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MB Lee Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities #2 (10 May 2013)

BABEL BURNING: What We Lose When a Language Dies?

MB Lee Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities
Prof Nicholas Evans (Australian National University)
Date: Friday 10 May, 2013

The mythical Library of Babel, as imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, contained all possible books written in all possible languages - and thus everything sayable or discoverable about the universe.Yet most of this library is now burning down, as languages die out at an unprecedented rate.Every few weeks an old person is buried, in whose brain was the last and often unsuspected repository of an entire language and the knowledge it enfolds. This talk is about just what we lose when we bury such a person, and what we can do to recover some of the key areas of knowledge that will be lost with language death: of the natural world, of the possibilities of language and the human mind, of deep history, of how to decipher ancient scripts, and of alternative traditions of conceptualising the world.

Speaker: Nicholas Evans is Distinguished Professor of Linguistics in the College of Asia/Pacific, Australian National University. The driving interest of his work is the interplay between documenting and describing endangered languages and the many scientific and humanistic questions they can help us answer.He recently published the widely-acclaimed book Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us which sets out a broad program for engaging with the world's dwindling linguistic diversity. Professor Evans is a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the British Academy, and the recipient of many prizes for his work including the Anneliese Maier Forschungspreis from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Ken Hale Award from the Linguistics Society of America.

The MB Lee Distinguished Lectures in the Humanities are designed to promote the significance of the arts and humanities to the wider public. Accessible, curious and enriching, the talks should stimulate a passion for the arts and a desire to see the values of the humanities benefit the social well-being of Hong Kong.

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