I have not read any of K. David Harrison’s books on disappearing languages. After listening to In The Search for ‘Last Speakers,’ A Great Discovery on NPR, I am definitely putting his books on my reading list. It seems that the two books for the general audience are “When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge” (published in 2008) and “The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages” (just published). “The Last Speakers” was the reason for the NPR interview.
The NPR interview had some great points. In particular I was very interested in Harrison’s terms of “human knowledge base” and “translation paradox.” He states that when a language is lost, we lose the “human knowledge base”: everything that was contained in that language. And this is particularly important because of the “translation paradox,” in that concepts are not directly translatable from language to language. Once a language is lost, all of that information is lost even if documents or stories were written in translation. It is really quite sad.