College of Liberal Arts

NEH Grant to Help Preserve Languages Before They Are Lost

Mon, May 7, 2018
More than half of the world's languages could disappear in the next century.
More than half of the world's languages could disappear in the next century.

University of Texas at Austin researchers Patience Epps and Susan Kung have been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize more than a dozen languages falling out of use across Latin America.

The two linguists run the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), a repository that preserves indigenous languages in multimedia. Their new project, “Archiving Significant Collections of Endangered Languages: Two Multilingual Regions of Northwestern South America,” will work to digitize eight collections of threatened South American languages, including two collections of Kichwa, an indigenous language of highland Ecuador, and six collections from the Upper Rio Negro region of Brazil and Colombia. Languages like these run the risk of extinction due to a dwindling number of speakers and the historical promotion of Spanish by dominant powers.

“Endangered languages in general have deep value for both the heritage of the communities and for scientific and humanitarian understanding of the world more widely,” Epps said. “These materials preserve many stories, songs, incantations and other forms of specialized discourse that are different from everyday speech, are in some cases highly artistic, and tend to be falling out of use today.”

Experts warn that more than half of the world’s languages could disappear in the next hundred years. Epps and Kung say this has broader implications beyond decreasing linguistic diversity. When a language vanishes, we not only lose insights into the nature of human communication, but also the knowledge of regional geography, art, biology and history that has been encoded into that language over years of evolution. Languages are an integral part of the social fabric, and the disappearance of such an important cultural pillar can erode the health of a community in devastating ways.

“For communities, a language is often understood as a critical connection to their heritage and their identity,” Epps said. “My experiences living and working in indigenous communities have led me to be deeply invested in thinking about their well-being and to recognize the connections between things like malnutrition, high suicide rates and the loss of traditional knowledge and cultural grounding.”

Since 2001, AILLA has worked to archive and preserve other indigenous languages of Latin America. The process is extensive: Papers, audio cassettes, photographs and videos all have to be meticulously examined and archived in AILLA. In addition to the technical process, Kung and Epps consider the privacy, traditional knowledge and taboos of the community whose language they are documenting. Kung said this step relies heavily on the original researchers themselves.

“If the researcher is still living, we try to spend at least a week or two working with each one on the final organization of the files to try to recover any missing contextual information,” Kung said. “Memory can be very powerful when a person handles the physical object.”

The materials in the new project are particularly important, as many of the collections are decades old and document ways of speaking that are already no longer in regular use today. The AILLA archive will preserve this important research and provide a map of the richness of indigenous Latin American languages and an invaluable resource for further insights into these diverse cultures.


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