Endangered languages and linguistic best practices

Daniel Everett’s recent Long Now talk about endangered languages (writeup, mp3) includes this gem reported by Stewart Brand:

Among other things, the wide variety of verb forms are used to account for the directness of evidence for a statement. Everett originally went to the Pirahã in 1977 as a Christian missionary. They challenged him to provide evidence for the existence of Jesus, and lost interest when he couldn’t. Eventually so did he. The Pirahã made him an atheist.

This is so interesting that it’s worth unpacking for those who won’t have time to listen. Among the sixteen suffixes for verbs, there are three that convey the source of evidence:

I heard that Dan went fishing.

I saw Dan go fishing.

I deduce, from the available evidence, that Dan went fishing.

These assertions might not be true. The Pirahã, being human, do sometimes lie. But I love the idea of a culture in which evidence-based thinking is baked into the language.

There are only a few hundred Pirahã, and their language is only one of thousands — more than half unwritten — that are endangered. The talk ends with plea to preserve and document those languages.

It has never been easier to capture and disseminate recorded audio, or to collaboratively curate such material, so I hope these capabilities will be put to good use in the quest to preserve linguistic diversity.

But no matter what, we’re going to continue to lose languages. Maybe, though, if we can identify some of the ways of thinking encoded in those languages, we can carry them forward.

Respect for the source of evidence is a great example. I could have simply told you about what Daniel Everett said, and what Stewart Brand wrote about what Daniel Everett said. But it was possible to form links to the audio and text, so I did.

I wonder how many other best practices are encoded in those thousands of endangered languages. And I wonder if it might be possible to identify and catalog more of them.

Posted in .

4 thoughts on “Endangered languages and linguistic best practices

  1. That was really a great Long Now talk.

    I’ve been fascinated with this general subject since I was introduced to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (and criticisms of it) in a really mind-blowing linguistics elective in college. That’s also where I was introduced to George Lakoff, whose work on metaphor is maybe another facet of what you describe here.

    Of course, the number of people who understand grammatical fine points of languages from disparate families enough to analyze them at this level is pretty small, but if you find any of them, please invite them to Interviews with Innovators!

  2. I should add here, via @dchud on Twitter:


    “OLAC, the Open Language Archives Community, is an international partnership of institutions and individuals who are creating a worldwide virtual library of language resources by: (i) developing consensus on best current practice for the digital archiving of language resources, and (ii) developing a network of interoperating repositories and services for housing and accessing such resources.”

    If somebody from that organization wants to talk about that effort, I would love to hear about it, and to relay the discussion on my podcast.

    1. Am still at JCDL 2009 and I think they still are too, will relay this directly.

      It would be great to hear them discuss their work with you!

Leave a Reply