By the end of this century, half the world’s 7,000 languages may go extinct, taking with them centuries of human knowledge about the natural world and cultural traditions.
David Harrison, one of the leading experts on the subject, is on a mission to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, Harrison has led expeditions sponsored by National Geographic to record and preserve the world’s dying languages, including those in Montana.
The author of several books on the subject, Harrison will discuss the challenge next week in Missoula – a visit that has created a buzz across the University of Montana campus.
Mizuki Miyashita, an associate professor of anthropology at UM, who arranged Harrison’s visit, said several of the world’s endangered languages can be found in Montana.
“All Native American languages are endangered,” said Miyashita. “When children are not learning a language at home, it begins to vanish.”
Miyashita called Montana the home to aboriginal speakers of four distinct language families. Among them, Flathead belongs to the Salish language family, while Assiniboine, Sioux and Crow belong to the Siouan language family.
The remaining two include the Algonquian language family – home to Cree, Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne and Gros Ventre – while Kutenai is believed to be an isolated language with no known relatives.
Estimates suggest the Blackfeet language may be down to 60 fluent speakers in Montana. The Salish language is currently spoken by less than 50 people, most of whom are 75 years and older.
“You can probably make a guess what happens when you translate a story from one language into the next,” said Miyashita. “Part of the story is lost.”
Efforts to preserve Montana’s imperiled languages are taking place on several reservations. The Piegan Institute in Browning offers a Blackfeet language immersion program, and it strives to provide a voice for Native language restoration.
The Salish Language Institute on the Flathead Reservation strives to do the same. There are no fluent first language Salish speakers under 50, according to the institute.
Harrison, who teaches at Swarthmore College, co-starred in the documentary film, “The Linguist,” which premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2008.
In an article for the BBC, he wrote that while certain species and ecosystems may not be known to science, they’re well-known to local people. That knowledge slips away as people shift to speaking global languages.
“My journey as a scientist exploring the world’s vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald’s in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah,” Harrison wrote. “In all these places I’ve listened to last speakers – dignified elders – who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity’s intellectual wealth.”
Harrison will give his talk, “Endangered Languages: Local and Global Perspectives,” at 4 p.m. on April 17 in Room 356 of the Social Science Building. The film, “The Linguist,” will be shown at 6 p.m. on April 15 in the same room.
Harrison will answer questions following the film’s showing. Both events are free and open to the public.