When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languag... and over 2 million other books are available for Amazon Kindle . Learn more
Have one to sell?
Flip to back Flip to front
Listen Playing... Paused   You're listening to a sample of the Audible audio edition.
Learn more
See this image

When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics) Hardcover – 22 Feb 2007


See all 3 formats and editions Hide other formats and editions
Amazon Price New from Used from
Kindle Edition
"Please retry"
Hardcover
"Please retry"
£49.13 £7.93

There is a newer edition of this item:


Trade In Promotion



Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (22 Feb 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195181921
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195181920
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 2.8 x 15.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,099,369 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Discover books, learn about writers, and more.

Product Description

Review

In this scholarly yet very readable study, Harrison writes powerfully of the value and beauty of these vanishing knowledge systems. (PD Smith, The Guardian)

K. David Harrison makes an excellent case for studying our disappearing languages. Intrepid and dedicated, he is committed to salvaging what he can before it is too late. (Gregory Norminton, TLS)

About the Author

K David Harrison is Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Swarthmore College. As a linguist and specialist in Siberian Turkic languages, he has spent many months in Siberia and Mongolia working with nomadic herders and studying their languages and traditions. He has also worked in India, Bolivia, the Philippines, Lithuania, and the United States. His work on endangered languages is featured in the documentary film The Linguists and was featured on the Comedy Central series The Colbert Report. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
Browse Sample Pages
Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
Search inside this book:

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
5 star
1
4 star
1
3 star
0
2 star
0
1 star
0
See both customer reviews
Share your thoughts with other customers

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By M. A. Krul on 11 May 2009
Format: Paperback
K.D. Harrison, who looks like a US marine but is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, has penned this book as an appeal to the world to understand the loss to human knowledge involved in the extinction of small languages. As he explains in the beginning of the book, the 100 largest languages in terms of population cover over 80% of the world's speakers, whereas the entire bottom half of languages in such a ranking covers only a very small percentage. This means that there is a vast amount of languages that are spoken by small, isolated groups, and the increasing interconnectedness of the world population through developments in communication and information technology threatens the survival of these languages: popular languages crowd out less popular ones.

Harrison himself is a specialist in Turkic Siberian languages, all very rare and small ones, but his defense of preserving small languages applies to all of them. Yet, as he admits, the issue is less straightforward than it seems. The first problem is that the vast majority of the speakers of small languages are illiterate, and that it is a known fact of linguistics that non-written languages tend to vanish much faster than written ones. However, creating a script for a language kills the oral traditions of that culture by fixing them forever at a given point, which is a hard thing to ask of an anthropologist, and which we may not have the right to do.

A second problem is that it is not an evident thing that small languages are worth preserving in the first place. Harrison clearly sees this argument coming, and the greatest part of the book consists of an attempt to provide various reasons why small languages can be, if one looks at it purely from a practical non-romantic standpoint, worth keeping alive.
Read more ›
Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
By Cristina Muru on 15 Oct 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
i would recommend this book for all who are interested in knowing how reality can change according to one's own langauge
Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again

Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 12 reviews
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
"Sticky" Knowledge 5 Feb 2007
By Found Highways - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Several people have written about so-called "language death" (David Crystal and Mark Abley have written books on the stubject). But K. David Harrison's book When Languages Die shows what it really means when a language "dies."

First of all, Harrison makes it clear the death metaphor isn't perfect. Languages aren't people; they can't die. Instead "language shift - - the process by which younger people in a community choose not to speak the ancestral language and opt for the dominant national language" takes place. Harrison has spent years with, among others, the Tofa and Tuvan people in Siberia (whose Turkic languages have been replaced by Russian) and the nomadic Monchak people in Mongolia, who "have been linguistically fully assimilated to Mongolian."

Harrison uses examples from over a hundred different indigenous languages to show the different ways people have thought about the world.

Harrison points out that it's not so much globalization as urbanization that's responsible for language disappearance: "In crowded urban spaces, small languages usually lose the conditions they need for survival."

Harrison shows why we need to at least document the thousands of languages that will disappear this century. We don't even know what knowledge we'll lose. Language is "sticky" when written down, but most languages have never had writing systems. And if we lose the knowledge of how people have thought, we won't know how people can think.

The saddest story in the book belongs to Vasya Gabov, the youngest speaker of Os ("O" with an umlaut). The Os people fish and hunt in central Siberia. In school Gabov was forbidden to speak his own language and forced to speak Russian. He reacted by inventing an alphabet for Os based on Cyrillic. (Harrison goes into detail about how Gabov made the Russian alphabet work for Os.) Then, once Gabov had a way of recording his native language, he started keeping a journal in Os. But years later, when someone mocked him for writing in Os, the feelings of shame from school came back and he "threw his journal - - the first and only book ever written in his native Os tongue - - out into the forest to rot."

Harrison's telling of Vasya Gabov's story illustrates something that's clear throughout the book - - Harrison may be interested as a scientist in these languages for their own sake, but he cares for the "last speakers" he's lived with as human beings.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Two thought-provoking arguments for language preservation 16 July 2008
By Christopher Culver - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Every two weeks, a language dies. Over the past several years there have been several books written about this sad phenomenon, ranging from popular works such as Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages to more academic coverage like Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. K. David Harrison's When Languages Die has a universal appeal. The author, a professor of linguistics at Swathmore College, writes in an approachable style that emphasizes the human element of language death, the last speakers of languages who feel great pain at their loss, while giving a rigorous argument for language preservation.

One common point in favor of language preservation is that certain possibilities of human language are found only in small indigenous languages, and were they not attested there, we would not know the human brain could accept such features. Urarina, a language spoken in the Amazon that has OVS word order, is the standard example and is present here. Harrison, however, gives some original arguments. His fieldwork has taken him to several smaller populations of Eastern Europe, Siberia, the Philippines and Mongolia. He has visited populations who maintain a traditional way of life with complex folk techniques. Harrison's first argument for language preservation is that the switch from an indigenous language and its useful terminology for local industry to an outside language creates inefficiency. He observes that older reindeer herders among Siberian peoples speaking their own language are able to express themselves about their duties much more concisely than a younger generation speaking Russian, who must resort to circumlocution. I like this argument. It does not resort to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines what you can say, for the younger generation can still speak of the details of reindeer herding, but it sees value in a language that can encode such information more efficiently.

Harrison's second argument for action against language death is that traditional languages pass down useful knowledge through the generations simply by being used, and this knowledge is lost through adopting an outside language. He gives exhaustive coverage of various calendar systems throughout the world, where names for months are tied to the agriculture or hunting cycle. Simply by growing up speaking such a language, a young person is endowed with knowledge of the plant cycle or the breeding habits of local wildlife. He gives examples of Siberian populations who no longer remember details of certain natural phenonmenon because they have lost their traditional calendar and use only the Russian one. While in many cases this is applicable, this argument doesn't hold when local peoples simply cease caring about traditional views of the natural environment. The same forces which encourage language shift, industrialization and urbanization, are those which tend to replace traditional ways of life altogether. When people are living in large blocks of flats in the city, going to work in offices or factories, is the traditional calendar any more meaningful than the new one?

In fact, this ties into one major objection I have to pleas for language preservation as usually formulated. As linguists, we can agree with languages are interesting and worthy of preservation. We might agree that some of what indigenous populations do, such as their agricultural lore, should be preserved. However, I don't see how we must all believe that all indigenous ways of life are worth maintaining. This is especially true with regards to religion. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, religion is usually an issue of what is right against what is falsehood, and it doesn't make sense to call for relativism. Have some priorities here, people. While less critical of missionary efforts than other books on this subject, even Harrison succumbs to this, writing on page 153 'We should be sensitive to the impending loss of so many more religions and worldviews as languages die.' I would like to make linguistics my life's work, but there's no way I buy that.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of the speakers of threatened languages and with various diagrams. The author even includes sign languages alongside spoken languages, which no other work on the subject to my knowledge has done. Of the books I've read on the general phenomenon of language death and the worthiness of language preservation, Harrison's When Languages Die is, while by no means perfect, probably the best.
47 of 59 people found the following review helpful
When languages die 3 Sep 2007
By M. A. Krul - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
K.D. Harrison, who looks like a US marine but is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, has penned this book as an appeal to the world to understand the loss to human knowledge involved in the extinction of small languages. As he explains in the beginning of the book, the 100 largest languages in terms of population cover over 80% of the world's speakers, whereas the entire bottom half of languages in such a ranking covers only a very small percentage. This means that there is a vast amount of languages that are spoken by small, isolated groups, and the increasing interconnectedness of the world population through developments in communication and information technology threatens the survival of these languages: popular languages crowd out less popular ones.

Harrison himself is a specialist in Turkic Siberian languages, all very rare and small ones, but his defense of preserving small languages applies to all of them. Yet, as he admits, the issue is less straightforward than it seems. The first problem is that the vast majority of the speakers of small languages are illiterate, and that it is a known fact of linguistics that non-written languages tend to vanish much faster than written ones. However, creating a script for a language kills the oral traditions of that culture by fixing them forever at a given point, which is a hard thing to ask of an anthropologist, and which we may not have the right to do.

A second problem is that it is not an evident thing that small languages are worth preserving in the first place. Harrison clearly sees this argument coming, and the greatest part of the book consists of an attempt to provide various reasons why small languages can be, if one looks at it purely from a practical non-romantic standpoint, worth keeping alive. Using various case studies from his own research, he shows that a lot of things that used to be taken for granted in linguistics as 'constants' of all human language use where in fact only aspects of popular languages, but lacking in certain rare ones entirely. This is well demonstrable in counting systems, which Harrison spends a chapter discussing, as although use of numbers seems something that would be universal in all cultures, it is in fact wildly variant even to the degree of noncommensurability. The recent discussion about the Piraha people, who appear to not count at all, makes this even more relevant. In a similar way, Harrison provides examples of certain linguistic assumptions about word use that were proven wrong by 'discovery' (by Western researchers) of rare languages.

There are nevertheless some things missing that would have really added to Harrison's discussion of the problematic. The first and most obvious thing is the political and social contexts of use of rare languages. In many cases, users of small languages, at least in the younger generations, do not wish to use their own language any more since it is strongly socially and often even politically disadvantageous to do so. Many minority languages in various nations are discriminated against or considered not to exist, and there is additionally the pressure of wanting to appear 'modern' or 'civilized' instead of speaking some backwater language the old folks use. A discussion of the various ways governments as well as minor language speakers have dealt with this would have been useful both for judging the value of preserving small languages (a political question) as for scientific purposes, but is entirely missing.

Another thing that would have really added to the book is a more in-depth discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its relation to the usefulness of preserving small languages. Harrison does mention the hypothesis (which states that language determines thought, i.e., that some thoughts can only appear or be expressed in certain languages and not in others) and that its radical form is usually rejected, but does not otherwise go into it. This is a major gap, as it seems to me this is central to the issue. If anything can be expressed in any language, there is not much point in keeping small languages around, if only for efficiency reasons and the way it divides people. But if, on the other hand, certain things can be at least expressed far better in one language than in another, there can be strong reasons to want to keep small languages around, even if just for the sake of poetry and literature. The more strongly the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis appears valid, the more reason there seems to be to politically support the use of small languages.

With these two considerations outside Harrison's discussion, the book is more of an emotional appeal combined with a series of case studies to pique the interest of the common reader. This is interesting enough as is, but unsatisfactory to resolve the real question: what does it mean for us when languages die?
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The Sad Extinction of Culture 17 Nov 2007
By D. Ebert - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"When Languages Die" illuminates one of sad the results of centralized governments and the emergence of a world monoculture. It should be required reading for high school history students. Another fine book on the topic of the loss of language and culture to monolithic government is "The Discovery of France" by Graham Robb, which details the intertwined maze of languages and cultures in what is now known as France, that was dismantled and destroyed after the French Revolution. It gives a better perspective to viewing the plight of politically marginal cultures like the Basques and the Kurds, just to mention a couple famous groups. Did you know, for instance, that the Languedoc region of France (translate Languedoc to Langue d'Occ) was once the center of the second great language of France, Occitan, and that it is still spoken in France? You'll be led into studying the story of the destruction of the native Christian culture of the Cathars of France by the crusades and The Inquisition. Another fascinating addition to "When Languages Die" is a book and CD published by Ellipsis Arts called "Deep In the Heart Of Tuva: cowboy music from the wild east", a small book and large recording of the music and unique language of the region of Mongolia named Tuva, which was central to "When Languages Die". We can conserve lost animals in cryobanks and zoos; but you'd better take a close look at these cultures before they're gone. Oh, yes, also read about the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq, killed off and dispersed by Saddam; a culture of 500,000 to 1,000,000 persons dating back to the Sumerians.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Very Interesting and Rather Sad 9 Mar 2010
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The author is a linguist specializing dying languages. As Harrison points out, a very large fraction of the world's extant languages are spoken by very small groups and are being displaced by absorption into more common languages. These vanishing languages are invariably from oral cultures in which language is the primary repository of considerable inherited knowledge. One language of mountain farmers in the Phillipines contains a remarkably detailed vocabulary for rice cultivation and rice strains, a language in the Solomon Islands is particularly rich in terms for fish behavior, and many of these languages encode impressive geographic knowledge of their regions. When languages are lost, inherited knowledge, along with religious and many other cultural traditions are lost with them. Harrison argues well that language loss is significantly diminishing our cultural and scientific patrimony.

In addition, Harrison argues well also that language diversity is scientifically important in understanding not only human language capacity per se but important aspects of human cognition generally. The great diversity of languages provides raw data for looking at human cognitive capacities. Harrison shows very nicely the diversity of counting systems, grammatical systems, topographic knowledge encoded by language, and other features that reveal the impressive diversity of language capacities. Without efforts to preserve or record these dying languages, potentially important data about the human mind will be irretrievably lost.

Beyond these scientific reasons to be interested in dying languages, Harrison shows very well how language death reduces cultural diversity and our general cultural patrimony. Harrison presents some powerful vignettes about what is lost with the death of language and some particularly poignant stories about the efforts of speakers of dying languages to hold onto their languages.
Were these reviews helpful? Let us know


Feedback