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.
The opening credits to the documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival fade onto the screen. “The Linguists,” it flashes. “Starring Greg Anderson and David Harrison.”
Filmmakers Seth Kramer and Daniel Miller began following Swarthmore professor David Harrison and his colleague, Gregory Anderson, after finding that many of the world’s languages—not just the Yiddish in their own communities—are in danger of extinction.
“In fact, half of the world’s languages are endangered,” Harrison explained before the screening.
Of the world’s 7000 languages, one disappears every two weeks. Native speakers die before linguists like Harrison can document them.
Now filmmakers have recorded the travels of two linguists to Siberia, Bolivia, and India in search of the last speakers of these endangered languages.
“Each of these trips reveals a new angle on the language extinction crisis,” Harrison said.
Indeed, as the documentary follows Anderson and Harrison through Siberia, India, and Bolivia, viewers begin to understand the effects of politics on native speakers of indigenous languages, who are told to be shameful of their useless or irrelevant tongues.
“We have to find the areas that are most in need, areas with a history of colonization,” Harrison said in the film.
In India they find that the Sora language operates with a strange numbering system. The native speaker counts to 13 and says, “twelve-one.” The linguists conclude that it operates on a base-12 system.
But at the number 30, he says “twenty-ten,” which indicates a base-20 system. The linguists look at each other in amazement as they realize that Sora uses both: at 32, it’s “twenty-twelve,” 33, “twenty-twelve-one.”
“Our favorite number is 93,” Anderson said. “It’s four-twenty-twelve-one.”
In Bolivia the allegedly ‘secret’ language of Kallawaya provides names and information about 10,000 medicinal plants, many of which are unknown to Western scientists. It has persisted for many years despite the pervasive spread of Spanish throughout the country.
Harrison says in the film that the root of its strength may be the unique method of its acquisition. Instead of being naturally acquired by children at birth, it is explicitly passed on from adult males to teenage males for its medicinal knowledge.
But even though others characterized it as a language only about medicinal plants, new investigation suggested otherwise. “We found out that you could also say perfectly normal things,” Harrison said afterwards. “You could say, ‘I saw the llama out eating grass.’”
In Siberia, the language of Chulym has not been as lucky as Kallawaya. When the linguists met with the mayor of one of the villages, he derided the Chulym, though he eventually agreed to let one speaker guide them in their investigation. It is this open scorn, however, which has driven the language to its near-extinction.
The 55-year-old guide, who turned out to be the best and youngest speaker they could find, had even devised a writing system from Russian characters so that he could write in his diary when he was younger. He once showed it to a Russian speaker, who told him it was a waste of time.
“After that, I threw my diary away. I would have liked to show it to you,” he said to the linguists. However, he had already provided them with great insight into the language.
“He took the Russian alphabet and put it together in a way that was sheer genius,” Harrison explained afterward. There are at least three vowels in Chulym outside of Russian. A linguist would probably invent clunky new symbols for each of these sounds instead.
“When we took his writing system and turned it into a book, we showed it to various speakers, and they were able to read it. We actually saw people who had never seen their native language written down mouth the words to themselves.”
The speakers of these languages only realize the scientific and linguistic value of their knowledge only after researchers like Anderson and Harrison arrive to study them. And many others do not realize their value until they see Harrison on The Colbert Report, in The New York Times, or starring in The Linguists.
“I think I will be happy if it raises awareness and raises interest,” Harrison said.
The film may be picked up by a major network later this year. For now it will be showing at various universities and film festivals, and will premiere in New York this June.
For a list of future screenings and other information, visit www.thelinguists.com.