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The Endangered Languages Project

The most elaborate counting system yet known in any language, can be attibuted to the Nivkh language spoken in Outer Manchuria with its 26 distinct number series! Each series is limited to a special object or class of objects. Nineteen of the classifiers apply only to very specific objects, such as boats, sleds, fishing nets, skis, finger widths used to measure the thickness of animal fat and batches of dried fish. Six other classifiers apply to classes of objects united by some common, abstract property: common quality, come in pairs, small and roundish, thin and flat, examples of objects eyes, ears, hands, legs, boots, mittens nuts, bullets, berries, teeth leaves, blankets, shirts. The twenty-sixth Nivkh classifier is for odd objects that do not fit into any class! 1

This language does not appear to be related to any other language, making it an isolated one and more specifically part of the Paleosiberian linguistic group. Though the population of ethnic Nivkhs has been reasonably stable over the past century, the number of native speakers among them has dropped by three quarters in the same period, so that there are now just over 1,000 first-language speakers left.

Linguists believe that about half of the languages in the world are at risk of disappearing by the end of the century, which represents an unprecedented pace of language extinction. The ratio is astonishing: there are 80 major languages spoken by 80 percent of the world population while the 3 500 left have just 0.25% of the world population to keep them alive.

Language is a living organism in a cultural ecosystem. As such it is only through its ability to adapt to the particular needs of each period that it can achieve its perennity. But what is lost when a language dies? What forms of knowledge are embedded in a language’s structure and vocabulary? And how disastrous is it to humanity that such knowledge is lost forever?

These are crucial questions which address the fact that languages represent inherently precious knowledge about ourselves and the world, and once gone is lost forever. It is also a reflection of human ingenuity and knowledge – testimony of centuries of life- that comprise not only our cultural heritage, i.e. oral histories, poetry, stories, etc. but also very useful knowledge about plants, animals and other aspects of the natural world. To mention the least, language reflects our understanding of the capacities of the human mind.

The Endangered Languages Project initiated by Google, aims to put technology at the service of organizations and individuals working to save the endangered languages through documenting, preserving and teaching them. Through its website, users can access the most up to date and comprehensive information on endangered languages as well as samples being provided by partners. They can also play an active role by uploading their languages online and submitting information or samples in the form of text, audio or video files. Best practices and case studies through a knowledge sharing section are also available when one joins relevant Google Groups.

Notes:

  1. David Harrison “When languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics)”.

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