Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Endangered language takes Aberdeen academic to deepest Siberia

An Aberdeen anthropologist will be braving sub-zero conditions in north-east Siberia as he embarks on a 10-month expedition to document an endangered language in the region.

Dr Alexander King and his family will relocate from Aberdeen to the remote town of Palana, on the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where they will be based. He will also undertake an eight-week expedition to the more northerly reaches of Kamchatskiy Krai with two Koryak colleagues where electricity in the villages is rationed and the main mode of transport is small plane or helicopter. Dr King’s research will focus on two dialects of the Koryak language – one spoken by reindeer herders who are Chukchi people and the other by maritime people living along the coast of Penzhina Bay.

Documenting endangered languages

The project to document these languages has been funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) and it will be the first time anyone has investigated these dialects since they were first noted by linguists in 1901.

Dr King explained: “What little we know about these dialects is that they are markedly different from others in the Koryak language, which is spoken by around 2,500 people in the easternmost extremity of Siberia.

“While there has been considerable linguistic work on the dialect of Koryak used in publications and broadcast, these are two dialects that have been mostly ignored.”

“There are now only a handful of younger speakers so as a result the languages are very much endangered.”

A record must be made

Dr King maintains that it is vital that such languages are properly recorded before they die out and are lost forever.

“Indigenous peoples around the world are shifting from speaking their heritage languages to using socially dominant languages in everyday life, such as English, Spanish and Russian,” he added.

“But it is only by having careful documentation of the full span and variety of human language that we can really know what is possible and impossible in human speech and thought.”

“We have sophisticated theories about English and a handful of other European languages but we really do not know the full potential variation of the human capacity for speech.”

Dr King and his colleagues will record, transcribe and translate over 150 hours of Koryak speech across several genres using the latest methods and digital technologies.

The project will produce a database, a DVD of storytellers, and a bilingual book of narratives. It will also provide the skills and equipment for local linguists and folklorists to continue documentation work long after the project is finished and contribute to Koryak teaching and revitalisation efforts.

“The positive social effects are just as important as the science. This kind of work has been linked to successful community revitalisation programmes in other parts of the world. Pride in your heritage language means pride in yourself, and too often that is in short supply among indigenous Siberian youth.”

Language teachers

Documenting a language is a complex process that involves finding speakers who can serve as language teachers. This starts by recording words and expressions, transcribing them phonetically and then analysing the data to uncover the structure and functions of the language.

The result of this kind of documentation is often a dictionary and a grammar of the language but projects often aim to collect stories, narratives, personal histories, poetry and songs. In these cases, the performance of the material is recorded using sound or video recorders, but this too is transcribed, analysed and translated.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Endangered language takes Aberdeen academic to deepest Siberia". Past Horizons. Posted: June 27, 2012. Available online:

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