What can language-preservation accomplish?

What do we learn when we open unknown languages to others?
What can we teach when we open unknown languages to others?

Last week I met a local Anyuak gentleman from Ethiopia, a people numbering about 200,000-300,000. He is excited about documenting more of his language on-line, and our conversation thrilled me while it made me think deeply about language-preservation and its goals.

I have always been a fan of less well-known languages. When I was looking at universities, I remember thinking about the University of Oklahoma because of their Native American linguistics studies. I especially loved my college course in linguistics field methods that taught us how to study a language in its native habitat. Language death makes me sad and frustrated. At the Polyglot Conference in October I got to meet the founders of Wikitongues, an exciting project striving to document all living human languages.

But last week I was giving this line of thinking a second thought. Am I just acting precious about languages? Languages have been dying for millennia, and but we only noticed it about a hundred years ago. Just like animals species have been going extinct since the dinosaurs, languages don’t last forever.

We learned, though, that when we affect the ecosphere so quickly that species die off very quickly, humanity harms itself. In the same way, studying the linguistic ecosphere—“ecolinguism” as I’ve called it—brings to our attention lesser-known languages. By noticing those languages, we challenge ourselves and our assumptions, while we learn from those on the margins.
Why preserve languages?

Ecolinguistic expeditions: Discovering Anyuak in Minnesota

The first step of my discovery--what do you see in your town?
The first step of my discovery–what do you see in your town?

In light of (yesterday’s) UNESCO Mother Language Day, I want to write in my Mother Language about a new language that I discovered this month.  (My readers should understand that when I say “discover,” I mean this in the same way as Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, namely, that I discovered something for myself. These people functioned fully as a community before any Western “discovery.”) Driving down the road in my own suburb of the Twin Cities, Minnesota, I saw the word “Anyuak” on a sign. What did this word even mean?

Read about my discovery