Friday, September 21, 2007

Saving Vanishing Languages from Extinction

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages recently reported that, while there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks.

Five hot spots where languages are most endangered were listed in a recent briefing by the Living Tongues Institute and the National Geographic Society. These hot spots are northern Australia, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest, South America - Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia - as well as the area including British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon.

"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," said K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated. That means that, if the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind.

Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more useful.

The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is getting a new generation of speakers. He said the institute works with local communities and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the endangered language.

Harrison said the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people.

But there is hope coming from new technology to at save some oral knowledge.

Fragile field recordings of American Indian speech and song gathered in the early 1900s may be saved for future generations through breakthrough technology supported by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

"This agreement underscores the federal commitment to making critical and irreplaceable collections held by the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology - and thousands of museums, libraries, and archives around the country - available to the widest possible audience while preserving and protecting the original objects and respecting the sensitive nature of the recordings," said Rep. Barbara Lee.

"The 2,700 wax cylinder recordings held by the Hearst museum are jewels in a treasure trove of early recordings that we hope will be rescued. Saving the delicate recordings, which literally may keep alive some of these Native American languages, fits squarely within the goals of IMLS's conservation initiative -- Connecting to Collections: A Call to Action", IMLS Director Anne-Imelda Radice said. Nationwide, there are approximately 20,000 Native American fieldwork recordings on fragile wax cylinders, the earliest method of recording and reproducing sound.

Other rare recordings that could benefit from the technology include:

** Field recordings of linguistic, cultural, and anthropological materials, such as early 20th century Mexican-American folk recordings from Southern California and Hawaiian folk music recordings.

** Field recordings of American and European folk music, including those recorded and collected by John Lomax.

** Speeches of historical figures such as Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and P.T. Barnum.

The new 3D system builds on a 2D system also developed by the Berkeley Lab called IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), which gathers digital sound from grooved discs (flat recordings such as traditional 78rpm shellac disc records) by illuminating the record surface with a narrow beam of light. The flat bottoms of the groove -- and the spaces between tracks -- appear white, while the sloped sides of the groove, scratches, and dirt appear black. The computer turns this information
into a digital sound file and corrects areas where scratches, breaks or wear have made the groove wider or narrower than normal. IRENE then "plays" the file with a virtual needle without damaging or destroying the original media. The technology was adapted from methods used to build radiation detectors for high-energy physics experiments.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development.