The continuing loss of species and other tangible natural resources has many people around the world concerned, but another threatened resource is the focus of MIT Professor Kenneth Hale's work: languages.
Dr. Hale, the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics, is now documenting some of the languages of native Nicaraguans, among other projects. He and research associate Thomas Green have compiled a dictionary of Ulwa, a language spoken by only about 400 people on the east coast of that country. And with Elena Benedicto and Mike Dickey from the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Hale is studying Twakha, a dialect of Sumu spoken by perhaps 800 people in northeast Nicaragua.
Professor Hale compiles dictionaries and grammars of threatened native languages with the greater goal of preserving those languages for those who speak them, not just for foreign linguists. The number of different languages in the world is rapidly decreasing because of a variety of factors including economic pressures, the intrusion of television into the home, government policies and the increasingly dominant position of national languages.
Languages were much more geographically localized 10,000 years ago, so there were many more of them than there are today, Professor Hale explained. As recently as 3,000 years ago, there were 10,000 to 15,000 languages in the world, but now there are only about 6,000, he said. Of those 6,000, half will be gone by the year 2100 and all but 500 of the rest will be endangered, so that more than 90 percent of the languages in existence today will be extinct or threatened in little more than a century if current trends continue, he added.
The study of a wide variety of languages is important in the development of linguistic theories about language itself; it isgenerally true that each new language studied reveals something new and exciting about the grammars and sound systems of natural languages, he said. In the area of vocabulary, many languages have basic differences from English that provide insight into different people's concepts of things like kinship, spatial relationships, colors and the nature of time.
Languages are also inextricably linked with the cultures of the people that speak them. "When you lose a language, a large part of the culture goes, too, because much of that culture is encoded in the language," Professor Hale said. In a paper entitled "The Human Value of Local Languages," he argued the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity: "The loss of local languages, and of the cultural systems which they express, has meant irretrievable loss of diverse and interesting intellectual wealth, the priceless products of human mental industry. Only with diversity can it be guaranteed that all avenues of human intellectual progress will be traveled."
One example of a language closely linked to its culture is Damin, an auxiliary language spoken by the Lardil people of Mornington Island off Queensland, Australia. Damin is nearly unique in being an invented language phonologically distinct from the one on which it is based, but with sounds found nowhere else in the world, Professor Hale said. It was taught to novices in the advanced stage of men's initiation and used as a means of communication between initiates and teachers; ordinary Lardil could not be used until the ritual initiation debt was repaid.
Theoretically, Damin can be learned in just a day because it uses abstract names for families of concepts, so for example, the 19 Lardil pronouns are replaced by just two in Damin-one to describe any set that includes the speaker and one for a set that does not. Thus, only 200 new elements must be learned.
The last fluent speaker of Damin died several years ago, as its use was forbidden by authorities who viewed wealth in material rather than intellectual terms, Professor Hale said in his paper. Indeed, many of the Lardil people themselves "don't realize that in their heads, they have something that's a tower of intellectual achievement," he said.
Ulwa also has some interesting characteristics, such as the use of relative clauses, Professor Hale noted. For example, in the English sentence "the deer [that I saw yesterday] was big," the head of the relative clause (the deer) is separate from the following four-word clause that specifies it. But in Ulwa, the sentence would be rendered "[yesterday I deer saw] that was big," with the head (deer) located internal to the relative clause, in the very position it would occupy if that clause were spoken as a separate, or main, clause: "yesterday I deer saw" is equivalent to "yesterday I saw the deer" in English. (The definite article following the bracketed clause identifies the latter as a relative clause constuction).
Ulwa vocabulary is a virtual guide to the knowledge system of the Ulwa people, Professor Hale continued. In the area of botany and horticulture it is especially rich, reflecting not only taxonomy but also knowledge of the uses of plants for food, medicine and other commodities.
The Ulwa dictionary is just one of many that he has worked on. He has just finished a small dictionary of the extinct language Linngithigh once spoken on Australia's Cape York peninsula; he was able to work with the last native speaker who died in the late 1970s. He has also studied other aboriginal languages of that continent including Warlpiri and Ngarluma as well as Damin. In addition to English and Spanish, he speaks some Dutch, Navajo, O'odham (spoken by people in southern Arizona and northern Sonoma, Mexico), and Miskitu (another language spoken by the Ulwa).
Another project with which Professor Hale is involved is an effort by the Wik peoples of Australia to retain their homeland by proving to the government that they occupied it before colonists arrived in 1788. He hopes to show that the group of languages has a level of linguistic diversity and depth indicating they must have begun developing in that place more than 200 years ago.
Although he decries policies such as the current "English first" movements in the United States, Professor Hale also noted that other programs aimed at halting language extinction have had some success. Navajo is again being taught to children of that tribe in Arizona, and there is a master/apprentice program in California in which the few native speakers of a vanishing language teach it to other adults, who then speak it with their children at home.
There is a similar effort in West Belfast where a group of families have taught themselves Irish (which has not been spoken in everyday life since the 1930s) and are living together and speaking it with their children in an effort to create a new community of native Irish speakers. Those new speakers won't actually be recreating the lost language, since they will have a different accent and won't use all the phonological rules that the original speakers did, Professor Hale noted.
He and Professor Wayne O'Neil are working to develop a program here at MIT which would enable speakers of local languages to obtain training in applied linguistics in courses tailored for the specific needs of their communities. The skills needed for such work include dictionary making, grammar writing, preparation of lessons, orthography design, language teaching and others. These are areas in which both Professors Hale and O'Neil have worked in Australia and Nicaragua, as well as in this country.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 3, 1995.