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Lingue in Pericolo

Linguists come together to document and revitalize endangered languages.

Languages are dying at a rate of one every two weeks. Scientists estimate that half of the languages now spoken will no longer have native speakers by the end of the century. In response to this crisis, a team of faculty from UF's Departments of Anthropology; Linguistics; and Language, Literatures, and Cultures will be hosting a five-week institute at UF in summer 2018.

The institute, CoLang 2018 (the Institute for Collaborative Language Research) will bring about 150 students and 30 instructors to Gainesville for training in language documentation and language revitalization.

why document?

Many linguists prefer "language documentation" or "revitalization" over "language preservation," because (1) languages evolve quickly enough that preserving any language is nigh pointless, and (2) languages do die off, and as scientists, linguists' primary goal is to understand how languages work. Documentation allows languages to continue to be studied, even if they have no native speakers.

Revitalization can be a crucial part of helping maligned and marginalized groups rediscover and affirm their cultural identity through heritage education.

EuroTalk offers a collection of cute language family trees.


language by the numbers

One language dies (i.e. the last native speaker does) every two weeks.

There are approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken, according to Ethnologue. Only about half of these have a written component.

About a third of these "living languages" have fewer than 1,000 speakers.

There have likely been about 200,000 human languages.

Our current linguistic diversity is 3 to 5 percent of what has ever existed.

Illustration by Minna Sundberg.

language death factors

Economic development

According to a 2014 Cambridge-led study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, higher rates of language loss correlated with areas with higher globalization and GDP.

Primacy of English as language of science, academia, and politics

"As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation's political and educational spheres.
"People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold — economically and politically." – Tatsuya Amano, lead author of Cambridge study (source)

Migration to urbanized, developed countries

Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist at the University of Chicago, grew up speaking Kiyansi, spoken by a small ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 40 years living away from the DRC, Mufwene has only come across only two people who speak the language. On a recent trip to his home village, he found himself searching for words and struggling to keep up with the conversation. “I realised Kiyansi exists more in my imagination than in practice,” he says. “This is how languages die.” (source)

Government-imposed control of languages

Around the world and throughout history, including in the United States, conquering or dominant societies created means of suppressing or eliminating other languages and cultures.

program description

Program Schedule:

First two weeks: workshops (submit proposals here)

Final three weeks: practical field methods

Tentatively, three field methods practica* are planned for CoLang 2018.

*More details will be added as these are confirmed. Depending on the availability of native language experts, these languages may change.

CoLang 2018's principal and co-principal investigators are all from UF: George Aaron Broadwell, Department of Anthropology; Brent Henderson, Department of Linguistics; Eric Potsdam, Department of Linguistics; and James Essegbey and Fiona McLaughlin, Department of Language, Literatures, and Cultures.

The National Science Foundation is supporting CoLang 2018 with a grant of $148,764.

CoLang 2018 is sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America.

Footnote: Content curated by Rachel Wayne. Header image credit: Flickr user gordontour.