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'The Linguists': Raiders of the Lost Tongues

A documentary film about two scientists who roam the world to record vanishing languages is a vivid reminder of just how choosing to speak a mother tongue can be a political act.

By Ruth Walker / February 27, 2009



"The Linguists" is a film about the adventures of two guys named Dave and Greg. But it's not quite your typical buddy movie. These guys hit the road with microphones and cameras – and between them, knowledge of 25 different languages. The Indiana Joneses of linguistics, they travel the world on a quest to record all they can of the world's vanishing tongues.

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The film, the work of producer-directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger of Ironbound Films, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Just this week it's been airing nationally over PBS. "The Linguists" follows K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College and Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute to Siberia, India, and Bolivia, with a detour to Arizona to visit some native Americans.

The world has 7,000 languages, half of them in danger of disappearing, according to the film. One of them vanishes, on average, every couple of weeks. But each of them is "a way of seeing the world." And wouldn't we want to preserve a language whose word for "sun" means "the eye of the sky"?

One of the most striking lessons of the film is how political language can be. On Harrison and Anderson's map of the geography of endangered languages, the hot spots tends to be place where colonizers (the Spanish in Bolivia, the Russians in Siberia) have suppressed indigenous languages. In some places a language gets banned; in other places it is merely belittled.

At one point early on, the film gives a concise description of how a language is lost: Young children from some indigenous group arrive at boarding school to be educated in the national language (often English) and choose not to use their native tongue. Then when they grow up, they don't teach it to their children. Language is lost by a negative process, something that doesn't happen.

To capture language from native speakers, the linguists use a technique called "elicitation." One of them sits down with one of the native speakers, points to his own nose and says "nose," and thereby "elicits" the word for nose, and then repeats the process with eye, ear, teeth, and so on. Then they move to numbers and colors.

Compared with the way words are gathered for a great dictionary, this process might sound like a form of drive-by ethnography. But it brings forth some different ways of seeing the world.

Counting and numbers would seem to be pretty straightforward. But words for numbers sometimes suggest the mathematical concepts behind them.

Take 93, for instance. The English word means "nine groups of ten, three." But one of the groups Harrison and Anderson study gets at the same number with a word meaning "four twenties, twelve, one." It combines base 12 numbering with base 20 – a very different mathematical concept from our base 10.

The act of studying something changes it. The two globe-trotting linguists sometimes find that their recording of a language may give it the "literature" it never had.

One man they met, who turns out to be the most fluent speaker they find of a Siberian language called Chulym, tells how he was discouraged from speaking it as a child.

Though initially reluctant to admit how much of it he knew, at the end he has a moment of realization: "I have always loved the Chulym language."

Who knew that linguists could make for such a hot adventure movie? Maybe the next breakout hit at Sundance will feature copy editors.

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