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Conserving Linguistic Diversity

September 27, 2016

Since the 1930s, the Linguistics Department at Yale has worked to document and preserve endangered languages. Spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, these languages are at risk of being lost entirely as native speakers age and younger members of the community adopt more commonly-spoken languages. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), half of the 6,000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the current century if nothing is done to preserve them — a devastating loss that will erase from human history a wealth of culture and ancestral knowledge. 

This past summer, four students in the Linguistics Department continued Yale’s venerable tradition of language preservation. Matt Tyler worked on Choctaw in Mississippi; Rikker Dockum focused on Khamti in Myanmar; Josh Phillips was in North Australia to document Kriol; and incoming student Sarah Babinski used archival data from Australia’s Western Desert region to study the Pama-Nyungan language family.

Tyler focused on Choctaw because its grammar “is complex, intricate, and highly unusual from a European perspective.” Choctaw is indigenous in east central Mississippi. Recent official estimates put the number of speakers at around 10,000, but “the true number is probably significantly smaller,” Tyler says. Many of those who speak the language are aging, so “Choctaw-language education is being reintroduced into tribe-run elementary schools, which will go a long way to slowing or reversing this trend.” His fieldwork this summer coincided with the annual Choctaw Indian Fair (Chahta Áyopisa Chito), which enabled him to observe traditional singing, dancing, and arts and crafts, as well as stickball games. “Stickball is a sport played by a number of Native American tribes across the Southeast and Oklahoma. It looks a little bit like lacrosse, but has a lot more players on each team and appears a lot more chaotic,” he explains.

Tyler was born and raised in London and earned his undergraduate degree at Cambridge University in Linguistics. He came to Yale on a Mellon Fellowship in 2013 and started his PhD studies in 2015.

Dockum studies Khamti, a relative of Thai that is spoken in Myanmar and India. His dissertation will examine the history and development of tone systems, and “Khamti spoken in the area where I work has just four tones, while in northeast India and other areas of Burma it has five.” Speakers of this version are a small minority, numbering in the low thousands. He was based in a town on the Chindwin River, in the shadow of the Naga Hills that form the Burma-India border. Amber, jade and gold mines draw workers from all around the region, and Dockum stayed in a guesthouse with itinerant miners until he was flooded out by monsoon rains, at which point he moved into the Buddhist monastery across town, where five of the eight monks speak Khamti. Electricity only functions from 6:50-10:20 pm, “so you have to be very careful about making sure everything gets charged in that window,” he says. This summer, his third trip to the region, he recorded and analyzed Khamti folktales, working closely with local language informants.

Dockum comes from the Pacific Northwest, earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth, and worked in Thailand for nine years before coming to Yale in 2013.

Phillips – who hails from Auckland, New Zealand, and studied at the University of New South Wales in Australia – worked on Australian Kriol, a language that evolved from the contact between Australian English and the eight traditional languages of the Roper Gulf Region in the early twentieth century. He stayed in a tent in the backyard of a small language center dedicated to the revitalization of traditional languages, where he cooked over an open fire and washed himself with a hose for the bulk of the seven weeks he spent there. Though often plagued by heat and flies, “It was an incredible experience that's given me insights into the lifestyles of these contemporary Aboriginal communities,” he says.

Babinski’s research examined a subgroup of the Pama-Nyungan language family. She compared and contrasted grammatical structures to establish historical relationships among them. A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, she went to Swarthmore College, where she developed an interest in indigenous languages of the Americas and worked on Innu, an Algonquian language spoken in parts of Quebec, Newfoundland, and Labrador.

According to Phillips, “While the specific goals of our projects differed, ultimately all of us worked with native speakers collecting data, translating and transcribing it, and eliciting specific constructions that we've identified as linguistically interesting phenomena.” 

There’s a huge amount of diversity, oddness, and beauty in the vast range of languages spoken in the world today, and they each have something new to tell us about how language works in the mind,” Tyler says. “Every time we lose one, the world gets a bit more boring and a bit more homogenous. That’s not to mention the very rewarding work of showing the speakers of endangered languages that their language is valuable, worthy of serious study, and every bit as important as English or Spanish or any other more widely-spoken language.”