Monday, September 24, 2007

Endangered languages

Our friend, K. David Harrison, has received a lot of coverage in the New York Times recently. On Sep. 19, 2007, his work and that of his colleague Gregory D. S. Anderson was described in an article by John Noble Wilford entitled "Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words." The article summarizes work detailed in the October issue of National Geographic and on their Enduring Voices website. A followup article, "Vigil for the Vanishing Tongue," by Mary Jo Murphy, appeared on Sunday, Sep. 23, in the Week in Review section of the Times. David, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, is also the co-founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Greg Anderson, the other co-founder, is the current Director of the Living Tongues Institute. Xeni Jardin, posting on Sep. 19 in Boing Boing, discussed some of the equipment used in field recording.

I am particularly pleased to see this interest in endangered languages. During my tenure as Division Director for Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) I helped to spur support for this important area and am delighted to see its growth and evolution. The early NSF efforts involved the hard work and guidance of many individuals. A partial list includes the Linguistics program officers, Cecile McKee and Joan Maling, and Wanda Ward, then Deputy Assistant Director (AD) of NSF for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate (SBE), and Norman Bradburn, then AD of SBE. James Herbert of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) served as a Senior NSF/NEH Advisor and helped develop the Documenting Endangered Languages funding opportunity. On May 5, 2005, the NSF and NEH announced the first recipients of fellowships and grants from this program. Under the combined leadership of the current SBE AD, linguist David Lightfoot, and other NSF administrators, and program officers from NSF and NEH, this interagency partnership, which now includes the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, has become an annual funding effort. Cognizant program officers include Douglas Whalen, Joan Maling and Anna Kerttula de Echave from the NSF, and Helen Aguera and Jane Aikin from NEH.

Doug Whalen, an IS group regular and Vice President for Research of Haskins Laboratories, is currently on loan to the NSF where he has worked as a program officer for Linguistics, Documenting Endangered Languages, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Doug is also the founder and President of the Endangered Language Fund, which supports endangered language preservation and documentation projects.

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