Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Language Endangerment in the News

Daniel Nettle & Suzanne Romaine's book on Language Endangerment, Vanishing Voices, has won the 2001 book prize from the British Association for Applied Linguistics

Congratulations from all at the Foundation!

E-MELD Project on Electronic Archive of Endangered Languages is Picked Up by US Chronicle of Higher Education

Linguists Collect Unpublished Information on Dying Languages for an Online Database By BROCK READ
Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education September 25, 2001

Five or six languages die every year, experts say. Within two centuries, 40 percent of the world's extant languages may be gone. These are sobering numbers for a linguist like Anthony Aristar, a professor at Wayne State University. "It really is a desperate situation now," he says. "If you lose your language, you've lost your culture."

Mr. Aristar heads E-MELD, the Electronic Metastructure for Endangered Languages Data, a project that aims to combat the growing problem of language loss. A $2-million grant awarded in July by the National Science Foundation will allow Mr. Aristar and colleagues at Eastern Michigan University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Pennsylvania to construct an online database bringing together information and resources that various scholars have gathered about endangered and dying languages.

The database will appear in its initial version this fall on the Linguist List, a Web site of language tools that Mr. Aristar runs with his wife, Helen Aristar-Dry, a professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University and one of E-MELD's chief researchers. Ms. Aristar-Dry likens the project to "a giant card catalog" holding information not just about the languages themselves, but also about software that can support them.

Much of the groundwork for the project involves collation, organization, and standard-setting. "There's a lot of data which has been collected" by field linguists, according to Mr. Aristar, but a fair portion has not seen the light of day since the initial research was completed.

"In the past, a field worker could spend years and years researching an endangered language, produce one article of analysis, and the rest of his data would go unmined," Ms. Aristar-Dry says. "There's documentation on these languages, but on yellowing notebooks and in shoe boxes in the back of closets." The challenge facing the project team is to take these raw materials and digitize them as coherently as possible.

To do so, Mr. Aristar and Ms. Aristar-Dry have been working with field linguists to create a set of standards for language digitization. Many archives for endangered languages exist already, but most of them use their own software and standards for marking up and storing data.



"An enormous effort could go into digitizing the languages," says Ms. Aristar-Dry, "but the usefulness to scholars could be reduced" if individual archives lack what she calls "interintelligibility." She hopes that by uniting language research under a set of open standards, "we'll be adding longer life to the data."

Both professors also hope that the E-MELD Web site will become a gathering place of sorts for students of endangered languages. One piece of the project is an online "showroom" in which project researchers use their ideal standards to mark up data from 10 languages -- including Biao Min, a language spoken by about 21,000 people in southern China, and Cambap, which has only 30 remaining speakers in Nigeria and Cameroon.

The showrooms will include sound files of native speakers demonstrating their languages, as well as grammatical and lexical information. Query rooms will allow researchers and native speakers to interact.

Interaction is an essential part of the project, because there's no reversing the trend of disappearing languages, according to Mr. Aristar. The reasons for this are "intensely practical," he says. "People want better lives for themselves and their children. One way to acquire better lives is to get educated. People choose to acquire education through a dominant culture," and they adopt its language.

Researchers and students benefit from the preservation of languages, though, and not always for strictly academic reasons. "It's a big thrill," Ms. Aristar-Dry says, "to push a button and see 69 varieties of Quechua."

Forthcoming Programme on BBC Radio 3

For once we can give forewarning of an Endangered Language programme.

This one is produced by Nick Morgan, and will be broadcast in Radio Three's 'Sunday Feature' slot, 1745-1830, on April 16th 2002. Hugh Brody is presenting it and the contributors will include, I am told, Suzanne Romaine, Nick Evans (of the ANU), Nigel Crawhall, James Suzman (African Studies Centre, Cambridge), Nikolai Vakhtin, Olga Kazakevitch and Nicholas Ostler; so we can expect guest appearances of languages from Nunavut, Hawaii, Australia, Africa and Siberia.

In case you are interested, and live outside the BBC's domestic broadcasting area, you could try to find it on the Radio 3 Web-site: