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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How important is language death?

There is a news story being distributed by the AP that laments the loss of languages. It claims
While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.
The langugage of this sentence is interesting. Languages are said to "die out" and "linguistic experts" are "struggling to save at least some of them." The death of languages is being treated as if we are dealing with the death of people.

An assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College says
"When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday."
Here we see the death of languages as again being like the death of people. Maybe worse. Notice that should some culture die out overnight due to a terrible plague, it could be said that
With the loss of these people we have lost centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.
This would be a sensible thing to say because knowledge is possessed by people, not languages.

You can examine Prof. Harrison's bio at the link provided. It is pretty impressive, which came as a bit of a surprise to me since one does not tend to find outstanding linguists at small colleges. I suspect that all the linguistics departments in large universities are still too busy fighting theoretical battles to house someone like him. However interesting his bio is, I must still introduce some sanity to this issue.

When we lose a language we do not lose "centuries of human thinking" about anything. Human thinking is encapsulated in sentences/propositions, not vocabularies. The problem for Prof. Harrison's view is that if we have a written language that is no longer being spoken, as in the case of Latin, then we haven't actually lost all this knowledge. It or some of it would be recoverable from the written documents. But if the language is a spoken language only, only the death of the people who spoke it would entail the death of this knowledge.

Since when languages die, this normally involves a people's gradual movement to another language. The danger here is not the loss of a language per se but the loss of a culture for it is with the loss of a culture that we lose the knowledge that is specific to this culture. As the speakers of an Amerindian language move to English or Spanish instead of continuing with their native language, they may cease to communicate their cultural heritage to their children. If they do then, indeed, we have lost these things that Prof. Harrison laments the loss of. However, if they continue to transmit this heritage to their children, this knowledge is not lost even though the original language of these people may have been lost.

In my view, the real danger that the loss of a language represents is the possibility that examples of linguistic phenomena that might be critical to the development of linguistic theories may be lost. Consider the case of "click" languages, languages containing consonants that have two points of articulation with a vacuum existing in the space between these two points of articulation. When the closures are released a relatively loud popping or clicking sound results. I am pleased to say that while in graduate school I had a Black friend from S. Africa who lived in my apartment building and it was I who brought him to the attention to Professor Morris Halle, the primary phonologist at MIT. Morris was teaching phonology and lamented that no one he knew had had a chance to study click languages. I told him I knew a guy who spoke one and was instantly cheered but when asked what language he spoke I said I didn't know since what interested me was the political situation in S. Africa. That drew boos. As it turns out he spoke Xhosa. Nevertheless, I put him in touch with Morris.

If the Whites had managed to kill off all speakers of click languages, an event that would surprise no one I suspect if it had happened, then we linguists would not know of them and our phonological theories would be incomplete. That would be sad. The loss of a culture is always sad. But the loss of a language simpliciter is normally not as important as the loss of a living animal species such as whales.

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6 Comments:

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Your post makes perfect sense.
In reading the link where Dr. Harrison reviews his own book. I can see by his choice of words where a person might equate saving a language with saving a person. It seems a bit manipulative, but I suppose it gets recruits.
I like your more optimistic & sensible outlook. I get tired of gloom & doom prophecy, anyway.

1:23 PM

 
Blogger Merhaba said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:29 AM

 
Blogger Jordan said...

<< When we lose a language we do not lose "centuries of human thinking" about anything. Human thinking is encapsulated in sentences/propositions, not vocabularies. >>

Really? I'm sure you can't really mean that... even Intro Linguistics textbooks nowadays have many examples of important vocabulary differences among languages. Berlin and Kay, for example? Culture/worldview/human thinking is incredibly intertwined with vocabulary. And the grammar as well. Sapir and Whorf knew that back in the day, even if the MIT crowd has forgotten it.

<< In my view, the real danger that the loss of a language represents is the possibility that examples of linguistic phenomena that might be critical to the development of linguistic theories may be lost. >>

Actually, most of us working in endangered language communities couldn't care less about theoretical linguistics... we're much more concerned with keeping the languages alive, in order to help the people in those communities fight off the whole list of social problems that so often come with language death -- loss of cultural identity, family breakdown, drug abuse, suicide and so forth. It's all interconnected, and goes way beyond figuring out a distinctive feature matrix for clicks.

<< The danger here is not the loss of a language per se but the loss of a culture for it is with the loss of a culture that we lose the knowledge that is specific to this culture. >>

What you seem not to understand -- but what nearly any speaker of an endangered language will tell you -- is that a culture which has lost its language is no longer the same culture. Language loss is culture loss. They are the same thing.

3:42 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

It would take me more time that it is worth to show you how far off base you are. When you say you endangered languages people don't care about theoretical linguistics you give the reason why. The fact is, as my 3 books demonstrate, that the best applied work is done from a theoretical perspective. You are like a bridge builder who says he doesn't need to know physics.

8:08 AM

 
Blogger crumpysimper said...

I am writing an essay about Art Spiegelman's Maus, and the citation for the quotation that you use by Professor Harrison would be useful to me. Please indicate which work you are pulling this quotation from.
Thank you.

2:19 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

I picked this up from an AP story. Didn't seem to link it. I found one of the quotes at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/sustaining_language/transcript.shtml

6:48 AM

 

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