The Power of Words
A dedicated team of Newcastle linguists is committed to studying the practical, scientific and cultural significance of dying local languages.
A language that has 120 speakers on the island of Bougainville has the same scientific significance as a language such as English or Mandarin spoken by hundreds of millions of people, according to linguist Dr Bill Palmer.
"Understanding language is important to understanding what characterizes us as humans," says Palmer, the leader of the Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application research program within the Humanities Research Institute.
"Language is something all humans are born with a capacity to develop - children learn language without effort - so it is fundamental thing that is unique to humans."
Palmer and his colleagues are interested in the 94 per cent of the world's 7,000 languages that are spoken by just six per cent of the global population.
"The big languages will still be around in 100 years' time but many of the thousands of very small languages may well not be around, so we are in a race against time to document them and study their significance," he says.
"It is estimated that between 50 and 90 per cent of languages spoken today will die in the next century. Basically, if children don't acquire a language then it dies in that generation.
"In Australia it is believed there were about 260 indigenous languages at the time of white settlement. There are still over 100 but only about 18 of them are spoken by the current generation of children. So in the space of one generation we face the loss of more than 80 of those remaining languages."
Why should we worry about the loss of languages spoken in some cases by only a single village in a small country? Palmer says there are several reasons, apart from the overarching scientific value of studying language.
"Some researchers are interested in language endangerment for what you might call the philanthropic reason that it is an important cultural thing, that there is cultural identity and ethnic identity invested in language, so they should be at least documented for future generations of the community, even if the language cannot be preserved," he says.
"Another reason is that there is a lot of traditional knowledge enshrined in local language that risks being lost when the language dies.
"I have read that something like 75 per cent of plant-based pharmaceuticals were discovered by people talking to traditional healers and drawing on the terminology in their indigenous languages.
"So another good reason to study endangered languages relates to the sum total of human knowledge, which is impoverished by the loss of human languages."
Palmer says researchers often spend up to a year living with villagers in areas where languages are endangered. That attention can itself elevate the status of local languages and convince people that they have something worth saving.
He says many villages where there are endangered languages have to balance the competing interests of preserving local culture and fostering a more global outlook that will give their children a greater chance of success in the wider world.
The recognition of the Endangered Languages research program by the
Humanities Research Institute has boosted the group's activity. It now has more than 15 researchers now working across Australia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, Central Asia and Saudi Arabia, including two PhD students specifically funded by the Institute.