Harrison (When Languages Die, 2007) passionately profiles linguistic survivors from Paraguay to Siberia and explores what will be lost if their languages drift into extinction.
What will be lost is a great deal, indeed, for language carries the wealth of the human mind and human experience, especially so in languages without written form. “All cultures,” writes the author, “encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices.” With the shift to global tongues, entire domains of ancient knowledge will lose their subtle, intimate, complex understanding of local affairs, a place’s history and resources, as well as a broad slice of the personal identity of the lost-language’s speakers. This makes perfect intellectual sense, but Harrison takes the next step. With his “Enduring Voices” project, he travels to the speakers of endangered languages and engages them in as thorough a fashion as they will grant. From Bolivia to India to Australia, he hunts and gathers what he can of languages on the brink. Harrison introduces plenty of basic linguistic theory—such as the importance of grammar in relation to human cognition and the peculiar case of vowel harmony—though the author is more interested in content than structure—such as the art of storytelling, or story-singing, how it offers a portal into the past and how the oral tradition exercises memory, animates landscapes and keeps a language alive and growing. Harrison also brings to light “hidden languages,” tongues unknown to a wide audience and for good reason—the speakers are keeping them secret out of fear that they will be appropriated, subverted or repressed.
As the author provides an opportunity for language elders to speak, the consequences of knowledge and identity loss become alarmingly evident.