Documenting Disappearing Languages

Public Relations Office        May 30, 2017

Elucidating the universality of human language functions, and exploring the questions of “What is Language? ” and “What is Human?”

Yusuke Imanishi Assistant Professor, School of Policy Studies

Yusuke Imanishi Assistant Professor, School of Policy Studies

Born in 1984, Yusuke Imanishi graduated from Kwansei Gakuin University’s School of Policy Studies in 2007, and completed the masters’ program in the Graduate School of Letters of Osaka University, Theory of Cultural Expression specialization (English Linguistics) in 2009. In 2014, he obtained his Ph.D. (Linguistics) as a Fullbright Scholar from the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and took up his current position that same year. His areas of specialization are theoretical linguistics (syntax and morphology), and field linguistics (Mayan languages, Ryukyu languages).

Yusuke Imanishi Assistant Professor, School of Policy Studies

Much of Dr. Imanishi’s research is taken up with field work. Many endangered languages do not have their own writing system and have been passed down solely orally, which makes “raw data” essential. Further, as speakers of these languages grow older, it has become a race against time to collect information before they die out.

His field of activity is Guatemala in Central America, where he interviews speakers of Mayan languages and analyzes sound recordings of their speech. He then postulates theories about the generative grammar of vocabulary, grammar rules, and rules of sounds (phonological rules), before going back and meeting his interview subjects again to test those theories. He repeats this process several times. After he has completed his fieldwork, he checks the results against the theories about other languages, including analysis of the quantified data. Dr. Imanishi comments, ‘When it comes to the precise grammatical rules of the Japanese language, often, it is foreigners, who have learned it from textbooks and other references, who know more than native Japanese speakers. It is precisely because these endangered languages do not have clearly defined, written grammatical rules that objectivity is important. By objectively analyzing the contents of interviews with native speakers of these languages, as a foreigner, I have a major role
to play.”

Since his time in graduate school in the United States, Dr. Imanishi has been investigating ergative languages*1, which Mayan languages are classified as. The commonly accepted theory of ergative languages, namely, that the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are indicated with the same case (particle), and the subject of a transitive verb alone is indicated by a different case, known as the ergative case. Dr. Imanishi’s work, however, approaches these languages from a different perspective. He postulated the theory that the ergative case, which indicates the subject of a transitive verb, is not actually special, but that, in fact, it appears as the default case. By pursuing the analysis of this theory, using Mayan languages as an example, he proposed that, if certain conditions are met, it is possible for the ergative case to not only appear as the subject of an transitive verb, but also as the object, or as the subject of an intransitive verb. He also suggested that, whether a language is ergative or not, there is a possibility for the ergative case to appear as the default in all sentences. Dr. Imanishi’s work has been influential in the field, with, for example, other linguistic researchers proving his theory applied to other (ergative) languages, such as the Austronesian languages.


This research provided a step towards indicating the fundamental steps of language building in the brain, irrespective of the type of language. While it is a matter of course that different languages will have different vocabularies, grammars, writing systems, and the like, Dr. Imanishi’s research is significant that it will lead to establishing the theory that the actual process of combining each of these parts together to create speech and sentences is identical.

More recently, he has turned his sights inward towards Japan, and has started analyzing Kikai- Ryukyuan (a language primarily found on the island of Kikaijima in Kagoshima Prefecture), one of eight endangered languages in the Japanese archepelago. Many endangered languages have declined due to the impact of historical factors, such as occupation by other cultures. In many cases, the language came to be seen as a symbol of discrimination or shame among its speakers, and it was not passed down to younger generations.

In recent years, however, moves to preserve these languages have accelerated around the world, and there has also been a gradual change in the recognition of these languages among their speakers.

Dr. Imanishi explains, “I am hearing more often words of gratitude and happiness, with people telling me how grateful they are that my work will give them the opportunity to pass their own identity on to future generations.” His enthusiasm for his work is evident in his words. “Language is one of the biggest differences between humans and other primates. There is something very fascinating about this field, which poses the question of what makes a human being. I will keep up my work on my biggest research topic of the elucidation of the universality of language functions, while at the same time, I hope to contribute to the world with the descriptive preservation of endangered languages.”

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