When Languages Die

James was talking about endangered languages the other day. I have just finished reading David Harrison’s new book on “When Languages Die – The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge”, which I discovered via Michael Kaplan’s blog. It’s a fascinating account of language disappearance, which takes place because thousands of languages are gradually “crowded out” by bigger languages. Six years ago, there were an estimated 6,900 distinct languages and Harrison points out that by the end of our 21st century, only about half of these languages may still be spoken because their speakers will have abandoned them to turn to more dominant, more prestigious or more widely known languages. Harrison brilliantly demonstrates what language death or language extinction means for us. He focuses on the vast body of knowledge that will soon be lost and explores various knowledge systems (moon phases, folk taxonomies, knowledge encoded in traditional calendars, topographic naming systems…) to show how cultural knowledge is packaged in languages and cannot be transferred when people stop using their language. I found the discussion about number systems enlightening and captivating. He points out that counting systems provide a window into human cognition and that a lot is lost when the speakers of a language decide to move to the decimal counting system. His demonstration is simply superb. Harrison argues that it is urgent to document languages and to do whatever we can to preserve them and to encourage their speakers to go on using them.

Everyone must play their part there. As a software company, we have a number of initiatives to help linguistic communities (see, for instance, the Microsoft Local Language Program which provides Language Interface Packs (LIPs) in a wide range of languages, or the community glossaries of IT terms which are built by local volunteers with the aim of helping local groups promote and preserve their languages – I also talked recently, in French, about a new Breton speller for Office 2007 which was created by a Breton-speaking volunteer who devotes a lot of time and energy to the preservation of his language). We have talked a lot on this blog about proofing tools and building word lists for spellers and other types of tools such as thesauri or word-breakers is certainly something that needs to be done if one wishes to help communities access technology in their languages. To some extent, I feel that Harrison and a group like ours (and several other groups in the company, of course) share a common passion for languages and a common goal: “what scientists can do is to capture an accurate record in the form of recordings and analyses”, he writes. Our technology can certainly help and I hope we will be able to offer even more in the future to help communities preserve their languages. At the same time, Harrison points out that no one but speakers themselves can preserve languages, since there is no such thing as a living human language without speakers (p.10). My sincere hope is that we’ll manage to create the synergies that are necessary to preserve language diversity and perhaps to prevent some languages from dying. Meanwhile, I definitely encourage you to read David Harrison’s book. You won’t regret it.

Thierry Fontenelle – Program Manager