November 6, 2017
Topic: Campus News
Speakers of the endangered Andean language Aymara view the future as behind us and the past in front of us.
"It's a whole different way of viewing time," said Sarah Thomason, professor of linguistics in LSA. "If Aymara had died before anyone had noticed this, we would never know that humans might classify time that way."
There are endangered languages, as well, that use clicks as a major part of the sound system. When they disappear, the world will lose the knowledge that humans could actually produce such sounds as part of their communication.
Thomason will discuss this in her upcoming Distinguished University Professor lecture, "Most of the World's Languages Are Vanishing. Why Should We Care?" She will explore the impact the loss of languages has on both the communities that speak them and on wider human culture.
A Distinguished University Professorship is the highest professorial honor bestowed on U-M faculty. Thomason was named in 2015 as the Bernard Bloch Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics.
The lecture will take place 4 p.m. Tuesday in Rackham Amphitheatre. The lecture and the reception that follows are free and open to the public.
According to Thomason, by the year 2100, it is possible that only 700 of the world's current 7,000 languages will remain. With this loss of languages, we not only lose the intellectual and cultural wealth of the speakers, we also lose crucial knowledge of pre-history, history, human cognition and expression. In her talk, Thomason also will discuss how a few languages — like Hebrew — have avoided extinction.
Thomason began teaching at U-M in 1999. In her research, she focuses on contact-induced language change, endangered languages and Native American languages. For more than 30 years, she has worked with elders of the Salish and Ql'ispel tribes on the Flathead Reservation in Montana to preserve and revitalize their language.
Thomason has been president of the Linguistic Society of America and editor of its flagship journal Language, president of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, and chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science section on linguistics and language sciences. In 2012, she was awarded the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal by Yale University's Graduate School Alumni Association.
Thomason named her professorship to honor Bernard Bloch, a prominent linguist in the 1950s and '60s and her professor in graduate school. She said she honored Bloch in part for his contributions to linguistics, but primarily for his wonderful teaching.
"He was a teacher who could and did explain his own theoretical positions so clearly and so precisely that, if you disagreed with him, you knew exactly why," she recalls. "He was the kind of teacher who was particularly pleased when his students could disagree effectively. That to me is the person any teacher would want to be."