When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge

Overview


It is commonly agreed by linguists and anthropologists that the majority of languages spoken now around the globe will likely disappear within our lifetime. The phenomenon known as language death has started to accelerate as the world has grown smaller.

This extinction of languages, and the knowledge therein, has no parallel in human history. K. David Harrison's book is the first to focus on the essential question, what is lost when a language dies? What forms of knowledge are ...

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When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge

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Overview


It is commonly agreed by linguists and anthropologists that the majority of languages spoken now around the globe will likely disappear within our lifetime. The phenomenon known as language death has started to accelerate as the world has grown smaller.

This extinction of languages, and the knowledge therein, has no parallel in human history. K. David Harrison's book is the first to focus on the essential question, what is lost when a language dies? What forms of knowledge are embedded in a language's structure and vocabulary? And how harmful is it to humanity that such knowledge is lost forever?

Harrison spans the globe from Siberia, to North America, to the Himalayas and elsewhere, to look at the human knowledge that is slowly being lost as the languages that express it fade from sight. He uses fascinating anecdotes and portraits of some of these languages' last remaining speakers, in order to demonstrate that this knowledge about ourselves and the world is inherently precious and once gone, will be lost forever. This knowledge is not only our cultural heritage (oral histories, poetry, stories, etc.) but very useful knowledge about plants, animals, the seasons, and other aspects of the natural world--not to mention our understanding of the capacities of the human mind. Harrison's book is a testament not only to the pressing issue of language death, but to the remarkable span of human knowledge and ingenuity. It will fascinate linguists, anthropologists, and general readers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Harrison brings the personal as well as the academic to this very interesting and readable book." --Language Documentation & Conservation

"Engaging and non-technical enough to arouse the interest of non-linguists, but wide-ranging enough and well-sourced enough to appeal to linguists as well." --Linguist List

"Harrison tackles the question of what is lost when a language dies from the vantage point of field studies with some of the few remaining speakers of endangered languages in Siberia, Mongolia, and elsewhere. When Languages Die reveals an astonishingly rich catalog of human intellectual heritage and scientific knowledge on the verge of disappearing as many of the world's small languages become extinct." --Suzanne Romaine, Oxford University

"Depending on how one counts, it is likely that hald of the world's languages will be lost over the next thirty years, a dramatic change in human history. Harrison explores dying languages, how they differ from stable languages, how they encode cultural information that is lost with them, how their speakers behave, and much more. He tells a fascinating and tragic story of immense drama." --David W. Lightfoot, National Science Foundation

"Written in clear and concise prose, When Languages Die provides a captivating account of how languages encode and categorize human knowledge and experience. Harrison brings together a wealth of examples from all over the world to illustrate just how very much is lost when a language ceases to be spoken. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in people and how we think, perceive, and understand the world we live in." --Lenore A. Grenoble, Dartmouth College

From the Publisher
"Harrison brings the personal as well as the academic to this very interesting and readable book." —Language Documentation & Conservation

"Engaging and non-technical enough to arouse the interest of non-linguists, but wide-ranging enough and well-sourced enough to appeal to linguists as well." —Linguist List

"Harrison tackles the question of what is lost when a language dies from the vantage point of field studies with some of the few remaining speakers of endangered languages in Siberia, Mongolia, and elsewhere. When Languages Die reveals an astonishingly rich catalog of human intellectual heritage and scientific knowledge on the verge of disappearing as many of the world's small languages become extinct." —Suzanne Romaine, Oxford University

"Depending on how one counts, it is likely that hald of the world's languages will be lost over the next thirty years, a dramatic change in human history. Harrison explores dying languages, how they differ from stable languages, how they encode cultural information that is lost with them, how their speakers behave, and much more. He tells a fascinating and tragic story of immense drama." —David W. Lightfoot, National Science Foundation

"Written in clear and concise prose, When Languages Die provides a captivating account of how languages encode and categorize human knowledge and experience. Harrison brings together a wealth of examples from all over the world to illustrate just how very much is lost when a language ceases to be spoken. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in people and how we think, perceive, and understand the world we live in." —Lenore A. Grenoble, Dartmouth College

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195181920
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2007
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 6.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

K David Harrison is Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Swarthmore College. As a linguist and specialist in Siberian Turkic languages, he has spent many months in Siberia and Mongolia working with nomadic herders and studying their languages and traditions. He has also worked in India, Bolivia, the Philippines, Lithuania, and the United States. His work on endangered languages is featured in the documentary film The Linguists and was featured on the Comedy Central series The Colbert Report.

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Table of Contents

1. A World of Many (Fewer) Voices
2. An Extinction of (ideas about) Species
3. Many Moons Ago: Traditional Calendars and Time-Reckoning
Case Study: Urban Nomads of Mongolia
4. An Atlas in the Mind
Case Study: Wheel of Fortune, and a Blessing
5. Silent Storytellers, Lost Legends
Case Study: New Rice vs. Old Knowledge
6. Counting to Twenty on your Toes
Case Study: The Leaf-Cup People, India's Modern Primitives
7. Worlds within Words
Bibliography
Index

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