Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act

October 20, 2006

Academics involved in global efforts to preserve thousands of dying languages have been accused of seeing themselves as "Indiana Jones"-style linguists - when many communities are not overly concerned about losing their former mother tongues.

Linguists gathering for the annual conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages in India this month are calling for urgent action to document, and where possible "revitalise", languages under threat. It has been estimated that half the world's languages will disappear by the end of the century.

But some experts have accused researchers who travel to remote areas to save a language of cultivating a "heroic" image and of ignoring the fact that a community might not wish its language to be saved.

Yaron Matras, professor of linguistics at Manchester University and an expert on the Romany language, said: "I think some colleagues have adopted a pretentious attitude, where they see themselves as some heroic linguist with a kind of Indiana Jones image, going into the rainforests to save the planet's languages."

Although it is important to document dying languages for the sake of research, communities often do not see a need for their language to be saved, he said.

Nick Ostler, chair of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, said it was not always practical to ask a community if it wanted its language to be saved. "Some people care about it, others do not. What the current generation feels may not reflect how later generations will feel," he said.

David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University, said there were difficult issues to consider even when just documenting a language. "There is the question of intellectual property. If I record a tribe's language, who does the recording belong to? We have to make sure people's rights are respected."

Peter Austin, director of the Hans Ransing Endangered Languages Project at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said: "A lot of work needs to be done to understand the values of communities whose languages are dying.

We need to find a balance between those who say let the languages die and those who want to save everything."

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