For many of these communities, the oral tradition is at the heart of their culture. The stories they tell are creative works as well as communicative. Unlike the languages with celebrated written traditions, such as Sanskrit, Hebrew and Ancient Greek, few indigenous communities – from the Kallawaya tribe in Bolivia and the Maka in Paraguay to the Siberian language of Chulym, to India's Arunachal Pradesh state Aka group and the Australian Aboriginal Amurdag community – have recorded their own languages or ever had them recorded. Until now. Turin launched the World Oral Literature Project earlier this year with an aim to document and make accessible endangered languages before they disappear without trace.The Beckoning Silence
He is trying to encourage indigenous communities to collaborate with anthropologists around the world to record what he calls "oral literature" through video cameras, voice recorders and other multimedia tools by awarding grants from a £30,000 pot that the project has secured this year. The idea is to collate this literature in a digital archive that can be accessed on demand and will make the nuts and bolts of lost cultures readily available. As useful as this archive will be for Western academic study – the World Oral Literature Project is convening for its first international workshop in Cambridge this week – Turin believes it is of vital importance that the scheme also be used by the communities he and his researchers are working with.
The project suggested itself when Turin was teaching in Nepal. He wanted to study for a PhD in endangered languages and, while discussing it with his professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, was drawn to a map on his tutor's wall. The map was full of pins of a variety of colours which represented all the world's languages that were completely undocumented. At random, Turin chose a "pin" to document. It happened to belong to the Thangmi tribe, an indigenous community in the hills east of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. "Many of the choices anthropologists and linguists who work on these traditional field-work projects take are quite random," he admits. "There's a lot of serendipity involved."