K. David Harrison
Abamu Degio watches a recording of herself singing a traditional song Author: Jeremy Fahringer
2021

K. David Harrison

Linguist

languages on the brink

meet david

K. David Harrison, a professor at Swarthmore College, is an anthropologist and linguist passionately devoted to exploring and protecting the world’s linguistic diversity. He travels widely to record the last speakers of the world’s most endangered languages. For his doctoral dissertation at Yale, he spent a year living with yak-herding nomads in Siberia, learning their language and absorbing their culture. In 2008, he created the Talking Dictionary platform, which has provided the first-ever internet presence for more than 200 endangered languages.

languages on the brink
Nominated by: Jack Daulton MN'19
Class of 2021 Location Pennsylvania, USA
Harrison K David and Chris Nevehev
Harrison K David and Chris Nevehev Author: Orien Namu

Harrison’s 2012 book, The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Endangered Languages, investigates the scientific consequences of language loss, including his poignant encounters with last speakers in remote corners of the globe. Proclaiming that no culture has a monopoly on human genius, he is a passionate advocate for the value in preserving these languages and the human knowledge they encode, inspiring local communities and the world at large.

David created a conceptual framework called, “Language Hotspots” to describe regions with the greatest language diversity and endangerment and with the least-studied languages. It is now an influential tool to visualize and track language diversity and loss worldwide. He also coined the nomenclature “environmental linguistics” to highlight the important relationship between local languages and the environment.

“Proclaiming that no culture has a monopoly on human genius, he is a passionate advocate for the value in preserving these languages and the human knowledge they encode, inspiring local communities and the world at large.”

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John Agid (left) and other Panau speakers of Matugar village consult with Dr. David Harrison
John Agid (left) and other Panau speakers of Matugar village consult with Dr. David Harrison Author: Chris Rainier

He has led 25 expeditions to communities in twenty countries with endangered languages, in many cases making the first-ever language recordings. David co-led the Enduring Voices Project at National Geographic, which undertook expeditions to record many last speakers and conducting workshops to train communities in language preservation. On one of those expeditions, he co-discovered Koro, a language new to science in remote northeast India. David continues this work as the Director of Research at The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

never stop exploring

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