Rapanui, Lasisch, Inupiaq and Burunge are among the around 3000 languages that are dying out or threatened due to the low number of speakers worldwide. The rescue attempts include scientifically documenting them – in writing or as audio documents. A new, internationally networked research focus on rare and endangered languages is now emerging in Berlin – in close proximity to the recently opened Humboldt Forum with its ethnological collections.
The Endangered Languages Documentation Program (ELDP) and the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) are moving from SOAS University in London to the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) based on Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin-Mitte. ELDP and ELAR have been financed since 2002 by the Arcadia Fund, a non-profit foundation that aims to protect cultural assets and ecosystems.
The Arcadia Fund has promised to finance the Berlin Center for Documenting Endangered Languages for the next ten years with 21 million euros, the BBAW announced. As in London, the center is managed by the linguist Mandana Seyfeddinipur.
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She wants to build on great traditions in Berlin: “The ELAR is realizing Wilhelm von Humboldt’s vision of documenting, comparing and understanding languages in their diversity.” Language data on endangered languages, but also on other languages, should be collated, digitally stored and generally accessible be made.
International research in Great Britain difficult
Academy President Christoph Markschies declared that he was “proud that this great project will find a new home at the Academy”. The BBAW can now expand its language focus.
Manfred Krifka, Director of the Leibniz Center for General Linguistics (ZAS), which is also involved, explained why the two institutions are leaving London: After Brexit, this type of research with many international contacts would be much easier to conduct from Berlin – for example because of the more difficult it Visa requirements and the high cost of living in the UK.
For example, the ZAS has already organized a summer school for scientists from the MENA region and a conference on threatened Iranian languages on behalf of ELDP and ELAR.
The ELDP homepage says that a new chapter is being opened “after 19 valuable years at SOAS University of London” in Berlin. The archive is moving “with us to Berlin to ensure that the archiving process runs smoothly”. In addition, it is assured: “The conditions and guarantees remain the same and SOAS and BBAW will continue to work together.”
Markschies explained why the facility in Berlin is in the right place. Thanks to the Humboldt Forum and ZAS, among other things, the city is “a center for (threatened) languages” and with its own center for digital lexicography is ideally placed to “bring together potentials, use synergies and, in the digital age, find a major solution to work”.
“The academy is getting younger and more diverse”
He is also looking forward to “the many scholarship holders from all over the world and the scientists who come to us from London”. They make the academy “younger, more diverse and even more interesting for Berliners”. Center director Mandana Seyfeddinipur already lives in Berlin, where she once did her master’s degree in linguistics and Persian studies at the Free University. For the past three years she was a visiting researcher at the ZAS.
The new center will not only work with the Humboldt Forum, which has historical recordings of indigenous peoples, and with the ZAS, where research is also carried out on small languages in West Africa and New Guinea. Close cooperation is also planned with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and its archive of threatened languages in Nijmegen, explained Markschies.
It was set up by Wolfgang Klein, head of the digital dictionary of the German language at the BBAW. Mandana Seyfeddinipur did her doctorate in Nijmegen under Klein. The ZAS, in turn, combines expansion plans with the move of the center: It is planning an expansion to include the aspect of the diversity of languages and speakers.
The new BBAW center already has its own Berlin project: It searches for local “language islands” from local Arabic dialects of Syriac-Arabic or Aramaic.