The Smithsonian Institution, a FIA partner, is teaching people how to use digital archives to help awaken “sleeping” languages. The Smithsonian Institution hosts a biennial workshop that brings together language activists and scholars to promote the revitalization of endangered languages through use of digitized collections.
“We’re facing a dramatic loss in our ability to study something that’s uniquely human, and losing linguistic diversity at a tremendous rate,” Pérez Báez adds. “In the U.S. alone, something like 50 languages will be gone within the next 10 years, and for many, there are only a handful of speakers left, all over the age of 80.”
“The notion that a language could be revived was nonexistent,” Pérez Báez said. “Fast track to 2010, and communities like the Myaamia in Oklahoma and the Wampanoag in Massachusetts had developed processes for reviving their languages by consulting archival materials to reconstruct sound systems and grammar.”
The amount of material available for that kind of work is enormous, and accordingly difficult to wade through. The page count by ethnologist and linguist J.P. Harrington, who documented over 130 native languages for the Smithsonian from 1915 to 1955, numbers over 1 million—and that’s just one collection of linguistic works.
Source: “Digitized, Searchable Archives Help Revive ‘Sleeping’ Languages,” Michelle Z. Donahue, Smithsonian Science News, July 23, 2015. Gabriela Pérez Báez is the curator of linguistics at the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology.