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Tue November 22, 2011
Dr. Jonathan Bobaljik, University of Connecticut - Endangered Languages
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Jonathan Bobaljik of the University of Connecticut reveals what we can learn from studying languages on the verge of extinction.
Jonathan Bobaljik is a professor of linguistics at the University of Connecticut where his research addresses questions of linguistic universals. His current project, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is providing multimedia documentation of the Itelmen language, indigenous to the Kamchatka peninsula of the Russian Far East. He holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Jonathan Bobaljik - Endangered Languages
One of the projects I'm currently involved in is multimedia documentation of the Itelmen language, an indigenous language spoken on Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. The language is highly endangered -- there are fewer than 20 people left who speak it natively.
People often ask me: why go to the ends of the earth to study a language like Itelmen, which in all likelihood will no longer be spoken a generation from now? But that's precisely the reason: half or maybe as many as 90 percent of the world's languages are endangered - they may die out by the end of this century. When a language dies, it's a loss for the communities involved, and for the world's cultural heritage, but the rapidly vanishing linguistic diversity is also a loss of a vast amount of knowledge that bears on fundamental questions about the nature of language, and human cognition generally.
A central question in linguistics and the cognitive sciences is whether there are limits on linguistic diversity - do languages deep down all follow a common template, a universal grammar - are they all built from a shared set of building blocks?
It's really by studying these diverse languages, like Itelmen, unrelated to those we have studied before, that we can shed new light on these questions. Languages seem to display an amazingly rich amount of variation, but it is almost equally amazing how much, when you dig below the surface, you find the same structures, these shared building blocks, even the most distant languages. The rich variety that we observe is all really a variation on a single universal theme.