Race against time and elements to record language


An Oxford University team has discovered a language spoken by only three people and is now in a race against time to document the language for posterity – after recent tragic flooding on the island where the language is spoken killed many of its inhabitants.

Researchers from Oxford University’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics uncovered the language called ‘Dusner’, spoken by three people in a village of the same name on the island of Papua in Indonesia, and Dr Suriel Mofu set off for Indonesia in October to record and document the language.

But days after he left, flooding hit Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province and the Oxford team could not determine whether or not the Dusner speakers – aged 45, 60 and 70-plus – had survived.

Now Oxford University’s Dr Mofu has made contact with the Dusner speakers and the 14-month project, thanks to a Leverhulme Trust Research Project grant, is well underway.

Professor Mary Dalrymple of Oxford University’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, the project’s leader, said: ‘The flood in Indonesia has been a real tragedy for the inhabitants of this wonderful island and it’s been a nervous few months waiting to hear whether or not our speakers survived.

‘But this illustrates why our project is so important – we only found out that this language existed last year, and if we don’t document the language before it dies out, it will be lost forever. The recent tragic earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan reinforces just how close many languages are to extinction. Both are island countries with only two languages – a majority language (English and Japanese) and one small minority language (Maori and Ainu) which are both endangered – Ainu extremely endangered and Maori slightly less so though still not completely safe.

‘Our project to record and document this language of Dusner has an urgency about it, because one of its speakers died last year and the only existing speakers are a man in his 70s, a 60-year old woman and a 45-year old woman.’

Professor Dalrymple added: ‘Advances in technology mean that there has never been a better time to record endangered languages, and over the next three months we will record Dusner’s three remaining speakers talking about their lives, telling stories and jokes and performing traditional ceremonies before making these available online for the general public.

‘Our project is important to non-Dusner speaking inhabitants of Papua, who want to use Dusner in their sacred wedding and funerary rituals.’

Dr Suriel Mofu of Oxford University’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, who discovered the language while working on an Oxford University project to document the language of Biak, said: ‘I stumbled across Dusner by accident, from the comfort of an office in Oxford, when I recognised that despite growing up on Papua I had never heard this very distinctive language before!’

It is estimated that half of the 6,000 recorded languages spoken in the world will vanish in the next 50 years.

Professor Mary Dalrymple explained: ‘The language of Dusner has died out as parents realised that their children have a better chance of going to university or getting a job if they speak Malay, which is Indonesia’s main tongue – the remaining Dusner speakers have children of their own, but have not taught them Dusner and so the language will die with them.

‘Linguists have new, powerful language documentation methods meaning that although languages are declining at an alarming rate, we are better placed than ever to record and document them on a variety of media for careful study and analysis.’

Preserving and documenting the world’s languages is critically important for linguists and speakers of endangered languages.