Kansas City Star, February 25, 2009
In "The Linguists," a surprisingly thrilling film about obscure languages airing Thursday on PBS, professors Greg Anderson and David Harrison are in Siberia, being driven to a village they can't even find on a map to see if anyone in the world still speaks a dialect known as Chulym.
Oh, yes, says the mayor of a nearby town, he knows the people in that village: "Two drinks and they're drunk," he says dismissively.
When they finally locate some Chulym speakers, the results are not much more encouraging. One of the natives is stone deaf. A second, hearing that scientists are in town to hear him talk, roars, "What is this (bleep)?"
Funny, enlightening and ultimately uplifting, "The Linguists" is not your ordinary recipient of National Science Foundation money. The film chronicles a worldwide cultural treasure hunt led by two unassuming - and oddly daring - linguists from the U.S., Greg Anderson and David Harrison. Between them they know 25 languages, but their careers have been dedicated to a class of dying indigenous tongues they can scarcely locate, let alone understand.
"The Linguists" was an immediate hit when it debuted at Sundance Film Festival last year. I saw it there and the next day sat down with the principals for an interview.
"We wanted to make a different kind of science documentary," said Seth Kramer, one of three partners in Ironbound Films, whose other projects include a biography of the 1980s TV showman Morton Downey Jr.
Another partner, Jeremy Newberger - fans of radio personality Don Imus may recall him as "that fat idiot Jeremy" who used to run errands for the I-man - painted a scene that brought to mind Indiana Jones, if Indy had been shadowed by an out-of-shape camera crew through bug-infested backwaters in search of obscure relics that could only be captured by the tape recorder.
We watch Harrison and Anderson in India trying to find speakers of Beerhor ("You can't have a more bad-sounding name for a language," one of them observes). Somehow they wind up in the middle of a crazy, wine-fueled mosh in a village not far from a place where guerrillas had recently killed a bunch of people.
The linguists have complementary skills, and Anderson, who's the more anthropologically-minded one, wants to spend the night with these Indian villagers to get to know them. Harrison, the more analytical of the two, thinks he's nuts. "I have two children now and I just can't do stupid things," he says. "We're real close to the bad area."
"The Linguists" originated out of Kramer's interest in Yiddish - a language his ancestors had handed down for generations but which no one in his family spoke anymore. The story behind Yiddish's demise is unusually tragic, since it involves the Holocaust, but in other respects, as we see in the film, the death of a language is all too predictable: Young people come under pressure to speak the preferred cultural tongue, so they abandon the one they learned at home.
Nowhere is that more vividly displayed in "The Linguists" than a scene shot in, of all places, Arizona. The profs find exactly one person who knows the Chemehuevi Indian language. He's not even that old. His late mother spoke to him exclusively in Chemehuevi. He drives a tractor.
"I speak it to myself," he says. "There's no one else to talk to."
To overcome the cultural shame that kills off dialects, the linguists shed their objectivity and stage a kind of intervention. They record the locals on camera speaking in their native tongue. Then they play it back for them. We watch as shame is magically replaced by pride. It dawns on people that this is what the Americans have come here for.
"People are moved to tears seeing their own images," Harrison told me. "They've never heard their own language recorded before. It powerfully reinforces that this is something of value."
Airs Thursday on many PBS stations. Check local listings. Teachers can learn more at thelinguists.com.