Monday, March 23, 2009

What's so bad about dying languages?

This Washington Post article reports on "endangered languages":

[H]alf of the world's almost 7,000 remaining languages may disappear by 2100, experts say.

A language is considered extinct when the last person who learned it as his or her primary tongue dies. Last month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched an online atlas of endangered languages, labeling more than 2,400 at risk of extinction.

Languages typically die when speakers of a small language group come in contact with a more dominant population. That happened first when hunter-gatherers transitioned to agriculture, then during periods of European colonial expansion, and more recently with global migration and urbanization. The spread of English, Spanish and Russian wiped out many small languages. ...

Extinct languages can be revived, especially when they have been recorded.

"But when you skip a generation, it's hard to pick a language back up again," said Douglas Whalen, president of the Endangered Language Fund, which gives grants to language-preservation projects. "You need a community that is really committed and will bring children up from birth in the second language, even if they themselves are not the most fluent speakers." ...

The Living Tongues Institute recruits youth who are not fluent in their traditional tongue to become "language activists," using digital equipment to document their elders' voices and learn the language themselves. This creates a record and builds pride in the language.
But wait a second — what's the point of all this? What exactly is so bad about thousands of languages becoming extinct?

The most concrete argument for preserving languages seems to be that you can preserve esoteric knowledge that's exclusive to these languages. This may be a general familiarity with the culture that speaks the language, or it may be more specific — the WaPo article talks (somewhat credulously) about secret medicinal remedies passed down from generation to generation.

But if that's really our concern, does it apply only to the past? What about the future? If more people speak a larger number of obscure languages, doesn't that make it more likely that useful information will remain confined to tiny subcultures, depriving the rest of the world of the benefits? So doesn't this concern actually cut against putting moribund languages on life support?

I'm with John McWhorter, who says:
The language revivalists yearn for — surprise — diversity. What they miss is that language death is a healthy outcome of diversity.

If people truly come together, then they speak a common language. We can muse upon a "salad bowl" ideal in which people go home and use their nice "diverse" language with "their own." But in reality, almost always the survival of that "diverse" language means that the people are segregated in some way, which in turn is almost always due to an unequal power relationship — i.e., precisely what "diversity" fans otherwise consider such a scourge.

Jews in shtetls, for example, spoke Yiddish at home and Russian elsewhere because they lived under an apartheid system, not because they delighted in being bilingual. The Amish still speak German only because they live in isolation from modern life, which few of us would consider an ideal for indigenous groups to strive for.

In the end, the proliferation of languages is an accident: a single original language morphed into 6,000 when different groups of people emerged. I hope that dying languages can be recorded and described. I hope that many persist as hobbies, taught in schools and given space in the press, as Irish, Welsh, and Hawaiian have.

However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will speak one language — is one I would welcome. Surely easier communication, while no cure-all, would be a good thing worldwide. There's a reason the Tower of Babel story is one of havoc rather than creation.

IN THE COMMENTS: Slippery slope.

Also, my dad says:
If people confined themselves to their "traditional" languages (and what does that mean? proto-Indo-European?) I'd be wearing today a long black coat, a felt hat, long curly earlocks, and a fringed garment, and speaking English haltingly, with a heavy accent, as a second language. I wouldn't like that. John wouldn't exist, and I wouldn't like that either.

11 comments:

Bill Chapman said...

There's no mention here of the work to create and maintain an international auxiliary language. I'd be happy if "one day all the world's people will speak one language", provideed that this universal languager is a second languager for everyone. that is what Esperanto is designed for.

Brian Barker said...

In reply to Bill Chapman,it is unfortunate that most people are unaware that Esperanto is a living language

During a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now placed within the top 100 languages, out of 6,000 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers, include George Soros, Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet, Ulrich Brandenberg, the new German Ambassador to NATO, and World Champion Chess Player, Susan Polger.

Further arguments can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 and a glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

John Althouse Cohen said...

I don't see why the fact that Esperanto would be a second language for almost everyone makes it a better universal language than English. It seems like the most efficient route to get the whole world understanding (if not speaking) a single language would be to start with a language that's already prevalent and build on that.

Anonymous said...

(Michael Farris, posting as anonymous because blogger's won't let me sign on)


"However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will speak one language — is one I would welcome"

Let's tweak that:

"However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will follow one religion — is one I would welcome"

"However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will share the same diet — is one I would welcome"

"However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will share one lifestyle — is one I would welcome"

"However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will belong to one political party — is one I would welcome"

"However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will belong to one race — is one I would welcome"

Which of the above do you not dread and how is it different from language?

(for the record; I know Esperanto pretty well and don't want it as a universal second language for everyone anymore than I want English in that role).

John Althouse Cohen said...

Actually, I do wish everyone would share the same race, at least in the United States. If one day everyone is a proportionate blend of all the currently existing races, that will mean we had a total breakdown of racial segregation.

"One religion" and "one political party" are fundamentally different than "one language," because those are based on normative judgments. Whether you say "dog" or "chien" to refer to a dog is basically arbitrary in a way that your political and religious views aren't.

"Same diet" -- depends on what diet. If it's healthful and environmentally sound, that'd be an improvement on, say, the typical American diet.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Another reason political parties and religion are fundamentally different is that they control people's lives in a way that language doesn't. Of course, language is important to people's lives. But you wield the language for whatever purposes you want; the language doesn't order you around. Once the conversation turns to institutions that do order people around, it becomes particularly important for no one institution to have a monopoly so that power doesn't become consolidated in the wrong hands. I simply don't think this concern applies to language.

Anonymous said...

(Michael Farris - blogger sitll has a stick up it's ass about letting me sign in)

"Whether you say "dog" or "chien" to refer to a dog is basically arbitrary in a way that your political and religious views aren't"

I guess you haven't had any linguistics courses or real experience with a foreign language.
Languages conceptualize and label reality in pretty different ways that are very analogous to different political and religious views.

To be honest, I'm skeptical of the 'local knowledge' arguments in favor of linguistic diversity (not that it's trivial it's just not the strongest argument). I'm much more in the art for art's sake camp. The idea of a global English is kind of like flattening the rockies and filling in the grand canyon to have more room for parking lots and wal-marts - the destruction of a lot of natural beauty for a dubious utilitarian ideals. (of course parking lots and wal-marts have their place in the scheme of things but the human need for them is not infinite).

John Althouse Cohen said...

I guess you haven't had any linguistics courses or real experience with a foreign language. Languages conceptualize and label reality in pretty different ways that are very analogous to different political and religious views.

Excuse me, but I have taken a linguistics course, and I've learned foreign languages (French and Italian) and spoken them in France, Italy, and Morocco. Just because I point out the weaknesses in your analogies doesn't mean I haven't had any relevant experiences.

McWhorter notes in his article (linked in the blog post) that English doesn't express a unique cultural perspective. Not only has he taken linguistics courses, but he teaches linguistics courses.

michael farris said...

"Just because I point out the weaknesses in your analogies doesn't mean I haven't had any relevant experiences"

I take strong exception to the idea that you've pointed out any weakness in my arguments.

Sorry for underestimating your linguistic prowess. On the other hand, English, French and Italian don't even express the whole range of linguistic diversity from A to B, they're more like part of A.

"McWhorter notes in his article ...that English doesn't express a unique cultural perspective"

That is certainly one opinion in linguistics, it is far from being the consensus opinion.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

A few miscellanous semi-thoughts:

1. The Whorfian position that, for example, the language of the Inuit expresses a different subjective reality from ours because it has, for example, more words for snow (and does it?)is much disputed.

2. If people confined themselves to their "traditional" languages (and what does that mean? proto-Indo-European?) I'd be wearing today a long black coat, a felt hat, long curly earlocks, and a fringed garment, and speaking English haltingly, with a heavy accent, as a second language. I wouldn't like that. John wouldn't exist, and I wouldn't like that either.

3. A joke: At the Esperanto convention, discussion proceeds passionately all morning, then the delegates take a break. In the hallway, they speak in the true international language: Yiddish.

michael farris said...

"The Whorfian position that, for example, the language of the Inuit expresses a different subjective reality from ours because it has, for example, more words for snow (and does it?)is much disputed."

There is nothing Whorfian about that idea:

Roughly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Dorothy Lee and others should be mentioned but have been left out of the official name) states that language, thought and culture all exist in a feedback loop and tend to reinforce each other in interesting ways. It's more subtle (and interesting) than words for snow, of which Eskimo doesn't have that many (see language log).