The World's Lost Languages


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Chris Rainier, Opino Gomango, David Harrison
27 Monday 27th February 2012

The team behind the Enduring Voices Project are out to change that though. In collaboration with National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages they’re flying from India, Papua New Guinea and Chile to the seemingly non-exotic Oregon to document languages so far only carried orally from one generation to the next.

Main image: Tito Perez, a shaman from the Chamacoco community in Puerto Diana, Paraguay. By Chris Rainier © 2012 National Geographic.

K. David Harrison (centre) works with John Agid (left) of Matugar village, Papua New Guinea, to document Matukar Panau, an endangered Oceanic language. By Chris Rainier © 2012 National Geographic

A week since UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, we speak to National Geographic Fellow and linguistics professor Dr. K David Harrison about the significance of the project, its recent trip to India and just how to tackle languages with less than 40 living speakers.

To get more of an idea of the scale the Enduring Voices team work on, Harrison estimates that more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages will be ‘extinct’ by the end of this century. The current rate for their disappearance is at one language per fortnight: essentially, this is the average occurrence at which the last known person to speak a fading language somewhere on the planet passes away, and takes with them the legacy of that knowledge system.

Women gather and display traditional clothing of the Remo culture in India. By Opino Gomango © 2012 Living Tongues Institute

Dr Harrison’s project isn’t looking to barge its way into every single community harbouring an endangered language at the moment, but to take an anthropological approach on a strict invite-only basis: to get to know, talk to and work with speakers of a variety of languages on their last legs. He’s been working alongside photographer and Nat Geo Fellow Chris Rainier, and fellow linguist Greg Anderson for the last five years in an effort to grasp and make records of languages that otherwise would cease to exist in the next generation.

Ho - Waternut (spoken by Jitesh) by dontpanic

Dr Harrison recently returned from a trip to Arunachal Pradesh at the end of last year, stating “One goal of the trip was to expand and continue our documentation of the Hruso Aka and Koro Aka languages, which we began in 2008. Koro Aka has been a priority for us in part because, prior to our research, it was not acknowledged or listed in the scientific record as a distinct language, nor were any recordings available”.

Gregory Anderson interviews John Agid, one of only 600 speakers of Matukar Panau. By Chris Rainier © 2012 National Geographic

Basically, the team was working from scratch. Armed with digital audio and video recorders, Harrison and the team visited five endangered language communities throughout the region and set to work recording hundreds of snippets of native speakers using common phrases, terms and words. They were putting together one of their many Talking Dictionaries.

So far the project has already recorded snippets from the Kallawaya herbalist healers in the Andes, whose secret language isn’t even officially named as of yet and uses gender-specific variations (a version for women, and another for men). They’ve journeyed to hear Matukar Panau in Papua New Guinea. They’ve even travelled closer to home to the Siletz Nation in Oregon, America, recording the talking dictionary for a language long-classified by linguists as moribund (one children no longer learn).

Matukar Panau: If I had canoe, I could throw a hook

On each journey they use a combination of visual and aural evidence to capture what they’ve learned, and with Siletz have already put together over 14,000 recorded words that are now being used on CD and hard copy documents by members of the community.

Bud Lane, one of the last speakers of Oregon's Siletz Dee-ni, works with Gregory Anderson to record a talking dictionary. By K. David Harrison

Hosting workshops that bring together language representatives from all continents, they’re also doing their best to promote not only language maintenance but revitalisation. Given the challenge of trying to hold onto languages that may have less than 20 speakers, I ask Dr Harrison what keeps him motivated on what is undeniably an uphill battle: “The world's smallest languages are speaking up, finding their global voice. Let's listen, while we still can - let's champion their efforts to survive. Language rights are, after all, human rights. And the knowledge base found in smaller languages sustains us all in ways we may not even perceive”.


Find out more about Enduring Voices and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

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