Understanding and Promoting Linguistic Diversity
Researchers estimate that more than half of the world’s 6,000 languages will not survive into the next century. These at-risk languages are mainly spoken in socially and politically marginalized communities, such as many of Canada's Indigenous communities.
When a language disappears, it represents a loss of cultural wealth and community identity—but it also means a piece of the puzzle at the heart of scientific linguistic inquiry is lost. It makes it more challenging for researchers to discover and understand the principles and parameters of the uniquely human capacity for language.
Dr. Jessica Coon, Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages, is studying this capacity through collaborative research with academics and linguistic communities. More specifically, she and her research team are investigating the rich and complex systems of verbal inflection in languages of the Mayan family in Mexico and Guatemala, and in Algonquian languages of Canada.
In both of these language families, verbs may be highly complex, expressing information that would require a whole sentence—or multiple sentences—in languages like English or French. Coon’s research seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms behind these grammatical systems, and use this knowledge to test existing linguistic theories.
By engaging community members directly in her language documentation and linguistic research, Coon’s work will lead to a better understanding of the grammars of these languages and the study of language in general. She also hopes it will help promote and support efforts to revitalize at-risk languages in Canada and around the world.