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Documenting Endangered Languages—Fellowship received

Natügu-speaking children on Santa Cruz Island, Solomon Islands. Natügu-speaking children on Santa Cruz Island, Solomon Islands.

(April 2010) As part of a multi-year funding partnership to preserve and document endangered languages, The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have granted Dr. Brenda H. Boerger, SIL linguist, a 12-month DEL (Documenting Endangered Languages) fellowship.

“This is a rescue mission to save endangered languages,” NEH Chairman Bruce Cole said about the DEL awards. “Language is the DNA of a culture, and it is the vehicle for the traditions, customs, stories, history and beliefs of a people. A lost language is a lost culture. Fortunately, with the aid of modern technology and these federal funds, linguistics scholars can document and record these languages before they become extinct.”

Dr. Brenda H. Boerger lived in the Solomon Islands for nearly 20 years as advisor to the Natügu Language Project, and worked alongside the Natügu people in language development efforts. This award is to assist in the language documentation and linguistic description of this unique language. Natügu is still spoken today on Santa Cruz Island in the Solomon Islands, but its speakers are increasingly using Pijin, the English-based language of wider communication.

The stipend will enable Dr. Boerger to draft a grammar description of Natügu in late 2010, and to resolve remaining questions during fieldwork from February to May 2011.

The funds will further assist in obtaining equipment for making digital audio and video documentary recordings of the language, which will be archived and preserved for descendants of today’s Natügu speakers. In addition, she plans to document a cultural dance of Santa Cruz as well as a number of weaving techniques.

Boerger has also applied for funding to enable a student to work in a neighboring language.

Language endangerment

A language is considered nearly extinct when parents use only a different language with their children. When the intergenerational transmission of the language decreases, it is likely that it will cease to be spoken. As languages are used for fewer and fewer daily interactions, they tend to lose structural complexity, which in turn may affect the perceptions of users regarding the suitability of the language for use in a broader set of functions. This can contribute to a downward spiral which eventually results in the loss of the language altogether.

Although a language may become dormant or extinct when it is no longer spoken, it may still exist in recordings, written records and transcriptions preserved through language documentation. These materials, along with dictionaries, grammars and other products of descriptive linguistics are essential for people who wish to learn a dormant heritage language, the language of their ancestors.

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