The Tofa people of Tofolaria are reindeer herders. Tofolaria is in Siberia and is accessible only by air or, if it is winter, by driving for days on a frozen river. The indigenous language is one of the least documented and most endangered languages in Siberia. Tofa is packed with words and phrases specific to reindeer herding, but it has largely given way to Russian, a language with no direct equivalent for the Tofa term dönggür, which means “male domesticated uncastrated rideable reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating.”
Linguist K. David Harrison documents and studies disappearing languages. He is particularly interested in how indigenous languages such as Tofa package knowledge about the natural world. His work as a linguist differs in major ways from that of such well-known linguists as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, who, as Harrison writes in The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages (published by National Geographic), “view language in the technical, cognitive sense as consisting of basic elements” and are concerned with vocabulary and grammar. Harrison and his ilk are concerned with how language is a vehicle for knowledge and the long-term effect of the loss of that knowledge when a language disappears. While the Tofa can still discuss reindeer herding in Russian, they can no longer do so with the same efficiency and precision as before, which in turn could weaken their skills as herders and their ability to be self-reliant as a people who have for centuries lived entirely off the land.
In an email exchange with Pasatiempo, Harrison acknowledged that his way of working in linguistics is part science and part ideology. Dominant cultures push out smaller, indigenous languages because “languages are always politicized. Language is about who we are as well as who’s not one of us. People connect language to identity.” If you believe that cultural knowledge about the natural world has value for our collective future, then documenting and revitalizing dying languages will sound like a good idea. If, by contrast, you believe indigenous cultures and languages die off because they are no longer needed and even stand in the way of progress, then Harrison’s work will contradict your worldview.
Harrison is an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and a National Geographic Fellow. He is a scientist with the National Geographic’s Endangered Voices Project, and in the book he writes about the travels his work entails as well as the experience of co-starring in The Linguists, a 2008 Sundance Channel documentary film that features his research partner, Greg Anderson. The Last Speakers is essentially an expanded exploration of the languages and topics covered in the film, with greater emphasis on last speakers and the knowledge they hold. It also relates Harrison’s journey as a linguist and how he came to feel called to his work.
The child of Christian missionaries, Harrison was born at the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada. Though he heard Cree at a young age, he didn’t retain the language and claims to have been a “language bumpkin,” unable to absorb non-English tongues until his senior year of college when he spent a semester in Poland and discovered his talent for learning languages by immersion, which he believes is superior to traditional classroom instruction as a learning method. In his book, he points out that millions of American school children learn classroom Spanish and French, while bilingual students who come from Spanish-speaking homes are often intimidated or shamed into giving up their first language in favor of English.
He writes: “‘English Only’ is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naive. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we were a nation.”
K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson with Charlie Mangulda, the last known Amurdag speaker, Australia; photo Chris Rainier; top, Cyril Ninnal of the Yek Nangu clan, Australia; photo K. David Harrison