College Corner: Professor David Harrison

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore associate linguistics professor David Harrison has become somewhat of a celebrity in recent weeks, receiving press from NPR, the Colbert Report, the New York Times, and many well-known foreign publications for his ongoing efforts to call attention to the burgeoning dilemma of language extinction. Professor Harrison’’s work through National Geographic’’s Endangered Voices Project and his own co-founded non-profit organization, The Living Tongues Institute, has sparked much discussion on the importance of language to modern culture and society. His new book, “When Languages Die”, builds on years of fieldwork spent revitalizing and documenting dying and little-known languages (many with less than 30 fluent speakers remaining) in Central Siberia, Western Mongolia, Northeast India, and Bolivia.

img_4142.jpgAntonio Condori (left), with his son Illaryon Ramos Condori (center), both hereditary Kallawaya healers, talking with David Harrison (right) in Chary village, northern Bolivia, June 2007. Photo by Greg Anderson, copyright 2007

DG: Is linguistics merely the study of language? For those who don’t know, could you give a brief description of what the field encompasses?

Harrison: Language is perhaps the most complex cognitive system we possess, and Linguistics is the field of science devoted to its study. We are many decades if not centuries away from understanding how language works. That’s plenty.

DG: What prompted your interest in linguistics? As a linguist, specifically, what is your area of study or interest?

Harrison: I got into Linguistics through International Studies, my undergraduate major, and through living for several years in post-Soviet Union countries. I specialize in Turkic languages of Siberia, and in the study of language endangerment.

DG: In your book “When Languages Die”, you say more than half of the world’’s languages are expected to become extinct by the end of the century, how was this estimate reached and what exactly is happening?

Harrison: It is a best guess consensus estimate among scholars who work in this area. It may turn out to be wrong, but small languages are being abandoned by speakers in favor of globally dominant languages everyday.

DG: Why do you believe preserving endangered language is important?

Harrison: I don’t use the word “preserve”, that sounds like jam in a jar or a specimen in a museum. Languages only thrive if they have speaker communities. Each language contains unique structures that tell us about human cognition, entire mythologies and belief systems, and technologies for survival (including fine-grained knowledge about species and ecosystems that often exceeds what science knows).

DG: Alright I have to ask: what was it like being a guest on the Colbert Report?

Harrison: Fun but stressful. How do you sum up 12 years of research in a 4 minute comedy interview? I tried to get a few basic points across. Stephen was doing his thing, lampooning, so I tried to include some amusing facts as well. Afterwards his two writers came up to me and said how much they enjoyed my book and this topic. Guest author John Grisham also told me he was very interested in my book and in Louisiana Creole French.

DG: What has the general reaction to your project been?

Harrison: Positive. People often ask us to do more, stay longer, and help them revitalize their languages. We’re trying to expand to be able to do that in a responsible way.

DG: Do you have any other future projects in mind?

Harrison: Lots. I want to write a book on global language hotspots, and on our expeditions to visit them.

DG: Now, a tough one. What is your favorite word?

Harrison: I don’t have a favorite but I am fond of karabazhingnnattarivistan (A Tuvan word that literally means “from our prisoners”, I like it because it is rather long and shows the complex concatenative [multiple units of meaning strung together] morphological structures of Tuvan. I often use it as an example in classes. It breaks down into 6 morphemes [smallest unit of meaning in a word] like this: [black-house-AGENTIVE-PLURAL-1.PLURAL.POSSESSIVE-ADLATIVE]

Poopungkoontam from the Sora language (India) is another favorite, meaning “I will stab you in the gut with a knife.” I’m also fond of dziewiecsetszesnascie, “916” in Polish becuase it’s a real tongue twister and one of the very first words I had to learn as an exchange student in Poland (I arrived not speaking a single word of the language). In our dormitory, keys had to be left at the front desk and asked for each time you entered the building. The front desk ladies had endless amusement hearing me try to utter my room number.

Professor Harrison’s Appearance on the Colbert Report

Prof. Harrison will give a lecture on his work Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 4:15 in Science Center 101 on “Language Hotspots: Tracking Local and Global Patterns of Language Extinction”.


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