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Ultrasound Technology Preserves Endangered Languages

File:UNESCO Tag der Muttersprache 2010.pngOut of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages, almost half are endangered, stated a May 5, 2005 press release issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This same press release announced the NSF and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s joint Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) project, an initiative to keep some of these languages from becoming extinct.

That same year the DEL project awarded 39 fellowships and grants to researchers/scientists working towards digitally documenting over 70 languages. Among the recipients was Amanda Miller, then a Professor at Cornell University, and Bonny Sands, a Professor at Northern Arizona University. “Scientists at Cornell and Northern Arizona Universities will gather ultrasound and airflow data to determine just how the ‘click’ sounds of South Africa’s N|uu language are produced,” stated the press release.  “Only 13 fluent N|uu speakers remain.” (According to a recent UNESCO report there may only be seven remaining N|uu speakers).

Miller’s website reveals that she and Sands, along with Johanna Brugman, have continued researching N|uu throughout the years and have been able to document all of the 103 sounds associated with the language.

A December 2010 Scientific American article by Lisa Song described Miller holding an ultrasound probe underneath the chin of a N|uu speaker in a South African town. Song stated that Miller was one of only 40 linguists around the world using ultrasound to be able to understand how distinct sounds associated with a language are produced. “This portable technology, which became affordable to linguists around 2000, allows researchers to see the tongue as it moves in real time,” wrote Song. “It is one of the only medical scanning devices that can keep up with speech; MRIs, for example, are too slow…Thanks to this emerging technology, Miller and her colleagues have documented some of the fastest sounds in human speech: the click consonants present in many rare African languages.”

Miller’s website also revels that she has developed a faster ultrasound image recording method called the CHAUSA (Corrected High frame-rate Anchored Ultrasound with Software Alignment) capable of imaging the tongue at 125 plus fps (frames per second). This has come in handy for Miller to image the tongue making click sounds as part of the IsiXhosa and Mangetti Dune !Xung languages at 124 fps, for example.

Other examples of phonetic/linguistic researchers employing ultrasound include Alexei Kochetov, Marianne Pouplier, and Sarah Truong with the Nepali language; Douglas H. Whalen, Christian T. DiCanio and Dr. Patricia A. Shaw with the Tahltan language (a language spoken by less than 20 Athapaskan elders in northern British Columbia, Canada, as of 2011); and Jon Yip for Modern Greek.

As ultrasound has transcended the medical and healthcare fields and entered into the realm of culture and linguistics, it seems the possibilities are endless for this continuously evolving technology.

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