Linguist David Harrison (middle) documents the endangered language of Matukar Panau with the aid of native speaker John Agid (left) in Papua New Guinea. Matukar Panau is one of eight endangered languages featured in a "talking dictionary" project announced today. The online repositories will allow just about anyone to hear disappearing tongues being spoken by some of what may be their last speakers.
Unveiled today at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada, the online dictionaries by Harrison and fellow linguist Gregory Anderson so far contain more than 32,000 word entries and more than 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences in their languages.
Besides Matukar Panau, the new talking dictionaries include Chamacoco from northern Paraguay; the languages of Remo, Sora, and Ho from India; Tuvan from Russia and Mongolia; and various Celtic tongues—with more to come.
"We have materials collected for talking dictionaries of varying sizes for several other languages, which we'll be working on over the next year or two," said Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute and a National Geographic Society fellow. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
"ngau ngahau wag adape, nab onon ngabalape"/"If I had a canoe, I could throw a hook."
"ngau fud wasing ida nganinge"/"I ate bananas with fish."
The fishing-dependent village of Matukar is in a very multilingual part of Papua New Guinea, Anderson said, and there's been a shift among the younger generation toward speaking a mix of Creole and English that's popular throughout the country.
Until the Enduring Voices team began documenting it three years ago, Matukar Panau had never been recorded or written. The community requested that the language be placed online, even though none of the villagers had ever used the Internet. They saw and heard their language in a digital medium for the first time in 2011, following the arrival of electricity in the village. (Search the full Matukar Panau talking dictionary.)
Linguist Colleen Fitzgerald of the University of Texas at Arlington said other talking dictionary projects exist, but most are generated by communities that speak a particular language and are able to add to the resources themselves. Fitzgerald commended the Living Tongues Institute for creating teams capable of efficiently putting together talking dictionaries, which can be a very labor-intensive process.
"There are software options now that make it easier ... but you still need someone to sit down and do the data entry and edit the sound files," said Fitzgerald, who was not involved in the new talking dictionaries project.
Photograph by Chris Rainier, National Geographic
Tito Perez, a shaman from the Chamacoco community in Puerto Diana, Paraguay, is dressed in traditional garb, including a feathered necklace and head gear.
Now preserved in the talking dictionaries, Chamacoco is still spoken by about 1,200 people but is highly endangered. "Their language is threatened by the general shift to Spanish that is happening across most of Latin America," Anderson said. (Search the full Chamacoco talking dictionary.)
"The thing I like about Chamacoco is you can pick almost any word and it just sounds cool," Anderson added. "It's just a cool-sounding language."
"eɪje ɪt wuʒɔ"/"You speak very quickly."
"detʃɔle ese dʒɪpẽɹ je tewi dɔʃbe"/"Tomorrow the kingfisher will not eat fish."
Anderson said the talking dictionaries project is not designed to teach nonspeakers to be fluent in a dying language. Rather, it should be viewed as a supplement to other forms of language instruction.
"It can teach you the pronunciation of words, but to actually speak the language, you'd have to learn the grammar," he said. "It's a useful resource, but it's not the only one you can use, just like any other dictionary wouldn't be."
Photograph by Chris Rainier, National Geographic
Ways of Speaking, Ways of Seeing
Also featured among the talking dictionaries, India's Remo language (speakers pictured in traditional attire) is of particular interest to scholars, Anderson said, because its linguistic roots are very old. (Search the full Remo talking dictionary.)
"It's been in India for a very long time," he said. "It goes back to a pre-Hindu level of India."
"aniŋ remosam sagita"/"I speak Remo."
"abubuʔ sumo konun druka munabaj"/"The tiger that ate the snake is big."
For Anderson and other linguists, the death of a language is more than just the loss of certain words and phrases. Many studies suggest the language you speak can affect the way you think, so humans lose a unique lens upon the world every time a language dies, Anderson said.
Studies also suggest that there are numerous benefits for a society when its members are multilingual.
"There's all kinds of evidence that suggests bilingual brains are healthier," Anderson said, "and this has a knock-on economic effect, because you tend to find less dementia and Alzheimer's among bilinguals. ... And people who go through bilingual programs consistently have higher graduation rates and higher average salaries."