I thought a low point of journalistic reporting about endangered languages was reached yesterday when the Australian press ran a story entitled “Cyber zoo to preserve endangered languages” that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Brisbane Times (and apparently also the Brisbane Sunday Mail, hat tip Felicity Meakins), the Melbourne Age, the Canberra Times and a string of rural papers, including the Wyndham Weekly, the Forbes Advocate and the Whyalla News.
Well it seems I was wrong — a new low was surely reached by the Spanish daily Publico on Saturday last week with its publication of a feature article on the ‘technology saves dying languages’ story (the one that I blogged about yesterday), highlighting the work of David Harrison and his colleagues at the Living Tongues Institute. In the Publico article the researchers at Living Tongues are described as “los principales taxidermistas de idiomas” which I translate as: the main taxidermists of the (spoken) languages! (Yep, I didn’t quite believe it too, so I checked my translation with a Colombian friend today, and it seems to be more-or-less correct).
So, Linguists = Taxidermists — it reminds me of the comment I heard from Michael Silverstein years ago about endangered languages and “tongues in aspic”, But it seems to me that we may well bring at least some of this on ourselves by our own rhetoric. I don’t know what the press release contained that Harrison and National Geographic released which led to this article, but I do know we bandy about terms like preservation/conservation/saving more than we should. After all, the responsible committee of the Linguistic Society of America is CELP, the Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation — come on LSA, do we really need the “preservation” bit? (Committee on Endangered Languages has a nice ring to it.) And one of the key journals in the field is Language Documentation and Conservation — jams and conserves to go with the tongues in aspic?
At SOAS many years ago we started using less loaded terms like “language support” (eg. one of our MA pathways is called “Language Support and Revitalisation”) to cover the theoretical and applied work that we do with language communities.
Maybe a bit of verbal hygiene on the part of linguists might reduce the chances of descriptions like “zoo” and “taxidermists” appearing in press coverage? It’s worth a try.
Note: I couldn’t resist the title — twice a day on my bus to and from work I pass a taxidermy shop in Islington, London, called Get Stuffed.