Review: The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison

9781426204616_p0_v2_s550x406 My pop culture assignment from Kate is to delve into her world as a linguist. Linguistics has been referred to as a social science.  What does that mean exactly?  The first book, What Language is by John McWhorter was more of the scientific side of the linguistics, explaining what they look for when they study languages.  How languages are built and how they became to be and continue to develop. The Last Speakers is the social side of linguistics by discussing why the study of languages are important to understanding who we are and the world around us.  Both aspects are important to discover how we communicate to each other.  K. David Harrison set out to study endangered languages because the knowledge of the natural world they contain that we have lost by no longer speaking them.  He learns from indigenous people words that describes the world around us.  How they can speak or sing to animals to get them do what they need them to do.  Plant life that are now extinct.  Medicinal methods that have vanished in the wake of modern medicine.  If we lose these last speakers we lose more than just a language being spoken.  We lose a great deal of our own knowledge of our world that we will never get back.  The book reads like a travel memoir as he details his work around the globe but it’s also a plea to the world to not abandon these languages.  He and his team document these languages and do everything then can to keep these languages alive long after the last speakers pass away but also bring to light new or remembered words of our past.  I like that he isn’t to be the white savior.  He goes to observe and document and help where he can.  He defers to the people in how they want to documented.  Not all people want their languages to be shared with outsiders and he understands their reasoning without judgment.  It’s their language and culture and they should have the final say on who gets to know it and learn it.  It was an interesting book, with some great stories and I’m fully support more documentation of last speakers from all over the world.  We have so much more to learn.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison

  1. This looks really fascinating. It’s not something we commonly think about and yet we do ourselves a great disservice by overlooking these languages and cultures. Thanks for the review.

    • Yeah. The coolest thing was the people from Siberia and Mongolia who have special songs to sing to animals to calm them or make them walk. It’s almost like they can actual talk to the animals. How useful would that knowledge be for the rest of us.

  2. So, something else to think about, especially when it comes to language maintenance, is that there are languages out there with 30,000 or 40,000 speakers that are fine now but are only a couple generations away from problems if children stop learning them. So, if the social situation changes and their language is no longer the medium through which they learn at school or the economics of the area changes and another language becomes the language through which most business is conducted.

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