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What If Babel Was Just a Myth?

A film by Sandrine Loncke

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According to Unesco, a human language disappears every two weeks. Within a century, 50 to 90 percent of all languages will be gone.

Does it matter?

Linguist Florian Lionnet of Princeton University emphatically believes it does. For years, he’s been documenting Láàl, a language spoken by only 700 people living in two villages on the banks of the Moyen-Chari River, in Southern Chad. Language encodes culture and worldviews, and each time a language disappears, we lose an irreplaceable part of humanity.

WHAT IF BABEL WAS A MYTH follows Lionnet as he accompanies villagers during their daily activities—fishing, carving a dugout canoe, dancing, and telling stories. He listens in on conversations, asks questions about vocabulary and grammar, and diligently records everything.

Láàl may be the villagers’ mother tongue, but most—including children—are fluent in at least five languages. For Lionnet, their ease in language acquisition raises questions about the shortcomings of teaching languages in the West. And he argues that this kind of rich linguistic diversity was likely the norm for most of human history.

Lionnet and film director Sandrine Loncke work hard to be respectful of the community. They speak Láàl and have forged genuine connections with the villagers over a period of years. Lionnet shares the results of his research with the language’s native speakers, and we see them watching Loncke’s footage and giving their approval.

Beautifully shot and enhanced with short animated segments, WHAT IF BABEL WAS A MYTH is a fascinating case study of one language and the challenges of preserving it—and a plea for the protection of linguistic diversity.

“At a time when global linguistic diversity is under threat, this excellent documentary demonstrates the value and significance of multilingualism for mutual understanding and interaction, as well as expressing mutual respect, tolerance and value. We can learn a lot from this case study from Africa. Peter K. Austin, Emeritus Professor and Marit Rausing Chair of Field Linguistics, SOAS University of London

“Remarkable! A fascinating view of an endangered linguistic community and the kind of work that can preserve the languages and cultures of similar communities all over the world. A welcome complement to available materials on endangered languages that is especially well-suited for introductory courses in linguistics, sociolinguistics, and languages of the world.” —Jeff Good, Professor in the Department of Linguistics, State University of New York at Buffalo

Grand Prize, International Festival of Ethnological Film of Belgrad
Best Scientific Documentary Award, Pärnu Film Festival
Finalist Best University Film, LabMeCrazy Science Film Festival of Pamplona
Finalist Best Documentary, Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards
Audience Award, Festival International du film chamanique de Sarlat
Merit Award, Awareness Film Festival of Los Angeles
Festival Ethnografilm de Paris
Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec
Raw Science Film Festival of Los Angeles
NAFA International Ethnographic Film Festival
SCINEMA International Science Film Festival of the Royal Institution of Australia
Babel Film Festival of Sardinia
Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, University College London
Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation, University of Hawaii
Cinéma du Musée du Quai Branly
Jury Award, Festival Curieux Voyageurs de Saint-Étienne

56 minutes / Color
French; English / English subtitles
Closed Captioned
Release: 2021
Copyright: 2019

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This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Subject areas:
Africa, African Studies, Anthropology, Art, Cultural Anthropology, France, Central Africa, Native People, Language

Watch the trailer:

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