Language as a time machine
About 90 per cent of Austronesian and Papuan languages are under threat of soon becoming extinct. Marian Klamer is the only professor in the world who researches both these language groups. She records languages before they disappear and sheds new light on the history of Indonesia. Inaugural lecture on 6 February.
Minor languages of Indonesia are becoming extinct
Klamer focuses on the Autronesian and Papuan languages of Indonesia, which has around 700 living languages. She fears that 90 per cent of these will become extinct within two generations, since parents today raise their children mainly in Indonesian, the national language. What else will disappear when these languages become extinct? Klamer: 'Part of their culture and history. These traditions - passed on orally by old family members through stories and songs - will disappear.'
Only colonial sources
The Papuans do not have any written sources of their past. Klamer: 'The only written sources are those of the Dutch and Portuguese dating back to colonial times. These sources often describe the inhabitants as scary, cannibalistic heathens.' In order to prevent total extinction of the languages Klamer is writing dictionaries and grammar books of these languages together with colleagues. People in Indonesia are slowly coming to appreciate the value of local languages, but the government has so far only given a marginal amount of money for research.
Language as a time machine
Current speakers of these languages are often ignorant of the origin of words. Klamer: 'If you come across loan words that are related in various languages, you can then for example reconstruct when it was that Papuan speakers living on the coast have had contact with those living in the mountains or on the other islands. Hence the title of my inaugural lecture, "Language as a Time Machine"; language tells us things about the past. My reconstruction also offers a good basis for archaeological research.'
Interviews on location
In this race against the clock Klamer carries out her research on the Lesser Sunda Islands in East Indonesia. These three islands together are smaller in size than the Netherlands. And yet no fewer than 40 different languages are spoken in this region. She interviews inhabitants of remote villages, using a video camera and presenting them with a vocabulary. Klamer specifically searches for loan words and numerical systems used in the languages. Loan words, that are taken over from another language, and the method of counting, both give information about the contact people have had with other population groups in the past. A postgraduate, working in Klamer's team, who is also a computational linguist, uses computer models in order to establish the connections.
Papuan speakers more outgoing than initially assumed
Thanks to the language analysis, she was able to identify different groups of people on the islands, Alor and Pantar, who each had their own contacts with another island. Klamer: 'The people on these islands have turned out to be more outgoing than colonial sources had initially implied.' Her research has also shown how much local languages differ from each other: inhabitants from the same village regularly do not understand each other's language.
Big loss for science as well
Languages that are disappearing are not just a loss to the speakers, Klamer emphasises. 'By studying as many languages as possible linguists are trying to discover patterns and deviations in languages. It teaches us more about the possibilities and limits of variation in language. If all these languages become extinct, we will lose an enormous database of information.'
One-third of all languages
There are 1200 Austronesian languages spoken in Madagascar, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Pacific, New Zealand, and reaching as far as Hawaii and Easter Island. Two well-known Austronesian languages are Indonesian and Malaysian. But most of these languages are very small, with only a few thousand speakers, and of which more than 90 per cent are not written down. Papuan languages are spoken in New Guinea and the surrounding area, and their number of speakers is estimated at around 800. They consist of 20 different families of languages. Together, the Austronesian and Papuan languages consist of about 2,000 languages. That is one-third of all the languages in the world.