‘Collect, protect, connect’: Yale researcher aims to rescue disappearing languages

Photos: Capturing Himalayan life and languages

Nepalese youngster Bigyan Thami, reviewing video footage shot by Turin in the village of Cokati, Sindhupalcok, eastern, Nepal, 1999. (Photo by Sara Shneiderman)
Recitation of oral texts by Latte Apa, senior ritual practitioner of the Thangmi community, and other shamans. Darjeeling, India, 2004. (Photo by Sara Shneiderman)
From right: Ranki, one of the oldest inhabitants of Cholakkad, being interviewed by ethnographers Ramu K.A. and Kiran Tom Sajan. Taken in Attapaddy, Kerala, India, April 2010.
The shaman Dirga Bahadur Dumi reciting for the ethnographers. Baksila, Khotang district, Nepal, 2006. (Photo by Marion Wettstein)
A monk at the camera. (Photo by Adam Howart)
Gurus from the village of Alampu in Nepal depart on a pilgrimage to the sacred lake of Baula Pokhari on the occasion of Janai Purnima (the full moon of August), one of the most important dates on the Thangmi ritual calendar. Here, they beg leave from their teacher, a senior shaman of the village. (Photo by Sara Shneiderman)
Here the departing pilgrims dance around the offerings laid out by villagers three times. (Photo by Sara Shneiderman)
The pilgrims head off across the fields on the first leg of their three-day journey, accompanied by villagers who will carry supplies and support the gurus during the pilgrimage. (Photo by Sara Shneiderman)
Gurus from the village of Lapilang dance their way up to the rocky summit of Kalincok. This sacred peak stands at 3,810 meters. Thangmi gurus and villagers from the entire region gather for the early morning festival honoring the goddess Kali Mai, to whom they offer blood sacrifices. (Photo by Sara Shneiderman)
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As more and more people embrace the global languages of English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, other languages are rapidly disappearing. In fact, half of the estimated 6,000–7,000 languages spoken around the world today will likely be extinct by the next century, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In an effort to stem the tide of language loss, anthropologists and linguists from a number of organizations — UNESCO, National Geographic, and the Yale-based Endangered Language Fund, among them — have for many years been recording and documenting vanishing languages and the unique cultures they convey.

Mark Turin, an associate research scientist at the Macmillan Center’s South Asian Studies Council, who specializes in the languages and oral traditions of the Himalayas, is following in that tradition. His recently published book, “A Grammar of Thangmi with an Ethnolinguistic Introduction to the Speakers and their Culture,” grows out of his experience living, working, and raising a family in an isolated village in Nepal.

Documenting the Thangmi language and culture is just a starting point for Turin, who seeks to expand his efforts to include other languages and oral traditions across the Himalayan reaches of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Tibetan plateau. But he is not content to simply record these vanishing voices before they disappear without record.

At the University of Cambridge, where he held his last academic position, Turin discovered a treasure trove of archival materials — including photographs, film footage, audio recordings, and field notes — which had remained uncatalogued and were badly in need of preservation.

Now, through the two organizations that he has founded — the Digital Himalaya Project and the World Oral Literature Project — Turin has launched a campaign to make such documents, found in libraries and repositories around the world, accessible not just to scholars but to the descendants of communities from whom the materials were originally collected.

Turin sums up his mission with three words: “collect, protect, connect.” Thanks to digital technology and the widely available Internet, he notes, moribund or even dormant languages can be revived and reconnected with speech communities.

In the audio podcast “Preserving Endangered Languages and Oral Traditions” (here on Yale iTunesU), Turin describes his research and the projects he has initiated to record endangered languages; to preserve and digitize records that already exist; and to disseminate such archival recordings online.