One video which I really enjoyed this year was this 20-minute talk about endangered languages.
I wasn’t particularly following this subject in any great depth before. Let’s just say raw curiosity can take one to some unexpected places.
You can open it in a new window here.
Dr. David Harrison says:
There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world and this represents the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled.
But they are rapidly going extinct and eroding under various pressures of globalization, which I will talk about today.
And this loss will be catastrophic for humanity, both in terms of science and technology and culture.
And not just to the people who speak these languages, but to all of us.
Harrison gives examples of the riches which are bound up in just a few of these admittedly obscure languages, including knowledge from medicine, geology and biology.
The most striking thing for me is when he refers to the Yupik language of Alaska as a “technology”. This might be obvious to some, but to me it was an intriguing perspective.
It may be possible to invoke arguments for preservation of these languages on the basis of feelings about old village life and its unfortunate decline. Those kind of arguments may have validity, but Harrison’s emphasis in this talk is on the value of languages to science, technology and the world’s knowledge.
It’s also a heavy blow to the assumption that we have access to all, or nearly all, of the world’s knowledge through the web and through our dominant majority languages. We don’t. Apparently, according to his closing words, it’s possible for these minority language technologies to co-exist with English and so on – although he left me wanting more details.
Harrison depicts the globe’s very uneven language distribution on an inverted pyramid, where the pyramid represents all languages:
83 of the world’s languages account for nearly 80% of the world’s population and I would draw your attention to the base of the inverted pyramid. 3,586 of the world’s smallest languages are spoken by just 0.2% of the world’s population.
It brought me back to this speech from Kevin Kelly, the thinker and founder of Wired magazine, in which he suggests that technologies don’t die. Surprisingly, technologies that we might think are obsolete (parts for steam-powered vehicles, ploughs, stone age knives and so on) can all still be bought from specialist shops – new!
For what it’s worth I usually love Kevin Kelly. Recently I’ve spent several evenings exploring his ideas, to then feel them rattling around my brain for days afterwards. I’m still trying to work out if his towering optimism about technology is a weakness.
Language would appear to be one big exception to Kelly’s assertion that culture tends to accumulate. Retrieving the total benefit from the world’s languages, as opposed to other technologies, will take a huge amount of effort.
If only we could get these guys in the same room for an intellectual deathmatch. Let me know if it ever happens, because hearing them slug it out on matters of technology would be sweet. In the meantime, once I’ve grokked Harrison’s whole entire web presence, I shall be tracking down his book, When Languages Die.
That 20-minute video is well worth a watch and back there I had to restrain myself from quoting the transcript in full. On a tenuously festive tip, the bit about the Tofa language of Siberia might teach you something about the classification of reindeer.