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Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Jen­nifer Levin For The New Mex­i­can

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

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