By Christina Hall
DETROIT (Detroit Free Press) — Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world, experts say about half could disappear by 2100.
When a language dies, experts say, so does a cultural heritage; spiritual, scientific, medical and botanical knowledge, and expression of the communities’ humor, love and life.
But a website that launched last week aims to preserve those endangered languages, thanks to researchers at the LINGUIST List at Eastern Michigan University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Google, which set it up.
The Endangered Languages Project, at www.endangeredlanguages.com, provides a database on endangered languages such as Navajo and Koro. It includes text, audio and video - such as people speaking or singing in the endangered languages - and bibliographic resources. The site can be used to share information and upload samples.
Organizers hope it “builds a pathway by which we can collect data and get it to the community to possibly revitalize (the languages),” said Anthony Aristar, an EMU linguistics professor who is a director of the Institute for Language Information and Technology and moderator of the LINGUIST List, the world’s largest online linguistics information resource.
The project started in the fall and is to last three years. The Endangered Languages Catalog project received more than $400,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation, the NSF website said.
Aristar said organizers have spent an additional $200,000. He said it would take $250,000 to keep the project going and $750,000 to $1 million to do adequate field work. Organizers are seeking funding from organizations and individuals.
Although thousands of languages are spoken, Aristar said, the majority are overwhelmed by heavily spoken languages such as English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.
“To lose a language is to lose a lot of cultural information,” he said. “If we don’t preserve them, we’ll be left with much impoverished human heritage.”
Aristar said organizers have full information on about 10 percent of endangered languages, which are featured on the site, and sparse information or documentation for about 3,000 endangered languages.
In Michigan, at least four languages are endangered, including an Algonquin family one.
Aristar said most of the data was compiled by field linguists, who spend years in a locale learning the language, interviewing people who speak it and building grammar, a dictionary and library of text and video for the language - an expensive proposition.
A language is considered endangered if it is not passed on, there is a decline in the number of people who speak it or the last speaker of the language dies, Aristar said.
For example, in March, Wilson (Tiny) Deacon of Alaska died and was the last fluent speaker of Holikachuk, a language spoken by the Athabascan people in Alaska’s interior. Others speak some of the language, but none as well as Deacon.