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When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics) Hardcover – February 1, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0195181920 ISBN-10: 0195181921

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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (February 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195181921
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195181920
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.1 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,236,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Harrison brings the personal as well as the academic to this very interesting and readable book." --Language Documentation & Conservation

"Engaging and non-technical enough to arouse the interest of non-linguists, but wide-ranging enough and well-sourced enough to appeal to linguists as well." --Linguist List

"Harrison tackles the question of what is lost when a language dies from the vantage point of field studies with some of the few remaining speakers of endangered languages in Siberia, Mongolia, and elsewhere. When Languages Die reveals an astonishingly rich catalog of human intellectual heritage and scientific knowledge on the verge of disappearing as many of the world's small languages become extinct." --Suzanne Romaine, Oxford University

"Depending on how one counts, it is likely that hald of the world's languages will be lost over the next thirty years, a dramatic change in human history. Harrison explores dying languages, how they differ from stable languages, how they encode cultural information that is lost with them, how their speakers behave, and much more. He tells a fascinating and tragic story of immense drama." --David W. Lightfoot, National Science Foundation

"Written in clear and concise prose, When Languages Die provides a captivating account of how languages encode and categorize human knowledge and experience. Harrison brings together a wealth of examples from all over the world to illustrate just how very much is lost when a language ceases to be spoken. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in people and how we think, perceive, and understand the world we live in." --Lenore A. Grenoble, Dartmouth College

About the Author

David Harrison is Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Swarthmore College.

More About the Author

K. David Harrison is a linguist and leading specialist in the study of endangered languages. He has done extensive fieldwork in Siberia, Mongolia, Bolivia, India and Native America. In his book, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford 2007), Harrison provides a vivid picture of the scientific consequences of language loss. He also depicts the human factor, including moving accounts of his encounters with last speakers in remote corners of the globe.

Harrison co-stars in the documentary film "The Linguists" which premiered at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews in February 2008, and appeared at film festivals across the country (Boston, Madison, Dallas). The Hollywood Reporter writes: "Indiana Jones' spirit certainly infects the intrepid heroes of 'The Linguists.' These are bold academics who plunge into the jungles and backwater villages of the world to rescue living tongues about to go extinct." Vanity Fair describes it as "...a fantastic little film that follows professors David Harrison and Gregory Anderson as they crisscross the globe on a mission to document languages on the verge of extinction. From the depths of Siberia to the high reaches of Bolivia, the pair is relentless in their goal, displaying a remarkable patience for interviewing deaf nonagenarians who are frequently the only surviving speakers. While this might all sound horribly sleep-inducing, the excitement of these two professors proves contagious, and as the film reveals how cultural shame and colonialism have factored in the loss of these languages, their incredible dedication becomes all the more compelling." And Variety comments: "A two-man mission to document the world's endangered tongues becomes a fleet-footed study of human communication and its limitless structural and functional possibilities. Prof. Noam Chomsky characterized the film as "A breathtaking thrill ride through the landscape of language."

Harrison makes frequent media appearances to promote language diversity, and his research is widely discussed in mainstream media. He has appeared on Good Morning America, The Colbert Report, WHYY Radio, BBC, NPR and in many other outlets. His work has been featured in in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, The
Los Angeles Times, and USA Today.

In 2004 Harrison co-founded the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to raising awareness, documenting and revitalizing small languages. The institute runs language documentation projects around the globe. In 2006 he coined the term, "language hotspots", which has since become a leading promotional metaphor for understanding the language extinction crisis. The hotspots map and list was published in National Geographic Magazine in October 2007, and at www.languagehotspots.org. Harrison and colleagues have embarked on a series of National Geographic sponsored expeditions to visit the hotspots and interview last speakers in places such as Australia, Bolivia and India.

Harrison received his PhD in Linguistics from Yale University in 2000, his MA in Slavic Languages from the Jagiellonian University of Cracow, Poland, and his BA in International Studies from The American University in Washington, DC. He resides in Philadelphia, PA, where he serves as Associate Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College.

Customer Reviews

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Harrison goes into detail about how Gabov made the Russian alphabet work for Os.
Found Highways
That is unavoidable, yet different author would certainly take other samples or other chapters in his story, but that might not make the story any better.
Aleksandar Perisic
The great diversity of languages provides raw data for looking at human cognitive capacities.
R. Albin

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Found Highways VINE VOICE on February 5, 2007
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.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Culver TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 16, 2008
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.
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47 of 59 people found the following review helpful By M. A. Krul on September 2, 2007
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.
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