Why do missionaries tend to do linguistic fieldwork that others do not?

Please read the first 86 pages (Chapters 1-3) of the book The Last Speakers. Then, answer each of the three questions in short but thoughtful, essay-like form (this will probably require around 100 to 150-words each, although there is no minimum/maximum).

Reading Questions:

1.) In the Introduction, Harrison claims that the first data (i.e., the first descriptions) about many languages come from missionaries. Please discuss two things:

  • Why do missionaries tend to do linguistic fieldwork that others do not?
  • What are the problems, from both cultural and linguistic standpoints, associated with indigenous people’s contact with Christian missionaries?

2.)  One of the main arguments Harrison makes throughout the book is that language is crucial to the passing on of complex cultural knowledge—knowledge that evolves and accumulates in a specific society in a certain time and in a certain place. On page 56, Harrison correctly refers to this kind of knowledge as “fragile”. This is because, if a language disappears, all of the special and unique knowledge about the world it contains disappears with it.

I would like to direct your attention to the example of this situation in the second chapter, where Harrison discusses the word “iy” in Tuvan (a language spoken in Siberia). “Iy” is pronounced like the letter “e” in English (or, in the International Phonetic Alphabet, pronounced like this: [i]).

Please discuss the following:

  • Describe what “iy” means/refers to.
  • Is there any word in English that is equivalent to this?
  • Have you ever noticed an “iy” before, in your own life?
  • Describe how this demonstrates what would be lost if Tuvan went extinct. (There is a good chance that in the next 100 years, Tuvan will in fact go extinct).

3.) Just as cultural knowledge like “iy” will vanish if/when Tuvan vanishes, our ability to understand what is possible in human languages also diminishes. For example, if we only studied English, we would think that languages require an adjective to come before the noun, like this: red houses. However, that would be wrong, since many languages require the adjective to come after the noun. For example, in Spanish you would say this: houses red (“casas rojas”). Therefore, every time a language dies out, we lose cultural knowledge and scientific knowledge.

  • Discuss how Urarina, described in the beginning of the third chapter, is an example of this. What is special about Urarina grammar, and what would therefore be lost if languages like Urarina disappeared?
  • How is this like the example of “iy” from the previous question about Tuvan?
  • Discuss how what is lost when languages go extinct is a lot like what is lost when plant or animal species go extinct (a comparison Harrison also makes at various points in the book).

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