Posted in biology, communication and networking, education, literature

Tonight on TV: The Linguists

The Linguists is a documentary focusing on a quest to record and retain dying languages throughout the world. It follows linguistic anthropologists David Harrison and Greg Anderson across Eurasia – India, Siberia, Slovakia – on their quest to document different languages now spoken only in small pockets around the world. In doing so, they hope to promote the revitilization of these languages, but if nothing else to capture them for posterity so centuries from now people will know these languages existed. Anderson also leads the Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages in Oregon.

It has been shown at the Sundance Film Festival and is due to air tonight on PBS. It is getting a lot of buzz from NPR, TV Guide, Vanity Fair, and other news outlets, so it should be accessible to and enjoyable by a broad audience.

Why am I writing about a film about two linguistic anthropologists travelling the world? Because linguistics is a surprisingly difficult and scientific undertaking, with connections to many different realms of scientific pursuit.

To quote Wikipedia, linguistics is “the study of language structure (grammar) and the study of meaning (semantics). Grammar encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the rules that determine how words combine into phrases and sentences) and phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.”

Studying sounds, how words are developed, and how are brain processes these words are all connected to cognitive fields of science that have expanded tremendously in the past 20 years. Noam Chomsky is probably the best-known linguist, tying mathematical structure into linguistic analysis as well as studying brain function and how the brain responds, or has responded, to the development of language over the course of human history. Chomsky has become a magnet for schools of thought for or against his cognitive theories, but at least it got people talking.

There are now biolinguistics, computational linguists, neurolinguists, psycholinguists, cognitive scientists studying language, and good old fashioned social or anthropological linguists, as featured in this documentary.

So, check it out.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.