Christopher's Reviews > The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages

The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison
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The linguist K. David Harrison has been one of the most tireless activists for protecting the world's diversity of languages, some 7,000 or so by his count, but disappearing at a rapid rate through globalization. He wrote an impassioned argument for language preservation in WHEN LANGUAGES DIE, and the recent documentary film THE LINGUISTS about his work has won great praise. Harrison's new book THE LAST SPEAKERS is something of a combination of these two previous accounts written for a very broad audience. On one hand, it's a print account of the fun of doing fieldwork and working with small language communities as in the film, while on the other hand Harrison repeats his scholarly arguments for language diversity in a simpler, more straightforward fashion. Having received a review copy, my opinions are a bit mixed.

For the general public, I suppose this can be a quick read (its 250 pages or so go by fast) and an often fun one. Harrison explains pretty clear what it's like to be a linguist, at least a field-oriented one. Linguists, Harrison explains, aren't simply people who "speak a lot of languages", or interpreters or translators. Rather, they are scientists, and their explorations are best carried out not among dusty bookstacks, but with communities that are united around a language. Good fieldwork, Harrison says, means immersing yourself in the daily lives of speakers. Thus we hear some amusing anecdotes about slaughtering a sheep with a nomad family, or hearing the blue guitar music of a young person in Papua New Guinea.

This book repeats much of WHEN LANGUAGE DIES, and I was sad to see that it repeats some of the flawed argumentation of that prior volume. Namely, Harrison makes a case for action against language death by holding 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 speaks of languages where names for months are tied to the agriculture or hunting cycle, and thus native speakers grow up with a knowledge of the natural world, but some speakers have given up their traditional calendars and use only the Western one. However, ultimately this loss of knowledge isn't necessarily due to language shift, but to other political and social pressures. The same forces which encourage language shift, such as 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?

Indeed, Harrison notes in this book that a Siberian Turkic population he studies, who herd reindeer and have an abundant lexicon for their way of life, had previously used some other, unknown language and switched to Turkic possibly only a couple of centuries ago. Clearly language shift happened in that context without a loss of information, because these people keep going on herding reindeer efficiently. The problem of loss of information is therefore not language shift in itself.

Still, even if I don't agree with some points, I think this book could be profitably read by almost everyone. The amount of repetition makes it seem like bad value, but some may find it a worthwhile purchase. I'd even cautiously recommend it to actual linguists in the hope that it would encourage the more sedentary researchers to go out and do fieldwork. It's fun!
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October 12, 2010 – Finished Reading
October 24, 2010 – Shelved

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