The cataloging of vocabulary and pronunciation and syntax that field linguists do in remote outposts helps keep a language alive. But saving a language is not something linguists can accomplish, because salvation must come from within. The answer may lie in something Harrison and Anderson witnessed in Palizi [in northeastern india] one day, when a villager in his early 20s came with a friend to perform a song for them. Palizi is far removed from pervasive U.S. culture, so it was something of a surprise to the two linguists when the teenagers launched into a full-bore, L.A.-style rap song complete with gang hand gestures and head bobbing and attitude, a pitch-perfect rendition of an American street art, with one refinement: They were rapping in Aka.
Were the linguists dismayed? I asked. To the contrary, Harrison said. “These kids were fluent in Hindi and English, but they chose to rap in a language they share with only a couple thousand people.” Linguistic co-optation and absorption can work both ways, with the small language sometimes acting as the imperialist. “The one thing that’s necessary for the revival of a language,” Father D’Souza told me one day, “is pride.”