“It’s the breath that you take,” says Nora Vasquez. “Without your language, you might as well be dead.” Nora’s a Chemehuevi Indian in Arizona, and her language is dying. For years, it’s been under siege, unused by those who once knew it and unlearned by a younger generation. This is the usual path of a “small language,” spoken by only a handful of people and most often, unwritten. When languages die, they take with them histories, practices, and perspectives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. At least, according to David Harrison and Greg Anderson, stars of The Linguists. Introduced as actionish heroes—in fast-cut, time-lapsing, attractively skewed frames under a lively “Chaiyya Chaiyya” beat—these academics have made it their business to seek out small, endangered languages and document them. Traveling far and wide from their home institutions—Harrison is an associate professor at Swarthmore and Anderson’s director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, they track down speakers of small languages in order to record them.
What they’re doing, says Harrison, is no mere archival exercise. A linguist, he explains, is “a scientist who studies language. Not just to learn the languages, but to figure out the possible ways that the human mind can make sense of the world around it.” They take their self-appointed mission seriously: they note that while there are some 7,000 languages in the world, they are disappearing at a rate of nearly one every two weeks. In Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger’s documentary, Anderson and Harrison journey to villages in Siberia, Bolivia, and India, in search of surviving speakers so they can record voices, take notes, and marvel at complex structures.
You might describe both Harrison and Anderson as geeks, in the sense that their manners are professorial and they do subscribe to scientific rigor (Anderson’s fond of his Philips-Exeter t-shirt and Harrison sports a Yale sweatshirt on occasion). But they are also charismatic, earnestly outgoing and even voracious when it comes to their life’s work. Between them, they speak 25 languages, from Norwegian and Urdu to Russian and Albanian, as well as languages that, as Anderson puts it, “even professional linguists have not heard of.”
Their efforts to discover these languages begin with research—they find files on one language, Chylum, that are nearly 30 years old—and then they begin their own, very active, pursuit. At each stop, the linguists seek out speakers who will work with them, who will go through basic elements like naming body parts, colors, and numbers through a process the scientists call elicitation. They see the project as a way to combat the usual effects of colonization, where, Anderson says, “people came and imposed their will and their government and their language” on local communities. Language here becomes a sign of class and means of mobility. Many children choose not to speak their parents’ language, as they see better chances for assimilation and economic advancement in adopting the dominant language. Indigenous languages, Anderson observes, “get lower and lower status in the community. They are actively suppressed or at least actively discouraged.”
Chylum, for example, has been increasingly repressed in Siberia by Russian, the “killer language” in this instance. When Anderson and Harrison arrive in a village where they believe Chylum is still spoken, they are regarded with some suspicion (identified as “from America”). They find a couple of elderly Chylum speakers who are so hard of hearing that they’re difficult to engage in conversation. And then, the surprise—the 52-year-old man assigned to drive them around, Vasya, is in fact a speaker. Not only that, but he’s also devised his own writing system for the language, based on Russian characters. Anderson and Harrison are thrilled, and begin to document with infectious energy.
In India, the linguists find a small group of Sora speakers, many eager to perform their knowledge in song and dance. The researchers give themselves over to the moment, bouncing and gyrating with their happy hosts. “It’s like being in a mosh pit,” they smile, “but not quite as dangerous as a mosh pit.” Greg adds, “We’re not content to sit in a room and interview people. You have to breathe it in.”
Sometimes, this immersion can be complicated. Harrison likes to spend the night in a place, and when he pushes to do so in the Sora village, Harrison notes the tension his request produces (“I don’t think he really understands what the situation is here”). Though some nuances of class and caste elude the adventurers, they apparently win over a variety of hosts—sometimes with gifts (though the particulars of gift-giving can also be complicated), and sometimes with sheer force of their own enthusiastic will.
Shot over some five years, the film makes the linguists’ work look both exciting and rewarding. While they describe what they do as empowering for their subjects—the Americans can help them recover or retain their own pasts—they are less specific about their own parts in the process. As they righteously combat the ongoing effects of colonization, they embody and ac out other sorts of appropriation. While it appears that Harrison and Anderson are extremely self-aware, the film appeals broadly. It doesnÕt raise questions about motives or consequences, or look much beyond the linguists’ well-articulated perspectives.