The Endangered Language Alliance is a new organisation whose goal is to further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalisation of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction.

ELA is inspired by the sound and meaning of a Yahgan word aiala /aiawala/visible; light; knowledge; wise, intelligent; to know, to learn, to understand, to be conscious, to take in the meaning”. Yahgan is an endangered language of Tierra del Fuego – the southernmost human language on Earth and famous for its complex and surprising semantics. Yahgan is one of the few languages to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for “the most succinct word”, “mamihlapinatapai”, which means “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start”.

The ELA was set up last year by a trio: poet, Bob Holman and two linguists, Juliette Blevins and Dan Kaufman. They have combined forces in the heart of New York City, reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.

The ELA has worked in detail on 12 languages since it was created. It has codified their grammars, their pronunciations and their word-formation patterns, as well as their songs and legends. Each volunteer speaker of a language of interest is first tested with what is known as a Swadesh list. This is a set of 207 high-frequency, slow-to-change words such as parts of the body, colours and basic verbs like eat, drink, sleep and kill. Once the person has been accepted, Dr Kaufman and his colleagues start analysing the language”s phonology and its syntax. This sort of analysis is the bread and butter of linguistics.

Bob Holman is currently working on two Endangered Language Projects: the Endangered Cento, a 100-line poem with each line from a different endangered tongue, and “On the Road with Bob Holman,” a series of half-hour documentaries for LinkTV.

If you are interested in endangered languages, take a look at The Rosetta Project and the rescue of endangered languages