Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2009
In the shaggy and bittersweet documentary "The Linguists," airing at 10 tonight on KCET (a few months after its general PBS feed), a pair of youngish scholarly word-nerds travel the globe to chart and record languages about to wink into everlasting silence. There are still more than 7,000 languages on Earth (all but one of which most Americans do not speak), each representing, says David Harrison, one of "the possible ways that the human mind can make sense of the world around it." But they are becoming extinct at the rate of one every two weeks, shut down by official suppression or discouragement -- what results, says Greg Anderson with audible distaste, when one people imposes "their will, and their government, and their language" on another -- or simply by falling out of use.
It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that Harrison and Anderson are like something out of a Kevin Smith movie, but the film (by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger), though it is full of fascinating glimpses of the remote world, does depend heavily on their goofy, geeky charm. "Around the age of 8 or 9 I discovered I had a somewhat irrational interest in the world's languages," says Anderson, but however many tongues the two speak (lots of them), when it comes to this particular subject it's clear they speak the same language.
"Wow!" gasps Anderson when, in India, a rare speaker of the Sora language pronounces the word for "13" -- it's the word for "12" plus the word for "one," an unusual "base 12" system. (It's as if the Dead had just launched into "Dark Star.") When they get to "93," the word for which is "four 20s plus 12 plus one," they get really excited -- it's "one of the most complicated numbers that we might ever see in the language of the world," says Harrison. On the other hand, in the Siberian Chulym, whose remaining speakers numbered five by the time the film was finished, there is a single word to express the sentence "I went out moose hunting." That word is "aalychtypiskem," should you ever need to express that fact in Chulym or wish to casually drop it into a cocktail party conversation.
As a globe-trotting adventure it is more exciting and interesting and prettier to look at than "The Philanthropist." The pair brave dangerous mountain roads, Bolivian healing rituals and moody old people who can't quite hear them or work out why they've come, what they want or who they are in their quest for words that if they have not outlived their usefulness are nevertheless about to outlive their use. (A note of caution: Bird lovers may wish to avoid the Bolivian healing ritual scenes; I was not quick enough myself.)