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The Linguists
June 11, 2009 12:22 PM   Subscribe

A film (1 hour) about disappearing languages: The Linguists

"Like modern-day explorers, the two academics featured in The Linguists travel to forgotten places around the globe to unearth rare treasures—in this case, endangered languages. On a shoestring budget, professors David Harrison and Gregory Anderson navigate difficult terrain, searching for speakers of these forgotten and mostly hidden languages. While more than 7,000 different languages are currently spoken around the world, many are rapidly disappearing. Language diversity is shrinking as colonialism and economic unrest destroy traditional tribal tongues. When young people abandon their ancestral language, the passive suppression of their culture begins, and soon those languages will cease to exist. Joining a traditional ceremony in a remote village in India, observing a Kallawaya healing ritual in Bolivia, and completing an arduous journey into Siberia are all part and parcel of heeding the urgent call. The word connoisseurs are well suited for the monumental task of researching and documenting native tongues; they speak 25 languages between them. These humble ethnographers are in a race against time to preserve the increasingly rare words, which are intricately linked to the vanishing traditions and heritage of Indigenous populations. Well-paced and laced with humor, The Linguists serves as an insightful, contemporary adventure film with a strong emphasis on cultural history."

Note: Link doesn't seem to work in Opera.
posted by idiomatika (23 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is that the one about the family that goes to the talent agent to plus their act, and it's full of disgusting sexual acts?
posted by cerulgalactus at 12:43 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


As I wrote on my blog, I wish they had spent less time on local color and more on the actual documentation of the languages, but of course that's a specialist perspective. Anyone with any interest in what it's like to try to document languages before they disappear should watch the movie; it's only an hour, and there are a lot of great scenes and interesting people.
posted by languagehat at 12:44 PM on June 11, 2009


Haven't watched the movie yet, but I just wanted to say thanks as I'm really fascinated with obscure/dying/extinct languages and how people go about researching them. Will definitely give this one a watch later.
posted by pravit at 12:50 PM on June 11, 2009


I thought "The Linguists" was another one of those specialized Procedurals on CBS like "Numb3rs" "The Ghost Whisperer" and "The Fontalist".
posted by wendell at 1:00 PM on June 11, 2009


Yeah, it's an excellent documentary, highly recommended. (I saw it a month or so ago, and I think I found the link at languagehat's site, or possibly Language Log.) And yes, it's full of disgusting sexual acts.
posted by Dumsnill at 1:02 PM on June 11, 2009


I saw this on PBS and got very excited because I finally had something to help explain to my mom what I did in grad school. I did most of my research work designing software and diagnostic tools for studying and recording minority languages.

I'm telling you, this is a really scary and exciting time to be a field linguist. Some people think that over 90% of the world's approximately 6000 languages will be gone by the end of the century. Even conservative estimates calculate the attrition to be into the thousands.

There are always who think that this isn't such a big deal. They're languages, human inventions, not pandas or dolphins. Believe me, I've studied dozens of languages from Triginya to Mapudungun there is not a language in existence that doesn't have something to teach us, whether it's about human cognition or the world itself.

Imagine what it would be like if suddenly 1/3 of the world's most disused data formats became obsolete with no way to do data recovery. Some of us might not notice, but it would be a big loss if we suddenly stumbled upon a cache ancient reel-to-reel tapes and had no way to see what was on them. Most minority languages don't even have a writing system, so they aren't even persistent like a reel tape. So, when the people who speak that language are gone, that language is lost to history, too. Think of all the information we'd lose: history, legends, lifetimes of stories, information on the local environment.

I know we can't make people keep their languages, but there are some changes that can be made to slow the eradication. For example, we can eliminate boarding school policies that forbid children from speaking their local language, and add native language instruction for children who attend school near home. Minor languages should be destigmatized as much as possible, and for those with critical mass and enough cash an online presence should be encouraged. For smaller languages that seem doomed, we must put effort into doing as much recording and documentation as possible.

This work is important and I'm glad that we have two smart, savvy guys on the job.
posted by Alison at 1:06 PM on June 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm so glad this movie is finally easily accessible! I organized a couple of events to go see this when it was in the bay area during the SF Indie Film Fest. Here are a couple of highlights from the film (copied from our student organization blog):
  • The two "stars" of the film, professors David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, speak a combined 25 languages.
  • Sora, an Indian language with approximately 300,000 speakers, has an interesting number system, consisting of a combination of base-12 and base-20. Ninety-three is the linguists favorite number in Sora, expressed by saying four-twenty-twelve-one.
  • Kallawaya is the language of the medicine healers in the Andes, Bolivia. This language is not learned at infancy, but rather passed down from the elders to young men seeking to learn the tribal ways. With less than 100 speakers, this language has been able to survive because of the value placed on the knowledge of plants, rituals, and nature, spoken of only in Kallawaya.
  • Speakers of Chulym have quite a different story. With only 7 speakers left in this remote Siberian village, all but one elderly and deaf, the language will be gone within 25 years. Oppressed by others' negative attitudes about their native tongue, the few remaining speakers were able to finally take joy in seeing themselves speak Chulym on video, and knowing that they were making a valuable contribution to language documentation and preservation of culture.
  • The film follows the last speaker of Chemehuevi, and Indian tribal language from the Arizona region of the US. He drives around in his truck, listening to language CDs made by his grandmother, so he will not forget the words she taught him. He has no one to speak to anymore.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:10 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I also saw this on PBS, and I was very disappointed to learn it was a stand-alone documentary and not one episode of an entire series. I could absolutely watch this with a new language each week.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:10 PM on June 11, 2009


This post prompted me to do a search for 'circassian' which led me to: Tevfik Esenç - the last person able to speak the Ubykh language. It includes a sound file of him speaking Ubykh.

Great post, will defnitely watch the documentary.
posted by preparat at 1:58 PM on June 11, 2009


I know we can't make people keep their languages, but there are some changes that can be made to slow the eradication. For example, we can eliminate boarding school policies that forbid children from speaking their local language, and add native language instruction for children who attend school near home. Minor languages should be destigmatized as much as possible, and for those with critical mass and enough cash an online presence should be encouraged.

Anything that can help preserve languages before they are forgotten is worth trying, but in the end this just seems like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic to me. Once you stop getting new native speakers of a language, the language is doomed, and there are a lot of very significant inherent advantages of speaking the dominant language natively rather than an obscure one, even without considering the stigma that tends to be attached with dying languages. The only real option will most likely be working fast to collect as much information as possible on these languages rather than counting on preserving them through real-world use for any significant period of time.

From a historical and scientific perspective, losing these languages is a tragedy. The traces of human history are built into those languages, and studying them on a linguistic level can give us insight on how our own minds work. But on a human perspective, I'm not sure that the underlying forces that are reducing the number languages are necessarily bad. It's difficult to work, live, and interact with other people who don't speak the same language, and over time close interaction always leads to a common language eventually. The only way for different languages to survive over time is for major barriers to exist between groups of people that prevent the kinds of interactions that lead to a common language. Now that modern technology has broken down many of those barriers, it's just a matter of time before languages consolidate to help everyone interact with each other more easily. Really, the diverse set of languages that exist today is just an artifact of all of the things that have prevented each distinct group of people from talking to every other group of people. Those artifacts are very valuable, but the gains in terms of forming larger and more connected communities that come with abandoning them might be worth the cost.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:02 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


there are a lot of very significant inherent advantages of speaking the dominant language natively rather than an obscure one, even without considering the stigma that tends to be attached with dying languages.

I think there's moral worth to stopping the moral stigma attached to minority languages. We know now -- when we didn't realize it in the past -- that children can speak multiple languages without any problem, if they're taught at a young age. There's no reason to actively pursue the destruction of minority languages, because it doesn't help the children learn the majority language any better, and it just helps wipe out the minority one.
posted by deanc at 2:11 PM on June 11, 2009


There's no reason to actively pursue the destruction of minority languages, because it doesn't help the children learn the majority language any better, and it just helps wipe out the minority one.

I agree in theory but in practice I still think the destruction of minority languages is an inevitability, with or without steps to encourage or discourage the use of minority languages. Government and educational practices can try to actively destroy languages that aren't the dominant one, but even if multiple languages are actively encouraged there is a tendency towards using a single language. In Canada, for example, both English and French are actively encouraged, but only 17% of Canadians (and only 7.5% of Canadians outside of Quebec) can speak both languages. To me the persistence of both languages in Canada and specifically the Quebec/Rest of Canada distinction is more indicative of the cultural divisions that still exist between those groups rather than a success in preserving cultural traditions.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:39 PM on June 11, 2009



Definitely worth a watch. My main criticism is that some of their points were a bit overworn. I suppose with a piece on linguistics making people care about the subject is a bigger task(as opposed to more mainstream documentary fair like history). Although the issue of lost languages isn't as distant as it first sounds (e.g. Cornish). I also think them offering hard cash to the Indian village seemed somewhat improper and liable to cause conflict.

Related: Danel Everett talking about endangered languages (mainly focusing on the Piraha). The talk was organised by the Long Now Foundation who are building a repository of the world's languages .
posted by Erberus at 2:42 PM on June 11, 2009


Here's a talk they gave at Google a while back: Filmmakers@Google talk on The Linguists
posted by wildcrdj at 3:12 PM on June 11, 2009


Fascinating, both the MeFites' discussion and the film itself ...

I met some folks recently (shameless plug, it was at LIDA 2009) and we were discussing the problems of digitally documenting and preserving dying languages and the accompanying cultures. It's especially frustrating in that the manifestations of these cultures simply cannot be "captured" in any meaningful way ... it's almost as if all we can do is all we can do and lament their passing. When the language dies, so dies the culture.

No, the archivist's job is not to determine what we will keep, but rather what we must throw away ... thanks, idiomatika.
posted by aldus_manutius at 3:44 PM on June 11, 2009


Since our thoughts are constructed from our language couldn't one say that different languages offer different modes of thought, and thus when a language dies out so does a unique way of thinking?

Anyway, the film looks interesting and I'll definitely be watching it over the weekend.
posted by aldurtregi at 5:36 PM on June 11, 2009


Since our thoughts are constructed from our language couldn't one say that different languages offer different modes of thought, and thus when a language dies out so does a unique way of thinking? (aldurtregi)

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH. No no no no no no. Not the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I hate it when people argue about this. I no longer have an opinion about it because I got so tired of listening to arguments between linguists who thought it was bunk and linguists who thought it had merit. Please, let's not have that argument here.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:46 PM on June 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH. No no no no no no. Not the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I hate it when people argue about this. I no longer have an opinion about it because I got so tired of listening to arguments between linguists who thought it was bunk and linguists who thought it had merit. Please, let's not have that argument here.

Sorry about that.
It was just a passing thought I had as I read the discussion, something half-remembered and uncritically accepted. I really have no practical knowledge of linguistics and so couldn't judge it's merits. To this (less than impressive) mind it seemed reasonable enough.
posted by aldurtregi at 7:21 PM on June 11, 2009


Phew.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:33 PM on June 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Every year, there are fewer and fewer new documentaries about disappearing languages. As the natural habitat of the anthropologist and linguist are wiped out, there is a proportionate reduction in the number of disappearing languages born in the wild, which is the primary diet of these creatures. While linguist zoos are seen as one way of maintaining the populations of disappearing language linguists, at least until they can be released back into the wild, others say it is an artificail existence for these linguists, who should be allowed to die out naturally as part and parcel of linguistic progress.

Thanks, Idiomatika.
posted by davemee at 2:02 AM on June 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm with Rock Steady - I was really hoping it was a series. Definitely recommended - and the question of value in preserving dying languages is addressed in the movie.
posted by adamsc at 7:00 PM on June 12, 2009


This is an interesting film. I was lucky enough to meet the directors at its showing last year at the Madison Filim Festival. Give it a watch, if only to force yourself into thinking about languages, and the importance of studying and preserving them.
posted by evhan at 8:18 PM on June 13, 2009


David Harrison came by my university a few months ago to give some talks and attend our pre-release screening of the DVD (don't ask me who arranged that). Wonderful human being, and admirably dedicated. Speaking as a linguist, it's terrifying to contemplate half of our objects of study disappearing within my lifetime, so it's very gratifying to see all the good coming out of work like this.

I believe the filmmakers got it slightly wrong about Chemehuevi. A professor of mine has done some work there, and reports knowing of three surviving speakers. But, as he reports it, "two of them don't like talking to white people, and none of them like talking to each other, so ..."

Sigh.
posted by eritain at 10:11 PM on June 27, 2009


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