Visualizing Languages

Visualizing Languages

Languages of the World

In the foothills of the Himalayas, two field linguists have just uncovered a language new to science. "Koro" is spoken by natives of Arunachal Pradesh, India's northeastern-most state, where hunters and subsistence farmers live mostly isolated from modern culture (see photos of the Koro). More than 120 languages are spoken in this region.

Remarkably, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, even native Koro speakers did not recognize that their language was distinct from Aka, the dominant tongue in the region. Culturally, the Koro are part of the Aka community, so both groups naturally assumed that Koro was an Aka dialect. But as linguist Gregory Anderson told reporters last week, Koro has a vocabulary and a linguistic structure that is entirely unique. "We noticed it instantly," he told the Times' John Noble Wilford.

Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute and Swarthmore linguist K. David Harrison first discovered Koro in 2008, on an expedition for the Enduring Voices Project of the National Geographic Society. They formally announced the finding in Washington D.C. last week and a detailed analysis will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Indian Linguistic.

Finding a language previously unknown to Western society, of course, is not an unheard of event. As Harrison puts it, undocumented tongues are noticed "from time to time." But the timing of this discovery is important: Worldwide, some 7,000 languages are spoken today. By some estimates, one of those languages goes extinct every two weeks.

This visualization, by graphic designer Rozina Vavetsi, illustrates how those 7,000 languages are classified into 50 families — from the familiar Germanic and Romance, to the perhaps more esoteric Berberic and Samoyed. Vavetzi's creative mashup of a word cloud and global map enable us to see not only where a certain language family is dominant, but also how some parts of the planet are much more polyglot than others. One small patch of land in the Middle East, for example, encompasses a patchwork of Caucasian, Iranian, Turkic, Armenian, Greek, Slavik, Mongolic, Arabic, and Hebrew, while the entire continent of Australia is a blend of only Germanic and Australian.

These differences reflect myriad in-migrations and out-migrations, ease-of-access versus geographic isolation, and various accidents of history that even experts have yet to unravel. One thing, however, is quite certain: for all its upsides — increased sharing of ideas, information, and goods — globalization is creating a more globally homogenous culture. It is snuffing out languages at a rate far faster than new ones can evolve, and in so doing, extinguishing unique ways of thinking, knowing, and perceiving the world.

The Race to Stem Language Loss

That English, Spanish, and most likely, Mandarin, will gobble up what's left of the world's linguistic diversity is a fait accompli, according to many. But Anderson and Harrison aren't like many people, and they're not even like most language experts. As we've highlighted before on Seed, Harrison and Anderson are a truly remarkable pair — linguists who, between the two of them, speak several dozen languages and who cross the planet in a last-ditch effort to find and record the world's most endangered tongues.

The documentary film, The Linguists, depicts Harrison and Anderson as they journey to meet the last living speakers of dying languages — Kallawaya in Bolivia, Chulym in Siberia, Sora in eastern India and Chemehuevia in Arizona. In a series of William Safire-meets-Indiana Jones vignettes, we see them track down a medicine man in the Andes, dance with "Untouchables" in an Indian tribal village, and use laptops to show Chulym speakers video footage of themselves speaking that the linguists have edited using iMovie.

Their use of technology isn't just a matter of convenience: Recording languages and giving them a presence on the internet helps maintain and grow the number of speakers. And for the younger generation of would-be Kallawaya or Sora speakers, the digital stamp is a sign of modernity. Harrison calls it an effort to "assist small and underrepresented langages in crossing the digital divide." At the Living Tongues Institute, many of those online recordings are available for download, in a searchable database of online "talking dictionaries".

It's of course easy to cast globalization as the evildoer in this situation — the driver of a worldwide monoculture — but the reality is more complex. In a particularly memorable scene in The Linguists, Harrison and Anderson are making their way to India in search of Sora speakers. Their first stop, however, isn't the tribal hinterlands where they eventually find their Sora. It's to the boarding schools in Delhi, where they encounter children from all across the sub-continent, representing hundreds of distinct ethnic languages. Drilled all day long in English and Hindi, these schoolchildren are encouraged not to speak in their tribal tongues. By graduation, they've become fluent in algebra, biology, and English, but most have lost a grip on their native languages. In other words, the forces of homogenization don't always come so neatly arrayed — or so obviously outfitted in Happy Meal box. In Dehli, they take the guise of something much more ambiguous: the choice between gaining an education and holding onto one's language.

That too, however, is overly simplistic. For a language may not be interchangeable with reading, writing, and arithmetic, but it represents a fundamental body of knowledge. And diversity among languages represents profoundly different ways of knowing. Sora, as it turned out, included a counting system that blew the researchers' minds: It is based not on 10 (like English) or on 12 (like some Nigerian languages) but on both. This latest discovery of Koro, then, is exciting not just as a cultural artifact — something "nice" but wholly other — it represents a boon to our collective knowledge. Whether we can keep it, and other dying tongues, alive will be a test of our collective wisdom.

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