LINK:  University of Chicago Magazine
About the Magazine | Advertising | Archives | Contact
LINK:  December 2005LINK:  featuresLINK:  chicago journalLINK:  investigationsLINK:  peer reviewLINK:  in every issue

:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photo by Barbara Need

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Investigations ::

Original Source

Safe and sound

photo:  original sourceDuring his Depression-era travels through Mexico and Guatemala, Chicago linguist Manuel Andrade recorded a dozen obscure Mesoamerican languages. Each needle-cut aluminum disc he used, like the one at right, recorded only about six minutes, but Andrade filled hundreds. His discs—together with Edison wax cylinders, motion-picture films, and audiotapes spanning a century of linguistic inquiry at Chicago—provide a link to rapidly vanishing languages. This summer a team of University linguists, archivists, and computer scientists embarked on a two-year preservation project to digitize some 850 hours of recordings. They’ll also upload them to the Web, providing access not only to colleagues around the globe but also to native speakers of languages like Meskwaki, Inuktitut, Yucatec Maya, and Tzeltal.

“People wonder if disappearing languages are important to linguistic science,” says linguist, computer scientist, and project leader John Goldsmith. “The answer is yes. Linguists look for commonalities behind the particularities.” Chicago’s repository of stories and grammar is “invaluable,” Goldsmith says, because esoteric languages often yield profound discoveries. “If you only study the two dozen major world languages, it’s like trying to study evolution with only a couple dozen species. You could do it, but you’d be missing a lot.”