Every 14 days a language dies: National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project

Last fall we posted a brief review of The Last Silent Movie, Susan Hiller’s extraordinary audio artwork comprising some 24 extinct or endangered languages from across the planet. Featuring words, stories, entreaties and lullabies in Potawatomi, Klallam, and Ngarrindjeri among others, Hiller’s work effects a sense of wonder at the sheer diversity of human tongues, as well as the sobering realization that for many of these unseen speakers, their language, along with much of their wisdom, history and culture, will likely die with them.

This month, National Geographic paints an even clearer picture of what is at stake in the magazine’s most recent issue. Nearly half of the roughly 7000 languages spoken on Earth today will disappear by the next century, according to Russ Rymer’s powerful essay. Intimate, lyrical photos by Lynn Johnson put faces to the unfamiliar names of cultures and languages very few have ever seen or heard.

Alongside the feature article is an overview of Enduring Voices, a conservation project undertaken by National Geographic in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Tasked with the identification and documentation of some of the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages, linguists from around the world are creating an interactive database and map of language hotspots which features cultural profiles and a few tantalizing audio snippets. Talking Dictionaries, through which one may hear single words spoken in such languages as Ho, Siletz-Dee Ni, and Chamacoco, are also accessible through the website.

Loss of linguistic diversity is of course just one symptom of greater global conflicts stemming from mass industrialization, communication, and migration — and based on our titular statistic, some 14 languages will have already succumbed and gone forever silent since the beginning of this year alone. The urgency of the situation is clear, and Nat Geo’s coverage provides a glimpse of the potential worth in what we might otherwise have never even missed.

But if it is difficult to comprehend the implications of losing something we have never known, then Susan Hiller’s haunting anthology of lost and dying languages is a revelation. Conferring upon the listener a sense of the ineffable richness of human verbal expression, The Last Silent Movie is no less than an opportunity to bear witness to those dying cultures’ last words, and a challenge to recognize the unfathomable losses we collectively accrue in any one language’s oblivion. To hear it is to be transformed.

See the Vanishing Voices series of photographs for National Geographic by Lynn Johnson
Read National Geographic’s feature article profiling the Tuvan, the Aka, and the Seri peoples,
by Russ Rymer
More information, photographs, audio, and video from The Enduring Voices Project

See our previous post on Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie
See Hiller’s etchings of the 24 featured languages’ sound signatures on the British Council website

July 31, 2012 update
We are remiss in not mentioning Wade Davis’ fascinating and poetic TED Talk, Dreams from endangered cultures, in which he argues passionately for ethnographic diversity: “Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind.” Watch it here


Lynn Johnson, 2012, from Vanishing Voices series for National Geographic, of Johnny Hill, Jr., one of the last speakers of Chemehuevi, an endangered Native American language.

Susan Hiller, 2008, etching representing Potawatomi, a Central Algonquian language currently spoken by just 13 people, all elderly. 

Lynn Johnson, 2012, from Vanishing Voices series for National Geographic, of Josué Robles Barnett, one of 650–1000 speakers of the Seri language in Mexico.

Susan Hiller, 2008, etching representing Silbo Gomero, a fascinating language comprised solely of whistles, declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.

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