora and fauna (often not yet known or identified by scientists), and some of the secrets of how to live sustainably in challenging environments like the Arctic or the Andean Altiplano.

We would be outraged if Notre Dame Cathedral or the Great Pyramid of Giza were demolished to make way for modern buildings. We should be similarly appalled when languages—monuments to human genius far more ancient and complex than anything we have built with our hands—erode.

Johnson: You describe many words you've found as hard to translate, but then you do translate them all into English. Is anything truly untranslatable?
Mr Harrison:
Just as there are no exact synonyms within a language ("big" does not mean precisely the same as "large"), there are no exact matches for words or expressions across languages. I can express the notion "four year old male uncastrated domesticated reindeer" in English. But our tongue lacks the economy of information packaging found in Tofa, a nearly extinct tongue I studied in Siberia. Tofa equips reindeer herders with words like "chary" with the above meaning. Furthermore, that word exists within a multidimensional matrix that defines the four salient (for the Tofa people) parameters of reindeer: age, sex, fertility, and rideability. Words are untranslateable because do not exist in a flat, alphabetised dictionary style list, but rather in a richly structured taxonomy of meaning. They are defined by their oppositions to and similarities to multiple other words—in other words, the cultural backdrop.

As I learned working among the Tuvans, nomadic yak herders of South Siberia, words can also be anchored to a specific place. In Tuvan, in order to say "go" you must first know the direction of the current in the nearby river and your own trajectory relative to it. Tuvan "go" verbs therefore index the landscape in a way that cannot survive displacement or translation. Knowledge systems such as the Tofa reindeer taxonomy and Tuvan "go" verbs get lost, flattened out, and vastly simplified when people switch to speaking another language.

Beyond word meanings, the poetics of song, epic tales, origin myths and everyday stories cannot be translated, or at least not well, without losing expressive power, nuance, and affect.

Johnson: Talking about language and local ecology, you say losing one entails losing the other. If most things are translatable, is it possible to keep the knowledge but not the language?
Mr Harrison:
It's possible, but not likely, and it's not the usual case we see everywhere from the Arctic to Amazonia. In indigenous cultures we observe the decline of languages and lifeways occurring in parallel. There's an astonishing book called "Watching Ice and Weather Our Way," co-authored by Yupik elders and scientists. In it, the Yupik elders describe, define and draw sketches of 99 distinct types of sea ice formations which their language gives specific names to.

Their climate science astounds with its precision, predictive power, and depth of observation. Modern climate scientists have much to learn from it. As the Arctic ice melts, and new technologies like snowmobiles advance, Yupik ice-watching becomes the passion of the elderly few. Their knowledge of ice, their words for it, and the hunting skills and lifeways are all receding in tandem with the Yupik language itself.

Johnson: Are their any recent discoveries by linguists among small languages you can single out as a reason for preserving and learning more about them?
Mr Harrison:
Linguists often value languages for their instrumental value to science, and while I do not endorse this, there is much to learn about human cognition and the language faculty from small(er) languages. Many discoveries await us, and each language yields new structures and unexpected complexities. But we have a pitifully sparse sample. I and many fellow linguists would estimate that we only have a detailed scientific description of something like 10% to 15% of the world's languages, and for 85% we have no real documentation at all. Thus it seems premature to begin constructing grand theories of universal grammar. If we want to understand universals, we must first know the particulars. So my own work focuses on fine-grained descriptions of how languages work, from phonemes to syntax and beyond. I delight in the tiny olfactory suffix of Tofa which may be added to any noun to mean "smells like x". And I marvel at the vast extended patterns of mnemonic hooks that allow memorisation and recitation of the Tuvan "Boktu-Kirish", an 8,000+ line oral epic.

Johnson: Many of the peoples you describe are, from our point of view, desperately poor. "Development" tends to fold them into the bigger, richer society, but kills their languages. How can the tradeoff be resolved?
Mr Harrison:
No one, no matter how poor, becomes richer by abandoning (or being coerced to abandon) one language to learn another, and in fact I suggest they become poorer from it. People of all ages, but especially children, can easily be bilingual. New research shows bilingualism strengthens the brain, by building up what psychologists call the cognitive reserve. In addition, heritage-language retention provides access to the cultural knowledge base and undergirds a strong(er) ethnic identity and cultural pride. It is a pernicious (and false) message of globalisation (often echoed in "development" or national literacy campaigns) that language choice is subtractive, ie, you must abandon your heritage language to speak only a dominant tongue. Around the globe, we see minority speech communities, from Aymara to Zapotec, Aka to Mowhawk, pushing back against this ideology. They are making a strategic decision to keep their languages, while becoming bilingual in a global tongue. We can all contribute to making the world safe for linguistic diversity. It requires a shift in attitudes. If we can learn to value the intellectual diversity that is fostered by linguistic variety, we can all help to ensure its survival. No one knows where the next brilliant idea will emerge; no culture has a monopoly on human genius.

Johnson: Small languages like Welsh and Letzeburgesh survive and even thrive in rich places like Europe. Other languages like Manx and Romansh are dead or threatened. Do rich countries hold any lessons for developing ones?
Mr Harrison:
Linguistic vitality (often against great odds) can be found in poor and rich countries, and provides some hope in an otherwise downward extinction trend. We do not know exactly what combination of intangible factors (linguistic pride, attitudes, mentoring) yields success in mother tongue transmission. I've been traveling the globe for a decade to document the struggles and successes of language activists, which I recount in my latest book. I'll close with the inspiring example of Matukar, a language spoken in a small village in Papua New Guinea. Down to about 600 speakers (out of a tribal group of 900+), Matukar is under immense pressure from the national language Tok Pisin and from English. Many of the children no longer speak it. Rudolf Raward, a local leader and language activist, is determined not to let his mother tongue slip away. Working with me under the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project, he devised a written form for what had been until 2010 a purely oral language. Rudolf and his mother Kadagoi Raward patiently recorded thousands of words in their language. Using those recordings, we built a Matukar online talking dictionary. Matukar village recently got electricity, and they expect to have internet within a year. When Matukar children visit the internet for the very first time, they will find their language is spoken there, that it is as suited for technology as any other, that it has a voice that spans the globe. What more powerful message could help to incentivise their continued use of the magnificent Matukar tongue?