1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Giving an Endangered Language Back to Its People

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


  • Emmanuel Narokobi of Papua New Guinea visited linguist Lise Dobrin at U.Va. this week.
    Credit: Herb Ladley

— by Anne E. Bromley

Most of the people who spoke Arapesh when University of Virginia linguist Lise Dobrin conducted field work in Papua New Guinea about 15 years ago have died of old age. Their children no longer speak the language, and their grandchildren have almost no knowledge of their ancestral tongue, she said.

But Arapesh has a chance to live on through a digital archive Dobrin has created with the help of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanitiesand an emerging collaboration with some middle-aged and younger Arapesh.

Dobrin, an assistant professor of linguistics in the College of Arts & Sciences'anthropology department, began the archive in 2005 and is focusing on it this year with support from the institute's residential fellowship. The "Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive" also has support from the Documenting Endangered Languages program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

Papua New Guinea, half of a Pacific island and slightly larger than California, lies north of Australia. One of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, it is home to more than 800 languages, none of which traditionally was written down.

What is lost when a language falls into silence? A treasure trove of cultural information that has been passed down from generation to generation, Dobrin said. Endangered languages have properties only the speakers know, such as classifications of the natural world, for example... (Read more)