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Capturing vanishing languages

Published May 17, 2004; Category: ARTS & SCIENCES

Professor uses NSF grant to document Bangladeshi speech

In commuting to his field site to do research, Dartmouth Professor David Peterson spends 22 hours in an airplane, three hours in a bus, four hours on a riverboat, followed by hiking about five more hours to get to villages like Plewngmawy and Mangthewmawy in southeastern Bangladesh. These are just two of about a dozen villages where Peterson conducts his research documenting the indigenous languages of a Delaware-sized area known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts near the Indian and Burmese borders.

David Peterson
David Peterson (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Since finishing graduate school in 1999, Peterson, now Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science, has regularly trekked to the Hill Tracts for his work. Because the area is politically unstable, Peterson says the research must be done swiftly.

"Mine is the only project of its kind to document these languages," he says.

Most of the languages Peterson studies come from the Tibeto-Burman family of languages, but a few in the region have Indo-European origins. Of the dozen or so languages Peterson focuses on, most are spoken by populations with less than 20,000 people. One language, Khumi, is only spoken by about 2,000, and he says that most people don't realize their way of speaking is in danger of becoming extinct.

"Young people who are able to go to school in the Hill Tracts are encouraged to learn Bangla, the official language of Bangladesh, or Bengali, as it's usually called in English," says Peterson. "Because they are away from their villages and have to cope with a largely Bangla-speaking environment, elements of their native language are disappearing."

Khumi, like most of the indigenous languages here, is predominantly spoken, according to Peterson; it's rarely written. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Peterson is assembling a Khumi dictionary, describing its grammar, and gathering a representative collection of texts, like folk tales and oral histories from the Khumi. He is also gathering audio and video files of people speaking in the language. 

The five-year grant from the NSF will help Peterson train Bangladeshi linguistics and anthropology students at the University of Dhaka in fieldwork techniques. The students will be taught how to establish relationships with community members, find speakers of the languages, and practice methods of data collection. One thing that the students will learn is that usually the elders in the community are important sources of information.

"It's the older people who remember all the names of the plants and animals and who can retell the old stories," he says.

Peterson also hopes to bring speakers of Hill Tracts languages to Dartmouth to expose his students to these understudied languages as part of his course on field methods. He says that this kind of classroom experience fits well with Dartmouth's growing linguistics program.

The research initiative is seeing results. "My work with Khumi is nearing completion, and next on the list for me is Mru. With the help of trained Bangladeshi researchers, the project should be able to provide a significant amount of material for more than half of the languages that are most at risk of being lost."

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 12/17/08