Endangered languages and gadgets that record them

There's a really interesting piece in today's NYT by John Noble Wilford about "endangered languages" —

Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and likely to disappear in this century. In fact, one falls out of use about every two weeks.

So, this is not news, but the piece goes on to explore a project led by K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore —

Beginning what is expected to be a long-term project to identify and record endangered languages, Dr. Harrison has traveled to many parts of the world with Gregory D. S. Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute, in Salem, Ore., and Chris Rainier, a filmmaker with the National Geographic Society.

The researchers, focusing on distinct oral languages, not dialects, interviewed and made recordings of the few remaining speakers of a language and collected basic word lists. The individual projects, some lasting three to four years, involve hundreds of hours of recording speech, developing grammars and preparing children's readers in the obscure language. The research has concentrated on preserving entire language families.

When I saw this story, my eyes zoomed in one one detail: it looks like Mr. Harrison, in the photo above at far left, is doing all that recording on the same device I use for audio recording. Link to larger image, so you can see more clearly.

Unless I'm mistaken, that's a Marantz PMD660. Amazon link for purchase ($489-499, generally), and here's a super informative item about the device on transom.org.

The short version: it's not the smallest, it's not the lightest, it's not the cheapest, but it's a trusty workhorse capable of producing pro quality audio in a variety of formats. I began using it because it was standard-issue among NPR reporters, and audio engineers there showed me ways to get the most out of it. It's served me well in difficult sonic and environmental conditions, and I wouldn't readily trust another device. You got one shot at capturing something, you want to nail it. "Newest" isn't as important as "least likely to fail."

I'm planning a longer post sometime soon about the mics I use for field recording, and some of the smaller, more compact alternatives for recording units. (Hm, wonder what kind of mics they're using?)

Image: Chris Rainier/National Geographic.