Gregory Anderson

Year of Graduation: 
One person on the floor recording two people sitting on a bench

"To waddle along on short legs (like a duck or a fat child) is tapa.tupu. The word has a pithy beauty, doesn’t it? The world would be a poorer place without it."

It was a humid, pre-pandemic day in the remote Sepik River area of Papua, New Guinea. Linguist Gregory Anderson ’85 was sitting with a local man, quizzing him about his language. The two were sharing a snack of live grubs. “Gooey and bland,” Anderson recalls. “Not that bad, but kind of weird.”

In fact, not that weird for Anderson, whose passion for identifying and preserving endangered languages has led to many memorable meals around the world. As the founder of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, he visits areas with poor language documentation to meet local decision-makers, interview community members, and offer training in writing systems and digital media. Over the years, he and team members have helicoptered to Siberian hinterlands and camped in Indian backyards. He’s interviewed Native American Oregonians and recorded Nigerian villagers, amid revving motorbikes and bleating goats. In areas without plumbing, he’s gathered water from streams. Interactions happen everywhere, from spontaneous meetings to how-to demonstrations to religious ceremonies. “Once people under- stand, ‘Wow, this person is actually interested in learning our language,’ they’re usually quite receptive,” he says.

These cross-cultural immersions amplify Anderson’s lifelong joy in learning languages and parsing their systems. After taking courses in all five languages offered at Exeter, he entered Harvard University, where, 15 minutes into his first linguistics class, he realized, “This is who I am.” He ultimately earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, specializing in languages of Siberia and tribal languages of India.

As part of his goal “to ensure language survival for generations to come,” Anderson publishes “Living Dictionaries,” collaborative, infinitely expandable, free online compendia combining written data with speakers’ audio recordings, in languages from Achi (Guatemala) to Хызыл (Republic of Khakassia, Siberia). He encourages users to contribute to his and to create their own. In this context, he says, “Your expertise as a native speaker is profound and vastly superior to any outside scholar’s.”

He laments the “global language extinction crisis,” whereby dominant languages (English, Russian, Spanish, Standard Chinese) rapidly supplant minority ones. Within 100 years, he estimates, nearly half of the world’s languages could vanish.

The loss would be momentous. Studies show that bilingual graduates of K-12 immersion schools generally emerge with higher graduation rates and average salaries, and lower rates of incarceration and substance use, than their monolingual counterparts. In one study, bilingual Canadians showed an average 4.5-year delayed onset of dementia compared to monolinguals. Since language spread typically accompanies economic power, dominant-language mastery often reflects education level and socioeconomic opportunities. “Because people who use the more divergent-from-the-standard form [of language] are devalued, so too is their language variety devalued,” Anderson says.

Inspired by conservationists’ “biodiversity hotspot” maps, Anderson maps “language hotspots” — areas with low language-documentation levels, high language endangerment, and high linguistic diversity (referring not to number of individual languages, but to “language families,” aka “genetic units” — language groups descended from a common forebearer. Romance languages, all descended from Latin, constitute a language family.). To date, his map has yielded 20-plus global hotspots, collectively containing 85% to 95% of the world’s genetic units.

Ultimately, Anderson says, preserving language means preserving human cultural diversity.

He admires India’s Ho speakers for their “elaborate way of expressing noteworthy or interesting features of people,” with words for “walking with a dragging limp” and “talking while spitting through one’s teeth,” for example. “To waddle along on short legs (like a duck or a fat child)” is tapa.tupu. The word has a pithy beauty, doesn’t it? The world would be a poorer place without it.

Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

 -- Juliet Eastland '86