The NY Times has a nice article (“Linguist’s Preservation Kit Has New Digital Tools,” by Chris Nicholson) about Tucker Childs and his work in Sierra Leone trying to understand and record the Kim language (which I presume is what Ethnologue calls Krim, “alternate names Kim, Kimi, Kirim, Kittim”—the Kim languages of Chad are entirely different).
For centuries, social and economic incentives have been working against Kim and in favor of Mende, a language used widely in the region, until finally, Dr. Childs speculates, the Kim language has been pushed to the verge of extinction.
It used to be that field linguists like Dr. Childs, a scattered corps working against time to salvage the world’s endangered tongues — more than 3,000 at last count — scribbled data in smeared notebooks and stored sounds on cassette tapes, destined to rot in boxes. But linguistics has gone digital. Dr. Childs now uses a solid-state recorder, and he has applications that will analyze the elements of a vowel in seconds or compare sounds across languages.
Using Geographic Information Systems, software that translates data into maps, he and his research assistants, Hannah Sarvasy and Ali Turay, pinpoint villages that are not to be found on any official map. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons linguists want these languages preserved,” Dr. Childs said, “but for me it’s more an emotional thing. It’s not noblesse oblige, it’s capitalist oblige. These people are totally peripheralized.”
In its new digital form, this kind of research is more accessible. It allows larger projects to share the world’s linguistic heritage with a wider public of teachers and learners, including, when possible, the original speakers.
The aim is not just to salvage, but to revive. Financed by the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Childs’s recordings will find their way, once his study ends and he returns to his post as a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, to a huge data bank in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Let’s have no muttering about how useless it is to try to save languages. If people want to let their languages die, they will, no matter what linguists do, but if they want to save them and linguists can help, it’s noble work, and I deeply respect Dr. Childs and his fellow field linguists. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)