UMC Links

Losing Your Tongue

Nov. 2, 2009 — Elder Tommy George has not spoken his aboriginal language of Kuku Thaypan for three years, since his brother died. “It might die in the throat, but it stays alive in the heart,” he said to the Queensland Courier-Mail in June, 2009.

What happens when you no longer have anyone to talk to in your own language?

“A language is not just words and grammar; it is a web of history that binds all the people who once spoke the language, all the things they did together, all the knowledge they imparted to their descendants,” says Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University. “When a language dies, it’s just the same as when a species dies. You lose a part of the network of life, and you lose everything it could impart.”

Aristar is one of fifty international experts in endangered languages who will convene at the University of Utah November 12 to 14 to take the first step in a massive undertaking to catalogue endangered and dying languages and to make the information accessible through a comprehensive online database.

“It’s our responsibility as linguists to do what we can,” says Lyle Campbell, director of the U’s Center for American Indian Languages (CAIL) and professor of linguistics. “Linguistics is a study of human cognition, what makes the mind tick, click, and work. If we lose 50 percent of the world’s languages as projected, we’re losing 50 percent of human cognitive ability. It’s an unspeakable tragedy.”

Campbell and Aristar, working with a grant from the National Science Foundation, have organized the Endangered Languages Information and Infrastructure workshop, a first-ever gathering of the world’s top minds in endangered language preservation. The workshop is the first step in a larger project to produce an authoritative, comprehensive online catalogue, database and updatable website of information on endangered languages. This database will be used to direct funding to languages and cultures which are most seriously in danger.

The gathering will aid funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation in directing their resources to the most critically endangered tongues. “While a language is still living, there’s always hope that it can be saved for posterity,” says Aristar. “If we don’t do this work, there might come a time when all that is left is the cultures reflected by the ‘big’ languages such as English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.”

Language extinction is not new. In the last 500 years, half of the world’s languages have become extinct. What is new is the accelerated rate of language extinction today. Linguists predict that in the next 100 years nearly 90 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages will become extinct, with a best case scenario at only 35 to 50 percent surviving (Krauss, 1992).

“The wisdom of humanity is coded in language,” explains Campbell. “Once a language dies, the knowledge dies with it. Take for example medicinal plants. A tree bark may prevent cancer, AIDS, etc., but the name of the tree (and the associated knowledge) typically is lost when the language becomes extinct-a loss to all humanity.”

But, as Aristar points out, if linguists have enough left of a language, they can reconstruct relationships going back many thousands of years, showing how we are all related; and they can put this together with genetic and archaeological data, and tell us where our ancestors were, where they lived, how they moved from one place to another and how they interacted with others.

This workshop is a first step in securing the information on endangered languages so that the reconstruction will be possible.

For a schedule of the conference, visit

Sponsored jointly by the University of Utah’s Center for American Indian Languages and Eastern Michigan University’s Institute for Language Information and Technology, the workshop is made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation.