Last Whispers is a project about a mass extinction.

Every two weeks, the world loses a language. At an unprecedented speed, faster than the extinction of some species, our linguistic diversity—the very means by which we know ourselves—is eroding. Today, more than half of the world population speaks only 30 of the 7,000 languages remaining on earth. It is estimated that at least half of the currently spoken languages will have died by the end of this century. Some estimates project a much greater speed of this disappearance.

By definition, it occurs in silence, since silence is the very form of this extinction.

Every community that loses its language feels as if it is happening to it alone. In fact, it is happening to the majority of world’s languages. Most of us, in the Western world barely hear an echo of this vanishing chorus. We want the world to hear it and feel its loss.

The oratorio is an invocation of the languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered.

*Last Whispers is a non-profit organization.


Last Whispers

Oratorio for Vanished Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Falling Tree

sound / video installation or a concert dedicated to the extinction of languages.
(running time: 50 minutes)

Conceived / Directed / Produced by Lena Herzog

With sound design and compositions by Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini
Visualization by Amanda Tasse, video by Tomas Van Houtyryve and Aziz Lechgar
Images by NASA, Bryan Nash Gill, Lena Herzog
Sound system provided by Meyer Sound / Autograph


Last Whispers is simultaneously a film projection and a choral pre-recorded composition with binaural* sound, resulting in a 50-minute long visceral experience—an immersive oratorio.

The video consists of 3D animation, video drone footage and stills (all in black-and-white) poetically linking image and sound.

The Oratorio is a chorus of extinct and endangered languages, both spoken and sung, composed from the historical recordings (speech, recitatives, incantations, songs and ritual chants) punctuated by the sound of interpreted gravitational waves of the collapsing stars and supernovae recorded by LIGO “The Listening Ear.”


Last Whispers is, in essence, a film with binaural* sound and it has two interpretations / editions:


Museum / Concert Hall / Cathedral Installation and Concert

  • Last Whispers plays on a loop as an installation at the top of the hour or
  • Last Whispers plays as a choral concert and film event at a given time
  • Video screen projection of animation, stills and drone footage in black-and-white
  • Audio projection (8.1 binaural*) either via an 8.1 PA sound system or via earphones


Public Spaces

  • Public and land art installation via a weatherproofed 8.1 sound system
  • Large scale video projection


* Binaural recordings are reproductions of sounds the way human ears hear it, perceived as distinct and genuine 360° sound.




Languages featured in this Oratorio are endangered or extinct.




Today there are around 7000 languages spoken worldwide and at least half of those will have fallen silent by the end of this century. In many areas of the world globalisation, urbanisation and climate change create economic, political and social pressures on people. In response, people give up their traditional ways of life, move to cities and find new sources of income, and in the process, they also give up their mother tongues and turn to other, typically more prestigious and dominant languages to foster economic and social mobility for their children. When languages are not transmitted to children they become endangered and are likely to become extinct.

While throughout human history, speakers have shifted to other languages, the speed of this development has dramatically increased  over the past century. It is estimated that the loss of language diversity is happening on the scale of the 5th mass extinction. Each of these vanishing languages expresses a unique knowledge, history and worldview of its speaker community, and each is a distinct evolved variation of the human capacity for language. Many of these languages have never been described or recorded, so the richness of human linguistic diversity is disappearing without a trace.

The statistics we have on the number of languages spoken in the world and which ones are endangered are just rough estimates because there is no reliable data. Today only 10-15% of the world’s languages are well described meaning that very little knowledge has been accumulated for the other 85-90% of languages. There are estimates that 2000 languages are spoken in Africa and 800 in Papua New Guinea alone. In Australia it is estimated that 250 languages were spoken at the time of the European colonisation. Today 145 languages are left and 110 of them are critically endangered which means that “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently.” In a few years of the 250 original Australian languages, only about 35 will remain. The others will have become extinct.

Many factors are taken into account when assessing language endangerment (Lewis & Simon 2009): factors to assess language use in different domains of life such as whether it is used only in the home or also in public; whether the language has a script, whether it is taught in schools; whether it is used in radio or TV broadcasting, or nowadays whether it is used on the Internet. But the key factor is intergenerational transmission, whether children learn and speak it. It is the children—what their parents and grandparents share with them and how they use the language in their daily life—who make the difference. Once the intergenerational transmission is broken it is hard to bring a language back to the young people whose daily lives are absorbed in the majority language.

Often it is these children who can no longer speak to their grandparents who come back later in life to search for their roots, trying to learn the language, and understand their cultural heritage. Misconceptions of multilingualism, ideas that learning many languages at the same time could confuse the child or be disadvantageous lie at the heart of the problem, a problem that is social and political.

by Mandana Seyfeddinipur
Program Director of Endangered Languages Documentation Programme
Department of Linguistics SOAS, University of London

UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages. (—2003). Language Vitality and Endangerment, UNESCO Fishman, Joshua. (—1991). Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 87-111.- Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. (1992). Endangered Languages. Language, 68 (1), 1–42. Lewis, M. Paul & Gary F. Simons. 2010. Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS. Revue roumaine de linguistique 55(2), 103–120.


The Endangered Languages Map


Concept / Directed / Produced by Lena Herzog with sound design and compositions by Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini. Sound system provided by Meyer Sound / Autograph.

Lena Herzog (concept & direction) studied Philosophy and Linguistics, began working primarily in the field of photography and print making since 1997. Herzog is the author of six books of photography; her work has been widely published and reviewed by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review among many others. She is a regular contributing artist to Harper’s Magazine. Her work has been collected and exhibited in major museums and institutions around the world.

Marco Capalbo (composer) has directed film, theatre, opera and music. His most recent documentary film Stravinsky in Hollywood was produced for Arte in 2014. Stage productions include: John Eaton’s opera The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Symphony Space, New York; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet for the opening of Red Bull’s Hangar-7 at Salzburg Airport. Compositions include: recently… (2013), Le Greygnour Bien: a Pendant to Rodney Graham’s Three Musicians (2015), and In the Vast Wave of the World’s Breath (2014). Marco has worked professionally as a film editor for over two decades.

Mark Mangini (composer) won an Oscar in 2016 as sound designer for the film Mad Max: Fury Road and has been nominated previously for sound design for several films. He has spent his 40-year career in Hollywood imagining and composing altered sonic realities for motion pictures. He is a frequent lecturer, an outspoken proponent for sound as art and is a guitarist and a songwriter with compositions for Sex, Lies and Videotape, Star Trek IV and others. He is a current governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as a member of SAG, SMPTE, and ASCAP.

Theresa Schwartzman (researcher) is a freelance documentary film & television researcher. She has worked for the American Film Institute, the UCLA Film Archive and the Investigation Discovery network, as well as filmmakers Michael Apted, Michael Mann, and others. She has a BA in art history from Harvard and an MFA in film production from UCLA.

Eveling Villa (researcher) linguist, and language activist specialized in endangered language documentation and description. She is the co-author of the latest phylogenetic classification of Cross River languages based on lexico-statistic evidence, for which she participated at the 8th World Conference on African Linguistics (WOCAL 2015). Her participation in multiple outreach projects related to the ethnography of language is as diverse as art-driven revitalization projects to teaching specialized linguistic software training under the supervision of the Endangered Language Archive (ELAR). She was awarded a PhD position in the documentation of Adamawa languages at ‘Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales’ (INALCO), Paris.

Amanda Tasse (visualization) is a media artist working at the intersection of evocative visualization and interactive animation. She has developed work for neuroscientists, marine biologists, filmmakers such as Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein and Mark Harris, and companies like BMW and Steelcase. She also directs lyrical films inspired by science, which have won a number of awards, among them a student academy award and HBO films award. She is completing a PhD in Media Arts + Practice at USC in 2016.

Georgiana A. Nikias (adviser on copyright and cultural heritage law) is an Associate in the Los Angeles office of Murchison & Cumming, LLP where she is a member of the firm’s General Liability, Art and Cultural Heritage Litigation practice group. Ms. Nikias has played a principal role in the defense of a number of high-profile, complex national matters and is recognized as a leader in Art and Cultural Heritage law.

Maggie Morris (visual design & typography) is a creative director and media strategist. As conceptual designer in digital media since its boom 15 years ago, she works both in the visual presentation of ideas as well as the architecture for optimal user experience. She has worked for BMW, Samsung, and Condé Nast.

Tomas van Houtyryve (video: drone footage) is an artist, photographer and author who engages critical contemporary issues around the world. His work interweaves metaphor and reportage, occupying the intersection of art and pure documentary. He is the recipient of the 2015 International Center of Photography Infinity Award, World Press Photo Award, and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents. His work has been exhibited and acquired by collections across three continents.

Aziz Lechgar (video: footage of the mirages) studied electronic science and, later, cinema in Casablanca, Morocco and has worked as a cameramen on numerous films.

Sean Scannell (editor) is a full time commercial editor who freelances in editing multiple different styles of projects ranging from action sports to documentaries, music videos, and short films. He studied film at Full Sail University before moving to Los Angeles to work at Nomad Editing Company where he is currently employed.


Last Whispers was made with painstaking attention to the cultural heritage law and, above all, to the ethical conduct in working with indigenous communities, linguists and archivists for each case. In addition, we invited them to contribute their stories which we began to run here:

The Batāhira

The Sadu People

Culture and Language in Brief

In Memoriam

Díli Do Macuco (... - 1983)

Central Balsas Nahautl

Silvestre Pantaleón

Pite Saami

The Nuances of Reindeer


Documentation of Paunaka

Kotiria (Wanano)

The Kotiria of Amazonia

Great Andamanese

My Life with the Great Andamanese

Yoloxóchitl Mixtec

Prayer For a Change of Fortune

Trung (Dulong)

How to Read the Dictionary of an Endangered Language


The Qaqet of Raunsepna

Northern Paiute

More Than Words




Ahom Language Work


Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language


Dalabon Language of Arnhem Land


A Mani Lament


It Takes Both Sides of the Digital Divide: The Ju|’hoan Transcription Group



in collaboration with the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and the SOAS World Languages Institute, SOAS, University of London

Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC)
Collector: Stephen Morey
Speaker: Tileshwar Mohan

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Anna Bugaeva and Hiroshi Nakagawa
Speaker: Mrs. Kimi Kimura

Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speakers: Iyagai Catalino Picanerai, Pehe Picanerai

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Miranda Morris
Maḥmūd Mšaʕfi Musallim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Sowma Zifena Musallim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Faraḥ Mšaʕfi Musallim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, ʕᾹmir Māgid Suleyyim Al Mḥabši Al Baṭḥari, Nasra Salim Shemlān Al Mḥabši Al Baṭḥari, Salim Muḥammad Saqr Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Rubeyyaʕ Adahaba Suleyyim al-Mamṭari Al Baṭḥari, Bakhayyit Saʕad Saḳr Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Lḥabāb Hamūd Salim Al Mashrami Al Baṭḥari, Saʕad Qāsim Aṭali Al Mamṭari Al Baṭḥari, Salīma Saqr Laġafēli Al Mašarmi Al Baṭḥari

Central Balsas Nahuatl
Collector: Jonathan D. Amith
Speakers: Clemente Baltazar, Eugenio Castro, Valentina Reyes Damian, Silvestre Pantaleón, Mundo Ramírez

Chamacoco (Ishir Ibitoso)
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speakers: Baaso, Crispulo Martinez (Kafotei), Agna Peralta

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Maïa Ponsonnet
Speaker: Maggie Tukumba

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Katia Chirkova, Zhengkang Han, Dehe Wang, Xiaowen Yuan
Speakers: Wenming Ma, Decai Wu, Denglian Wu, Rongfu Wu, Zhengmei Wu

Enxlet Norte
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speaker: Silvestre Martinez

Great Andamanese
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Anvita Abbi
Speakers: Boa Sr., Buro, Ilfe, Pao Buddha

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Sophie Salffner
Speakers: Lawrence Abiola, Comfort Adedeji, Dignes Adedeji, Hannah Adedeji, Richard Bamidele Adedeji, Fred Adekanye, Lydia Adekanye, William Adekanye, Mayowa Adekunbi, Ruth Adeoba, Juliana Adeyanju, Maybelle Adeyanju, Omojola Baale, Dorcas Babalola, Simeon Olaitan Balobun, Dorcas Balogun, Asya Gefter, Thomas Obadau, Janet Obanobi, Adesonmi Obaude, Bola Ruth Oloyo

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR) &
Karelian Institute of Language, Literature and History of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Collectors: Fedor Rozhanskiy, Elena Markus, Enn Ernits, Eino Kiuru, Elina Kylmäsuu, Terttu Koski
Speakers: Ekaterina Andreyevna Aleksandrova, Zinaida Antonovna Dmitriyeva, Aleksandra Mikhaylovna Efimov, Konstantin Efimov, Praskovya Milhaylovna Fedorova, Fekla Mikhaylovna Gerasimova, Evdokiya Isayeva, Evgokiya Lukinichna Ivanova, Tatyana Ignatyevna Ivanova, Akulina Mikhaylovna Kirilova, Nikolay Mikhaylov, Mariya Elizarovna Nikitina, Feodosiya Nikitichna Petrova, Evdokiya Filippovna Rodionova, Galina Ivanovna Samsonova, Anna Vasilyevna Stepanova, Anna Ivanovna Trofimova, Evgeniya Emelyanovna Vasilyeva, Matrena Dmitriyevna Vasilyeva, Mariya Volosanova, Anna Zolotova

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Denis Costaouec & Michael Swanton
Depositors: Denis Costaouec & Michael Swanton
Speakers: Juliana Salazar Bautista, Lirio Salazar Gutiérrez, María Patrocina Salazar Gutiérrez, Pedro Salazar Gutiérrez, Cipriano Ramírez Guzmán, Rufina Álvarez Robles

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Megan Biesele
Speakers:|Ai!ae, ǁ’Angsa |’Angn!ao, |Asa ǁXamte, !Kaia G|aeku, Kaqece ǁ’Ao, |Kunta, N!aq’e, Nǁao Kxao, Sagǁai

Kotiria (Wanano)
Brazil and Colombia
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR) & Kotiria Linguistic and Cultural Archive
Collector: Kristine Stenzel
Speakers: Emilia Trindade Cabral, Helena Cabral, Mateus Trindade Cabral, Ricardo Trindade Cabral, Emilia Melo

Alaska Native Language Archive
Speaker: Henry Titus
Courtesy of Allen and Anne Titus

Laklãnõ Xokleng
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Greg Urban
Speakers: Vãjẽky Téy, Vãjẽky Paté, Dil tõ vo
Courtesy of: Nanblá Gakran

Light Warlpiri
The Language Archive, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Collector: Carmel O’Shannessy
Speakers: the children of Lajamanu

Los Capomos Mayo
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Ray Freeze
Depositor: Yolanda Lastra
Courtesy of Joshua Freeze

Samu/Samou region of Sierra Leone/Guinea
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Tucker Childs
Speakers: Momo Kaka Bangoura, Amara Camara, Kaba Camara, Yaaye Camara, Mahawa Conté

Culture Vannin
Collector: Brian Stowell
Speaker: Ned Maddrell

Mbya Guarani
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault

South Africa
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Tom Güldemann, Martina Ernszt, Sven Siegmund & Alena Witzlack-Makarevich
Project: A Text Documentation of Nǀuu
Speakers: Hannie Koerant, Andries Olyn, ǀUna Rooi, Griet Seekoei

Nafsan (South Efate)
Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC)
Collector: Nick Thieberger
Speakers: Harris Takau and John Kalfau

Sound Materials of the Nivkh Language
Collector: Hidetoshi Shiraishi (Sapporo Gakuin University)
Speakers: Konstantin Iakovlevich Agniun, Valentina Fedorovna Akilyak-Ivanova, Vera Eremeevna Khejn, Olga Anatol’evna Nyavan, Natalia Demianovna Vorbon

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Gwendolyn Hyslop
Speakers: Chey Go Chelong, Kuenga, Nakari, Singye

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Graziano Savà
Speakers: Maale Goda, Gombo Karo, Dula K’awla, Geeda K’awla, Guayo Kurayo, Erre Sagane, Gename Wa’do

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Swintha Danielsen, Lena Terhart, Federico Villalta
Speakers: María Cuasase, Pedro Pinto, Juana Supepí, Miguel Supepí

Pite Saami
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Joshua Wilbur
Speakers: Anders-Erling Fjällås, Elsy Rankvist, Henning Rankvist, Tage Rankvist, Dagny Skaile, Per-Allan Steggo

Papua New Guinea
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR) and Language Archive Cologne at the University of Cologne
Collector: Birgit Hellwig
Speakers: Paul Alin, Rudolf Arum, David Landi, Joyce Laniat, Henry Lingisaqa, Francis Murum, Lucy Nguingi, Justin Samurl, Dorothy Singan, Marcela Tangil

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collectors: Xianming Xu & Bibo Bai
Speakers: Lanzhen Li, Fenqin Li

Selk’nam (Ona)
Selk’nam (Ona) Chants of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, FW04176
Collector: Anne Chapman
Speaker: Lola Kiepja
Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (p) (c) 1972, used by permission.

Laboratory for Computational Lexicography, Research Computing Center, Lomonosov Moscow State University
Collectors: Olga Kazakevich & Leonid Zakharov
Speaker: Rodion Sergeevich Kubolev

Sumtu (Sone Tu)
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Mai Ni Ni Aung
Speakers: U Lo Htaung, U Hla Sein, U Bo Thar, U Ni Tun

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Dörte Borchers
Speakers: Junkimaya Surel, Tikamaya Surel, Tirtha Bahadur Surel

The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Jorge Suárez
Depositor: Yolanda Lastra
Speakers: Andrés Carminatti, Carmen Carminatti, Margarita Pocón de Manco, Ana Montenegro de Yebes

Trung (Dulong)
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Ross Perlin
Speakers: Mon Jisong, Pung Svr, Wang Jici

Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Carmel O’Shannessy
Speakers: Teddy Morrison Jupurrurla and the children of Lajamanu

Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Collector: Anna Luisa Daigneault
Speakers: Christina Bautista, Justina Quinchuya

Yauyos Quechua
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA)
Collector: Aviva Shimelman
Speakers: Victorina Aguado, Octavia Arco, Bautista Cárdenas, Macedonia Centeno, Delfina Chullunkuy, Soylita Chullunkuy, Ninfa Flores, Cecilia Guerra, Juana Huari, Soylita Huari, Saturnina M., Esther Madueño, Margarita Madueño, Lucia Pariunám Martínez, Santa Ellu Martínez, Genoveva Rodríguez, Lucía Rodríguez,, Leona Wamán, Urbana Yauri

Yoloxóchitl Mixtec
Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London (ELAR)
Collector: Jonathan D. Amith
Speakers: Constantino Teodoro Bautista, Soledad García Bautista, Estela Santiago Castillo, Alberto Prisciliano Federico, Mario Salazar Felipe, Martín Salazar Felipe, Rey Castillo García, Martín Severiano Germán, Marcelina Encarnacion Gertrudis, Maximiliano Francisco Gonzalez, Fernando Niño Leonardo, Alfonso García Reyes, Victorino Ramos Rómulo, Lamberto García Santiago, Zoila Guadalupe Sierra, Maximino Meza Teodoro, Santa Cruz Tiburcio


Press contacts:

Vesna Siljanovska
Acting Communications Manager
SOAS, University of London

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Last Whispers installation at The British Museum

(sound system by Meyer / Autograph Sound, time lapse footage by Mark Mangini)


The British Museum & The Bloomsbury Festival October 19-23, 2016 Room 24: Room for Living & Dying

Nov 13. Museum 5 Kontinente / Literaturfest

Last Whispers at Southbank Centre Oct 14th