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

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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

"At our current rate of language loss, by the end of this century the vast majority of the world's languages will be either extinct or will be spoken by only a few old people. While much effort and money are now being spent to stem the loss of plant and animal species, the human tragedy of language loss is receiving little attention. This movingly written and fascinating book tells why languages are vanishing, and what we can do to save our linguistic heritage." --Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles and Pulitzer prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

"In this scholarly yet very readable study, Harrison writes powerfully of the value and beauty of these vanishing knowledge systems." --The Guardian

Rich in details yet surprisingly easy to read, When Languages Die shows what we are losing. --Science Magazine

"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

"This important and useful book fills a valuable niche in what is now a voluminous and ever-growing collection of studies devoted to understanding reasons for and consequences of language death. Harrison's book focuses on the intellectual loss from the sum of human knowledge that such language death represents." --Journal of Anthropological Research

"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

"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

"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

"An important book with a clear niche in the teaching of undergraduates and in alerting a larger reading public to the magnitude and consequences associated with current trends in linguistic extinction. Harrison's book succeeds in representing the potential, even perhaps the inevitable, loss of the "intellectual treasure" of linguistic diversity." --Journal of Anthropological Research

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195372069
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/21/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 592,301
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (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

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