News Article

SIL linguist documents endangered languages in Papua New Guinea

McElhanon (far right) arrives in a village during a survey of Huon Peninsula languages in the 1960s.

McElhanon (far right) arrives in a village during a survey of Huon Peninsula languages in the 1960s.


"Language is integral to what makes us human. When a language disappears before it is documented, it limits our understanding of the way that people interact with their social and natural environments. By supporting the creation of dictionaries, grammars and digital archives, the DEL program preserves and makes accessible a rich set of cultural information that reflects the traditions and accumulated wisdom of peoples who have lived and thrived on our shared planet."

- Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities

(June 2012) Because every language and culture is part of the mosaic of humanity, SIL is concerned for endangered languages and the communities that speak those languages. SIL linguist Dr. Ken McElhanon recently undertook a project entitled, "Comparative dictionary and digital recordings for Huon Peninsula languages." The research was funded by a Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) fellowship provided by the US National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. McElhanon serves as a senior professor at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

From February through May, McElhanon was in Papua New Guinea (PNG) conducting an extensive field check of data gathered during 1968 and 1976 when he was with the Department of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, at the Australian National University. The corpus of data that he checked for accuracy included over two thousand words from twenty-five Papuan languages of the Huon Peninsula region located in Morobe Province. In addition to his research with Huon Peninsula languages, McElhanon and his wife Noreen served with SIL for many years in the Selepet community of PNG, supporting local language development efforts.

McElhanon was one of ten recipients of DEL fellowships in 2011. Twenty-four institutional grants were also awarded. The DEL awards support digital documentation of endangered languages, enhance computational infrastructure for language documentation and provide training for researchers.

With over eight hundred living languages, PNG may be the most linguistically complex nation in the world. In cooperation with the PNG Department of Education, SIL has been conducting sociolinguistic surveys of the country’s diverse communities since 1956 and has supported language development projects in nearly four hundred languages.


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