Endangered Languages

I have been researching, writing, and speaking about endangered languages since 2006.

At the current unprecedented rate of language shift, a significant portion of the world's cultural and linguistic diversity will disappear over the next century. The active suppression, stamping out, and shaming into silence of so many languages should be understood as a question of justice and human rights, because the powerful, over and over again, impose their words on the powerless. At the heart of linguistics is a radical premise: all languages are equal. Every grammar is equally complex, logical, and capable of producing an infinite set of sentences to express any thought one might wish to express.

Since 2013, I have been Co-Director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a non-profit based in New York with a mission to document endangered languages and support linguistic diversity. I have done linguistic fieldwork in partnership with communities in China, Tajikistan, Nepal, and New York City.

Sample Recordings

  1. Ishkashimi speaker Jahonoro Kholnazarova, from Rin in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, tells one of her grandchildren's favorite stories, about a goat and her kids.

  2. Tin Svr, Pung Song, and Teng Ba, three speakers of Trung, a language of southwest China, go on a fishing expedition.

  3. Jamyang Gurung — a speaker of Seke, a language of Nepal, who now lives in Brooklyn — predicts that his language will vanish after his generation.

Projects

For my PhD, I worked to document Trung (Dulong, 独龙) (IPA: təruŋ, ISO: duu), a Tibeto-Burman language of the Nungish group, spoken by fewer than 7000 people, primarily in the Gongshan Nu and Dulong Autonomous County, in the far northwest of Yunnan Province. Fieldwork between 2006 and 2011 resulted in ~150 audio and video recordings, including dozens of traditional stories, narratives, songs, and conversations, many of which were translated and/or annotated and all of which were deposited with at the Endangered Language Archive, along with a 4,000+ entry trilingual Tvrung kvt cv'tyeng (Concise Trung-English-Chinese Dictionary, 简明独龙语英语汉语词典), which I edited together with the Trung Dictionary Committee. My grammar of Dulong (Trung) served as my PhD dissertation at the University of Bern, defended in 2017 and published in 2019 by Himalayan Linguistics.

In 2018, as a National Geographic Explorer, I was Principal Investigator of "The Other Roof of the World" focused on Pamiri languages of Tajikistan. Working together with ELA Senior Researcher Husniya Khujamyorova and filmmaker Nicole Galpern, we recorded interviews with 70 speakers of 11 languages and dialects, totaling 35+ hours of high-quality video and including personal histories, songs, migration stories, local environmental knowledge, folklore, and more.

Beginning with a Columbia fields methods class in 2018 I taught together with speaker Rasmina Gurung, I have been researching Seke, an endangered and little-documented Tibeto-Burman language of Mustang, Nepal with ~700 speakers, of whom over 100 are in New York. Following fieldwork with Rasmina in Mustang in 2019, we have been assembling, transcribing, and translation an annotated corpus of Seke materials.

I have coordinated or led projects with colleagues including Voices of the Himalaya, Songs and Singers of the Himalaya, Ladino New York, and Mapping Linguistic Diversity. I edited ELA's Languages of New York City map, released in 2019.

Support for my work has come from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, the Himalayan Languages Project, the Firebird Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, National Geographic, an American Council of Learned Societies/Luce Foundation Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other sources.

This work is under a Creative Commons license.

Last updated: 15 July 2020

Publications

2019. "A Grammar of Trung," Himalayan Linguistics, Vol. 18, Issue 2.

2018. With Daniel Kaufman, “Language Documentation in Diaspora Communities”. In Lyle Campbell and Kenneth Rehg (eds), Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages.

2018. With Nawang Gurung, Daniel Kaufman, Sienna Craig, and Mark Turin. "Orality and Mobility: Documenting Himalayan Voices in New York", Verge: Studies in Global Asias vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, 64–80.

2016. “The Race to Save a Dying Language”, Guardian, August 17.

2015. With Habib Borjian. “Bukhori in New York”, CAHIER DE STUDIA IRANICA 57, 15-27.

2014. “Endangered Speakers,” n+1, Issue 20.

2013. "The documentary linguist as facilitator: The view from Trung (Dulong)", Presentation at the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC), February 28-March 3, 2013 at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.

2013. "Language Death by Committee? The View From China", Poster at the Linguistic Society of America.

2013. “Tone Poem” (How to Read the Dictionary of an Endangered Language), Harper’s, August.

2012. "Review of WeSay, A Tool for Collaborating on Dictionaries with Non-Linguists", Language Documentation & Conservation 6.

2009. "Language Attitudes of the T'rung." Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, 32.1, April 2009.