Friday, December 18, 2009

Saving languages

There are 6,500 languages spoken in the world, and half are expected to die out by the end of the century. Now one man from Cambridge, Dr Mark Turin, is on a mission to record them before they die, as reported in The Independent:

The University of Cambridge academic is leading a project that aims to pull thousands of languages back from the brink of extinction by recording and archiving words, poems, chants – anything that can be committed to tape – in a bid to halt their destruction. Languages the majority of us will never know anything about.
Of the world's 6,500 living languages, around half are expected to die out by the end of this century, according to Unesco. Just 11 are spoken by more than half the earth's population, so it is little wonder that those used by only a few are being left behind as we become a more homogenous, global society. In short, 95 per cent of the world's languages are spoken by only five per cent of its population – a remarkable level of linguistic diversity stored in tiny pockets of speakers around the world.
In a small office room in the back of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology – a place in which you almost expect Harrison Ford to walk around the corner at any moment, fedora on head, whip in hand – Turin looks over the contents of a box that arrived earlier in the morning from India. "[The receptionists] are quite used to getting these boxes now," says the 36-year-old anthropologist, who is based at the university. Inside the box, which is covered in dozens of rupee postage stamps, are DVDs representing hours of chants, songs, poems and literature from a tiny Indian community that is desperate for its language to have a voice and be included in Turin's venture.

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