This book is about Harrison’s journey throughout many linguistic hotspots in the world, where languages are at risk of being no longer spoken.
K. David Harrison
K. Karadowef Mabughel
Harrison was born to missionary parents, who traveled to many parts of the world, exposing Harrison to many languages. He was fascinated by languages such as Sinhala and Cree. He would then study linguistics in university, though not for religious purposes like his parents. His doctorate in linguistics would assign him to record poorly documented languages before there are no more speakers.
Harrison himself had noted all of the times he was baffled or had his expectations subverted in light of the research he had done. He had not thought about the curvature of a hill or the fat within a sheep’s tail. When recording the Yokoim, he and fellow linguist Greg Anderson made a lot of connections and inferences when recording the Yokoim word for “one” which has difference classes pertaining to gender and animacy.
One major theme that is reinforced throughout the book is about the intricate connection between the indigenous languages and the biospheres in which they had been spoken for millenia. Most of the flora and fauna on Earth are unclassified by Western scientists, whereas the people who live in these isolated biospheres contain a lot of linguistic guardianship over them. This includes their methods of adaptation and cuisine, which are heavily dependent on how they hunt, raise cattle, and travel. Hills, wind directions, stages of ice melt, the herding of reindeer and sheep, and the gathering of turtle and crocodile eggs are given their own specific details.
There are examples also of indigenous peoples making use of hallucinogenics, medicines, and anesthetics derived from the flora that grow around them. In the case of the Kallawaya, the plant that they used was also used by pharmaceuticals to produce aspirins.
Harrison also discusses how technology and modern media are being used to revitalize these languages. An example being a blues song sung by a Yokoim speaker in the Yokoim language. This is important for the language to spread, since many of the languages Harrison documented have only a few, elderly speakers left who could barely remember the lexicons of their own language.
This is an important detail, since languages keep the community bound together within a circumference no matter how wide. It would be hubris to deny that any other factors can play a role in the dispersal of language between generations. Language is an interdisciplinary simulacrum of many fields which play a role in the development in the lexicon and grammar. It would be for this reason why languages develop independently, since each biosphere requires completely different priorities, whether some biospheres require the herding of reindeer or others that require the eating of crocodile eggs.
Another theme is the public performances which make use of the indigenous languages, which include dances, poetry, and creation myths. Harrison and his crew took full advantage of the opportunity to record such incredibly important events, since they showcase the languages in their most potent, for it is within these events that the community comes together.
There is the issue of linguistic hegemony of a bigger language-speaking community over another. Harrison witnessed this with the Siberian language-speakers marginalized by Russian-speakers. In other instances, people were embarrassed to speak their own language and resorted to speaking their dominant language, such as English or Hindi.
At the time he was on his travels, he came across language-speakers who were among the last ones, such as Chemehuevi and Amurdag.
When he was traveling to Siberia, although the Soviet Union was no more, he was still met with distrust by the police under the accusation of being a spy. Harrison was one of the very few Americans to travel to the Tuvan region. The only source of information that he had came from a few Soviet scholars. Also in Siberia, he met with the Chulym people where there were nearly no speakers left. This was due to the racism and humiliation dealt to them by the Russians.
Of course, the issue of memory is addressed, since a lot of these languages continued to be passed down prior to the introduction of writing. Harrison argued that alliteration and vowel harmony in the songs and poetry played a role in making the language easier to understand. While he did note that memory fades with age, Sohren Ahrens did note in his book about note-taking that there needs to be an external source for the information received from researching a book. Although the indigenous peoples did not have writing, they did have external sources, such as the clothes of the shamans as a source of association with their poetry and songs.
Of course, Harrison mentions how there are unique words in the Tuvan language that directly tie the people to the harsh Siberian landscape. This comes to mind the book Tingo which contains many unique words that are specific to the landscapes of the people who speak them.
What is also interesting is that Harrison compares the ecosystem to a home, specifically when he explains how the eco- prefix comes from the Greek word meaning “home.” This was noticed by Eugene Odum in his textbook. This is done in order to make sure that people take care of the environment like their own home–because it IS their own home from which they rely on without thought.
When Harrison mentioned that languages drift apart when they are spoken in different biospheres, it definitely came to mind the linguistic textbook written by Anne Curzan which dealt with linguistic shift. When languages spread to isolating geographical areas, such as a mountain valley, a dense rural area, or an island, the languages tend to retain the same linguistic components as their mother-languages, whereas the sister-languages tend to experience more change.
Also, adding to this point, the use of affixes in order to modify root words is what Harrison focuses on when discussing agglutinative languages, such as the Inuit languages that preport to contain many words for ice. This has to do with the issue of grammaticalization, which is explained in detail by Bybee and other scholars in The History of Grammar.
He makes use of his neologism language hotspot, which draws comparison to a Wi-Fi hotspot, so as to draw an analogy of having connection with the endangered languages. Also, the word hot is specifically used, because like fire, the languages are met with smoldering destruction.
As for the languages he himself studied, Harrison takes perfect opportunity to give detailed definitions about each unique word he noted.
The pursuit to save 7,000 languages is difficult, as Harrison concludes, since there are many contradictory strategies that would need to be considered. There are some language groups like the Hopi and the Mapuche who want to keep their language to themselves; while other language groups want their language to be used everywhere. It should be important to keep in mind the stage at which the language is being revived. Sometimes, it is just recently coming out of the research done in academia, while in other cases like Irish Gaelic it is used in many media.
Of course, if there is outside involvement in language revitalization, then it would require a lot of creativity on part of the speakers and the outsiders. This could include songs, books, and performances, in which productions Harrison was heavily involved in. Not only should the revivers know biology and environmental studies pertaining to the land that the indigenous peoples live in, but also the arts, since it helps make the language relevant to future generations.
As A Mentor…
Harrison would definitely have a lot to tell, considering how he traveled through two continents in order to help save endangered languages.
Along with his own missionary parents, he was also inspired by the Finnish linguist Matthias Alexander Castren, who traveled to Siberia to record the languages there. So, he would recommend that I embark on adventure as part of a career.
This definitely brings a human voice to an otherwise dry academic field, and it is very easy to read.
Recommend This To…
Komendysen Ma Dhe…
- Those who feel stuck, wherever they are in life. Harrison’s adventure might inspire you.
- Anyone just getting into linguistics, since Harrison provides a strong logos behind the search for the final language speakers and why it matters to everyone.
- Ahrens, Sönke. “How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking – For Students, Academics, and Nonfiction Book Writers.” Sonke Ahrens. 2017.
- Bybee, Joan et al. “The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World.” The University of Chicago Press. 1994.
- “Cornish Dictionary – Gerlyver Kernowek.” Akademi Kernowek.
- Curzan, Anne and Michael Adams. “How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction.” 3rd Edition. Pearson. 2012.
- “David.” Behindthename.
- De Boinod, Adam Jacot. “The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World.” Penguin Press. 2006.
- “Harrison.” Wikipedia.
- Harrison, K. David. “The Last Speakers: The Quest To Save The World’s Most Endangered Languages.” National Geographic. 2010.
- Odum, Eugene P. “Ecology: A Bridge between Science and Society.” 2nd Edition. Sinauer. 1997.