Kirsten Helgeson

Dept. of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution

Main Focus

As a geographer, I know that place matters. The climate, chemical composition of the soil and water, types of flora and fauna present in the environment, and the languages that we see and hear around us are largely dependent on location. Geography forms a backdrop for the processes that shape our lives, and indeed for every process that has occurred throughout Earth’s history, from the formation of landscapes and biological species evolution to human migration out of Africa and dispersal around the globe.

     Currently, both languages and species are facing alarmingly high rates of endangerment, with similarities in their patterns pointing to potentially related underlying causes. I look at this problem through a geographic lens, wondering what it is about particular places that shape the processes leading to endangerment. As a linguist, I understand that there is a great variety of linguistic features to be found in the world’s approximately 7,000 languages, and that the stories and concepts conveyed through these languages represent the many facets of human cultural expression. It is a shame to witness the loss of such rich sources of knowledge, especially for those who wish to know the languages of their ancestors. It is my hope that through bridging concepts from geography and linguistics and by using modern technology (such as big data and statistical techniques), we can find new solutions to the problem of language endangerment.

Curriculum Vitae

I completed a BA in Geography/Environmental Studies with a minor in Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. After working briefly as a laboratory scientist doing paleoclimate research at Sonoma State University and UC Berkeley, I decided to continue my studies in Linguistics by pursuing a PhD at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa focusing on language documentation and conservation. I am currently in the final years of the PhD program and came to Max Planck as a visiting scholar to work on developing interdisciplinary research methods to apply to my dissertation.

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