It is her passion for language that makes one Florida State University researcher feel glum about a recent bit of news. Carolina Gonzalez, an assistant professor in FSU’s Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, is concerned because hundreds of native languages around the world are facing extinction.
"It is very sad," Gonzalez said. "Depending on the count, there are between 5,000 and 7,000 languages in the world. As you may have read in the media recently, the estimate is that half of them will be extinct in 100 years."
A September article in The New York Times stated that "83 languages with ‘global’ influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate…that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants."
At FSU, Gonzalez works on documenting some of those endangered languages while there is still time. Among her research interests is the study of Panoan (pronounced "pan-OH-in"), a family of languages spoken by indigenous peoples in Peru, Bolivia and western Brazil that are facing extinction.
"Panoan comprises some 30 languages," she said. "They are extremely endangered and, in general, not well documented. Out of those 30 languages, 11 are now thought to be extinct. Seventeen have fewer than 500 speakers, including three that have fewer than 35 speakers. Some of these languages will only survive one or two generations, at most."
Gonzalez is making plans to study other native languages of the Amazonian rain forest
and to look at how rhythmic patterns compare to Panoan and other languages.
"What first attracted me to Panoan languages was the fact that rhythm affects speech sounds in ways that are not common in other languages," she said. "Consonants, vowels and even whole syllables alternate in odd- or even-numbered positions in words, making up for the lack of other ways to create contrasts between syllables, such as stress—or even in apparent conflict with it. I am still fascinated by this property, and I believe that studying rhythmic patterns in Panoan and other Amazonian languages will provide us with a better understanding of the possible ways in which rhythm is encoded in languages.
"In the future, I expect to conduct fieldwork in the area, probably in Peru or Brazil, to gather primary data on the sound patterns of these languages," Gonzalez said.
At FSU, Gonzalez is sharing her enthusiasm for language with her students. In addition to a course on Spanish phonetics, she teaches "Descriptive Linguistics," which shows how sounds, words and sentences in languages vary, and how they are connected.
"We look at examples from languages from all over the world," she said. "It is a very exciting class for me to teach. The current students of this course are pursuing original linguistic projects, many of which involve work with native speakers of languages such as Hindi, Hungarian and even Muskogean Creek, which is still spoken in North Florida, southern Georgia and Alabama.
"I tell my students that the first class they take in linguistics is going to be hard, because we are not used to many of the concepts that are used in this area," Gonzalez said. "But even a general or descriptive course like the ones we offer will give students the opportunity to know more about languages in general, as well as the languages they speak."
Learning about other languages—even those that are in danger of extinction—offers students a window into the human condition, she said.
"They need to learn about the richness of all of these languages," Gonzalez said. "They can tell us about the human mind and culture."
The Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at FSU prepares students for a variety of educational and career opportunities. To learn more about the department, visit www.fsu.edu/~modlang.