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Codebreakers addressing urgent crisis


Drs. Vit Bubenik, Sarah Rose, John Hewson and Derek Nurse of the Linguistics Department.

By Janet Harron


In his latest book, The Wayfinders, Massey lecturer Wade Davis examines the grim fact that human cultures are going extinct much faster than plant and animal species.

And the fundamental proof of this is the fact that languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to a group of historical linguists here at Memorial University, only 600 of the world’s current 6,000 languages will survive by the end of the 21st century, a loss of 90 per cent.

In this case, languages are the canaries in the coalmine. As globalization and mass media take their inevitable toll on vulnerable populations, what of the knowledge, stories, songs and ways of seeing that end with these disappearing voices?

The Memorial group, which consists of Professors Emeriti Dr. Derek Nurse and Dr. John Hewson, University Research Professor Dr. Vit Bubenik, and Adjunct Professor Dr. Sarah Rose, examines languages from an earlier to later stage and the changes that occur along the way. They are concerned with what the variations in language tell us about the way languages develop or degrade over time. These variations include historical, geographic and societal causes, such as the movement of peoples, the complex history of states, and the famines and wars that have decimated past populations.

This group of scholars is engaged in language archaeology, studying languages they have in many cases never heard spoken (e.g. Hittite, an ancient Indo-European language or Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language).

Historical linguistics grew out of the earlier discipline of philology, the study of ancient texts and documents, which goes back to antiquity. Where their colleagues here in the largest linguistics department east of Quebec study phonetics and semantics and spend time recording voices and talking to people, historical linguists working in Indo-European, Semitic and other families of languages have to enter the past. One way of doing this is through medieval and ancient texts (many of which are written in Greek, Hebrew, old Slavonic and other scripts).

When – as for most languages – there are no written, let alone spoken, records of a language, researchers use the process of triangulation to reconstruct the original. This means taking two contemporary languages, such as German and English, and working backwards to their “mother language,” – in this case Proto-Germanic, a prehistoric language with no surviving texts. The process of triangulation can also incorporate huge numbers of “daughter” languages in order to get to the “mother.” Dr. Nurse, who specializes in the study of African and sub-Saharan languages (“I’d had enough of the 1st and 2nd worlds and went to Africa in 1970”) has reconstructed from 500 languages to get to Proto-Bantu. And his work was further complicated by the fact that there are no written records at all in that language family. Closer to home, Dr. Hewson used the computer to reconstruct a large part of the vocabulary of Proto-Algonquian by using Cree, Mi’kmaq and several other Central-Algonquian languages where again written records are rare.

Learning a new script or alphabet is akin to breaking a code. Dr. Bubenik alone knows “at least” 10 different scripts (including Hittite and Akkadian cuneiform, and Devanagari used for Sansrit). It was Dr. Bubenik’s expertise in Sanskrit that initially attracted Sarah Rose, now an adjunct professor, to do her MA and eventually complete a PhD in linguistics here at Memorial.

Dr. Rose has been working with Drs. Hewson and Nurse for the last decade on the Niger Congo family, one of the largest linguistics families of the world, which occupies most of Africa south of the Sahara desert. That particular group “has many languages on the dying or endangered list” according to Dr. Rose.

Language is often taken for granted because the knowledge human beings have of their own language is unconscious.

“For example we often ask first year students how many tenses there are in English – it’s rare that we get a correct answer to that question,” said Dr. Hewson, who was a key player in the establishment of the linguistics department at Memorial 40 years ago. English speakers are often blithely unaware of how many of their words are borrowed from other groups. For example, “cash” comes from Chinese, “caribou” from Mi’kmaq, and “chocolate” from Aztec.

These scholars point out that students studying French and Spanish for example can benefit tremendously from taking Latin concurrently as this gives them a complete picture of what happened before the evolution of contemporary Romance languages.

According to fourth year linguistics student Bridget Henley, “taking Latin here at MUN is something I’ve always looked for an excuse to do.” She says that since beginning the class, she’s been able to make sense of much of the small idiosyncrasies and seeming endless “exceptions” of French grammar which she began studying as a child.

Ms. Henley goes on to say, “Having studied French, Spanish, German and now taking Latin, Ancient Greek and Irish, I really don’t think I could keep my head on straight without my previous study of historical linguistics. It gave me the tools to categorize what I take in when I’m learning and taught me how to observe the ways a language lives as one among many.”

Recently Memorial University hosted the 33rd annual conference of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association. The theme of the conference focused around issues of globalization, local identity and language. Fifty years ago, Newfoundland alone boasted eight distinctive dialect regions, making it one of the most dialectically diverse regions in Canada. It is the work of historical linguists and sociolinguists here at Memorial that examine such language variations, distinguishing between what is inherited and what is borrowed.

Essentially Drs. Hewson, Nurse, Bubenik and Rose are codebreakers, resurrecting the sounds, forms, vocabularies and meanings of extinct and unstudied languages. Their work sheds light on the foundations of human civilization and helps us understand the way we communicate today.
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