Documenting & Sustaining
Endangered Languages & Knowledge
Language and knowledge diversity are integral to what makes us human—both are an important part of our cultural vitality and resilience. Local language and knowledge display generations of successful cultural and physical adaptations and are vital resources to understand, document, and conserve the earth’s biological and cultural diversity.
Distinctive grammars and vocabularies preserve the variety of human experiences and offer insights into how diverse groups understand the natural world. Similarly, cultural practices and their material manifestations offer critical insight into different ways of understanding and engaging the world.
Recovering Voices (RV) is an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in partnership with other Smithsonian units, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. RV is dedicated to nurturing efforts to document and revitalize endangered languages and knowledge systems through research, collaboration, and resources.
Above photos (left to right): In May 2011, the Arctic Studies Center hosted an Athabascan Snowshoe Master Artists workshop as a part of Recovering Voices at the Anchorage Museum. Artists discussed snowshoe making in their Native languages, documenting the rich vocabulary and traditional knowledge that surround this focal item of Athabascan culture; Picture with Miami young people during a summer workshop on Miami science and traditional ways of knowing. Miami, Oklahoma, 2008.
“A documented language can never be extinct. Native communities can use documentation to revitalize their language, even in the absence of speakers. In the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, our language is being reintroduced to the community using written documentation collected a century or more ago. Language revitalization goes hand-in-hand with cultural revitalization, strengthening traditional ways of thinking about our people, place, and relationships.” Tim McCoy, Citizen, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Geologist.
Some 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today, but this linguistic diversity is severely threatened. Cultural, political and economic forces pressure many communities to replace their languages with those of the larger societies in which they live, and give up local cultural practices. Experts predict that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages will no longer be spoken.The principal challenge to the world’s linguistic diversity is the rapid decline in the number of younger speakers and practitioners. This trend can be reversed only if the speakers of endangered languages and bearers of traditions ensure that their children and grandchildren learn them. Discrimination against speakers and practitioners often hampers efforts to sustain endangered languages and knowledge systems along with longstanding misconceptions about different cultural practices and the value of linguistic and cultural diversity.
Recovering Voices hopes to make a difference in the trends of language and knowledge loss through Research, Collaboration, and Resources.
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