Saving languages from extinction

Date published: 2008-04-24 2:11:42 PM

Linguists refer to the loss of a language as a death in the family. And the outlook is bleak, since as many as half of the world’s 6,000 languages are in danger of extinction this century. At risk is more than a means of communication; centuries of priceless cultural knowledge vanish with the loss of each language.

Social anthropologist Evie Plaice is hoping to limit those losses in Canada. Currently focused on the aboriginal Maliseet language, known as Wolastoq, in communities throughout New Brunswick, Plaice is working closely with language specialist and Wolastoq-speaker Imelda Perley and sociologist David Perley—who have been working as Maliseet language warriors for years—as well as religious studies expert John Valk.

Wolastoq hangs by a thread. Fewer than 100 mother-tongue speakers remain alive, and opportunities to capture and store the language are dwindling. With SSHRC funding, Plaice and her team are compiling audio, video and written recordings of Wolastoq-speaking elders. The project will not only result in a language databank that’s readily accessible for schools and communities, but also build capacity among Aboriginal scholars who will continue to preserve the cultural, spiritual and educational philosophies that Wolastoq contains.

Evie Plaice, social anthropology, University of New Brunswick