Fall 2004 Table of Contents.
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 New & Now.


Battlefield Bacteria

The Last Word

Historic Disclosure

Genetically Altered

School for Scientists

Gravity Unbound

Papers and Profits


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The Last Word

"Language most shews a man: Speak, that I may see thee," wrote poet Ben Jonson in 1641. At the time Jonson composed these lines, the world's people revealed themselves through innumerable tongues. Today there are far fewer, probably around 6,000, and many of these, scholars fear, will likely not survive the present century.

"In the next 100 years, probably half of the world's languages will disappear unless vigorous measures are taken now," says N. Louanna Furbee, a professor emerita of anthropology and research associate at MU who earlier this year was honored with a lifetime service award from the Linguistic Society of America.

The vigorous measures Furbee recommends include working directly with native speakers to preserve grammar and oral traditions, training local people in methods of language documentation, and helping them to develop ways to teach their tongue to the next generation.

During her long career, Furbee has successfully used these methods and others to help protect Tojolab'al, a Mayan language spoken in the Chiapas region of Mexico, and to preserve Chiwere, a Native American language once widely spoken by the Otoe-Missouria and Iowa Tribes.

Why, exactly, should we care about these impossibly esoteric means of communication? After all, no more than 36,000 people speak Tojolab'al, and scholars believe no fluent native speakers of Chiwere remain.

"These are vastly different languages with vastly different ways of solving problems," Furbee says. "If we lose them, we lose unique perspectives on the world, unique logics and unique ways of encoding the world for understanding."

Speakers of Tojolab'al, for example, are uniquely equipped to communicate the veracity of information they've received -- a skill most Americans might profit from adopting during, say, the upcoming presidential primary season. "There are about 50 grammatically integrated ways for [Tojolab'al speakers] to signal how true they believe information to be when they speak," Furbee says. "These include words, or parts of words, that indicate that the speaker knows the truthfulness first hand ... or has the information on reliable authority."

Other linguistic markers can show a range of doubt up to a level that indicates the speaker considers the information a rumor, or even believes it to be completely false. "In English," says Furbee, "we can make these same discriminations in speaking, but doing so requires us to use circumlocutions and many extra words."

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2007 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.