Saturday, May 31, 2008

A restructuring of how we consider discovery is needed

David Harrison speaks about “When Languages Die”
from Anthropology.net by Kambiz Kamrani
About 9 months ago, I shared some news of language extinction and the conservation efforts of K. David Harrison and David Anderson.

Harrison suggests that while curating a language is critical to the conservation, understanding the folk taxonomy, a.k.a. the folksonomy, is also imperative. He brings up examples of different single word terms to refer to different reindeer in some Siberian languages. When translated, these single words unravel into elaborate, information packed phrases. He uses that to explain how often times there is a lot of local knowledge hidden lesser spoken language, that can span millennia. Harrison advocates that other researchers entertain the possibility that languages are an untapped resource for knowledge.

But to do that, a restructuring of how we consider discovery is needed. We, as academics, are largely stuck in this colonial paradigm of how discovery is approached. Many zoologists, botanists, even anthropologists and archaeologists discover new things without absorbing native knowledge. It is an awfully imperial way of looking about it, if Western culture doesn’t know about it the rest of the world never know about it! But who’s to say local peoples didn’t know about a certain plant or animal for ages prior to the “Western discovery”? We need people to acknowledge the vast body of knowledge out there, locked in indigenous, endangered languages.

Harrison wraps up his talk emphasizing how language is an infinite system, and I couldn’t agree with him more. He’s put particular consideration on local knowledge, but there is also a lot of knowledge that can be extracted from language — such as human migrations, which will have gaping holes if languages are allowed to erode at the rates they are now.

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