The chief of a Native American tribe died last year and with her an entire language. She was the last speaker of Eyak, a tribal tongue native to south central Alaska. Sound insignificant? Maybe it is, but with half of the world's 6,192 languages set to become extinct by the century's end, endangered languages are anything but scarce.
Proponents for letting dying languages go say the fewer languages the better — less confusion. But opponents maintain that language provides insight into individual cultures, and to let a language is die is to lose an entire knowledge base.
The documentary The Linguists, which PBS will air Feb. 26, follows two — surprise — linguists as they document four dying languages in Siberia, Bolivia, India, and Arizona and a movement to help indigenous groups reclaim their languages. Language revitalization has proved possible in cases where there's more than one speaker, at least a small group, and community and state support.
Good magazine interviewed the two linguists behind the documentary. To see what they had to say,
Greg Harrison and David Anderson point out that language and identity are intertwined. Language encodes nearly everything people have ever thought and known throughout and about history. Harrison said, "We’re losing this vast knowledge base that might contain the secrets of how we’re supposed to survive and we don’t even know it."