ExplorersBio

K. David Harrison

Linguist

Fellow

Photo: David Harrison

Photograph by Jeremy Fahringer

K. David Harrison is a linguist and leading specialist in the study of endangered languages. He co-leads the Enduring Voices project at National Geographic and is an associate professor at Swarthmore College. He received his doctorate from Yale University.

Harrison has done extensive fieldwork in Siberia, Mongolia, Bolivia, India, and Native America. In his book, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford 2007), Harrison provides a vivid picture of the scientific consequences of language loss. He also depicts the human factor, including moving accounts of his encounters with last speakers in remote corners of the globe. Harrison’s work includes not only scientific descriptions of languages, but also storybooks, translations and digital archives for the use of the native speaker communities.

Harrison co-stars in the documentary film The Linguists, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews in February 2008, and appeared at film festivals across the country (Boston, Madison, Dallas). Professor Noam Chomsky characterized the film as a “breathtaking thrill ride through the landscape of language.” The Hollywood Reporter writes: “Indiana Jones’ spirit certainly infects the intrepid heroes of ‘The Linguists.’ These are bold academics who plunge into the jungles and backwater villages of the world to rescue living tongues about to go extinct.” Vanity Fair describes it as “ … a fantastic little film that follows professors David Harrison and Gregory Anderson as they crisscross the globe on a mission to document languages on the verge of extinction. From the depths of Siberia to the high reaches of Bolivia, the pair is relentless in their goal, displaying a remarkable patience for interviewing deaf nonagenarians who are frequently the only surviving speakers. While this might all sound horribly sleep inducing, the excitement of these two professors proves contagious, and as the film reveals how cultural shame and colonialism have factored in the loss of these languages, their incredible dedication becomes all the more compelling.” And Variety comments: “A two-man mission to document the world’s endangered tongues becomes a fleet-footed study of human communication and its limitless structural and functional possibilities.”

Harrison makes frequent media appearances to promote language diversity, and his research is widely discussed in mainstream media. He has appeared on Good Morning America, The Colbert Report, WHYY Radio, NPR, BBC, and in many other outlets. His work has been featured in articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today.

In 2004 Harrison co-founded the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and documenting and revitalizing small languages. The institute runs language documentation projects around the globe. In 2006 he coined the term “language hotspots,” which has since become a leading promotional metaphor for understanding the language extinction crisis. The hotspots map and list was published in National Geographic magazine in October 2007, and at www.languagehotspots.org. Harrison and National Geographic Fellow Greg Anderson have embarked on a series of National Geographic-sponsored expeditions to visit the hotspots and interview last speakers in places such as Australia, Bolivia, and India. His book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages appears in fall 2010 by National Geographic Books.

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    Nat Geo E-Team

    What are David Harrison and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.

Projects

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    Enduring Voices

    The Central Siberia language hotspot boasts few indigenous languages compared with most. However, it holds six language families, two of which have only one remaining language, and almost all of the languages here are endangered. Russian-only government policies have extinguished a number of Siberian languages over the last few generations, and many living languages here have only a few elderly speakers.

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    Eastern Siberia

    Though eastern Siberia contains few languages compared to other language-rich locations, it holds ten "genetic units" (e.g., one genetic unit being Romance languages). It is notable, therefore, for its genetic diversity and for its extreme endangerment. Many Siberian languages have been lost in the last few generations due to government policies that force speakers of minority languages to use the national language.

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