Wednesday, January 09, 2008

NAT: More on The Linguists

"The Linguists," Documenting Vanishing Voices, Premieres at Sundance
Film highlights endangered languages in Siberia, India and Bolivia
Release, January 8, 2008

In Siberia, fewer than 25 elderly people speak Chulym, a language spoken for
generations by traditional hunter-gatherers and fishermen in small rural
villages. In Bolivia, a language once spoken by healers to the Inca emperor is
on the verge of extinction. In the Orissa state in the east of India, younger
generations no longer speak Sora, a language of the region with a complex and
expressive way of putting words together.

These examples are brought vividly to life in "The Linguists," a documentary
funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Producer-directors
Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger of Ironbound Films
accompanied scientists David Harrison of Swarthmore College and Gregory
Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute on a journey to record these languages
and understand the cultural and political pressures threatening their

Scientists estimate that of 7,000 languages in the world, half will be gone by
the end of this century. On average, one language disappears every two weeks.
The human dimension of endangered languages is brought to light in "The
Linguists," which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah,
on Jan. 18, 2008. The film dramatizes the kind of work involved in reaching
indigenous communities and documenting their languages.

"The most surprising discovery was just how interesting and dramatic it was to
follow two seemingly no-nonsense linguists--David Harrison and Gregory
Harrison--into the field," says Daniel Miller, the film's producer. "The
linguists first had to penetrate bureaucracies, then gain trust within
communities, and finally inspire speech from people often driven into not using
their native tongue by decades of persecution and shame. These challenges
required skills finely honed by the linguists and made the expeditions more
like adventures."

The adventures were not without risk. In India, extreme poverty in the region
had sparked a violent Maoist insurgency. With its travel under strict
government regulation, the group was urged by its Indian guides not to travel
at night or stay in local villages, and to keep interactions with the populace
to a minimum. Because the linguists' work demanded otherwise, the group was
forced to take certain risks in the interest of recording endangered languages.

"The resurgence of interest among linguists in smaller languages has happily
coincided with an upsurge in activism on the part of the speaker communities,"
says Douglas H. Whalen, program director for NSF's Documenting Endangered
Languages program. "This film provides a thought-provoking sample of
cooperation between these groups in the urgent task of documenting endangered

In India, Siberia, and the United States, the group found confirmation of a
recurring pattern: schools set up to "civilize" indigenous children had taught
them the pointlessness of their native tongues and pushed them toward
abandoning that language and the culture associated with it. "The Linguists"
lets the communities involved speak for themselves in demonstrating the power
of these forces.

"We did not want to make a movie that looked at threatened ways of life with
detached sentimentality," says Miller. "We sought to portray speakers of
endangered languages, and the scientists who work with them, as regular people
who share a sense of urgency about losing something vital. Their stories--at
times sad, scary, even hilarious--reveal how the loss of a language affects us
as human beings."

"'The Linguists' is a compelling story about the causes of language loss and
what scientists are doing to help maintain the languages and the cultures they
support," says Valentine Kass, program director for NSF's Informal Science
Education program. "We are thrilled that the quality of the production has led
to its premiere at Sundance."

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