More on endangered languages and saving ideas

Sep 2, 2011 by

In a number of this blog’s postings, we have discussed the so-called “amateurish linguists” and the intellectual traps they fall into, such as the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Sadly, it is not only laymen who fall into these traps. In the previous posting, we saw that people like the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation Anna Kerttula, who should know better, fall into some of the same traps. Sometimes, it is even professional linguists — who certainly should know better! — who fall into the very same traps.

Example? The interview with K. David Harrison, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College, a co-author of The Last Speakers and one of the two eponymous characters of the documentary film The Linguists, which as been nominated for an Emmy award. If anybody should know better, he should.

Yet, like Ms. Kerttula, Dr. Harrison falls pray to the “Eskimo snow vocabulary” myth, as he mentions “99 distinct types of sea ice formations which their language gives specific names to”. Furthermore, he makes some of the same assumptions that Ms. Kerttula does. For example, like her Dr. Harrison assumes that having more specialized words equals having a deeper understanding of a subject. To illustrate, he cites the Tofa word chary meaning ‘four year old male uncastrated domesticated reindeer’ (Tofa is a severely endangered Northern Turkic language, a relative of Yakut, spoken by a mere 25 to 30 people in the Irkutsk Region of Siberia). As you would expect from the specificity of this word’s meaning, it is a member of a whole network of words to designate different types of reindeer based on the four salient (for the Tofa people) parameters: age, sex, fertility, and rideability.

While it is true that something is always lost in translation — as we have recently discussed in a series of postings on translating grammatical gender — it is hardly true that such words are “untranslatable”, as Dr. Harrison claims. After all, he himself provides a perfectly legitimate translation of this word. What is important to understand here is that words of a language are not God-given truths chiseled into stone. People make up words as needed. And they lose them when not needed. I agree that cultural backdrop is important in order to understand the precise meaning of such words, but it the connection between a group’s culture and its language is not as direct as many seem to think.

The Tofa people — or any other people, for that matter — did not develop their culture, their reindeer herding practices and their understanding of sustainable survival in Siberia because of the package of words they received (from God? from aliens?). Quite the opposite is true: they developed (really, made up) words to serve their lifestyle, just as English speakers made up RAM, LOL, OMG and BFF. They have chary and we have RAM. But there is nothing about the Tofa language that prevents it from having a word for RAM or English from having a word for chary. Saying that the Tofa people switching to Russian will inevitably lead to the loss of words for the specific types of reindeer does not take into account that Russians have had words for specific types of animals — bulls, cows, horses — based on their sex, age and fertility. That Russian has been losing such words is a sign of changing culture, not some inherent weakness of the language.

In sum, it is not the loss of a language per se, but the loss of culture that spells out the disappearance of cultural concepts. And people like Harrison or Kerttula, who bemoan the loss of endangered languages because it leads to “losing concepts”, miss the point: language is a vehicle for expressing a culture, not its cause. A group’s culture (i.e., lifestyle, economy) may change without a switch to another language, as has been the case with the Russians, who no longer lead a lifestyle that necessitates words for ‘young castrated male horse’, and vice versa a group may switch to a different language but continue with a traditional lifestyle, which was the case for Pygmies, who switched to a Bantu language without abandoning their traditional lifestyle. Simply put, it is not always the case that “in indigenous cultures we observe the decline of languages and lifeways occurring in parallel”.


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  • John Cowan

    Despite the counterexample you mention, I think that language shift does bring culture shift with it in most cases. Here's a bit from J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "English and Welsh":

    Málin eru höfuðeinkenni þjóðanna – 'Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too, or become different peoples.But that never happens except as the result of oppression and distress.'

    These are the words of a little-known Icelander of the early nineteenth century, Sjéra Tomas Sæmundsson. He had, of course, primarily in mind the part played by the cultivated Icelandic language, in spite of poverty, lack of power, and insignificant numbers, in keeping the Icelanders in being in desperate times. But the words might as well apply to the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language for its own sake (not as an aspirant for the ruinous honour of becoming the lingua franca of the world), and who by it and with it maintain their identity.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    A review of Harrison's book by Ilya Vinarsky, who makes a good point about ethical issues involved in endangered language preservation efforts:

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John Cowan: Thank you for your comment. You are right in noticing that in practice, language shift and cultural shift do often happen concurrently. But correlation is not causation, right? The main point I was trying to make is that language shift is not the cause of cultural shift, but the other way around. The writers you quote (and many other people, Dr. Harrison included, I think) see language as a cultural symbol, not a cognitive symbolic system that it is. That's, I think, what steers them off the intellectual path. It should also be mentioned that the exact same thing happens with language change (changes within a language rather than shift from one language to another). People tend to see it as a CAUSE rather than a SIGN of cultural change. For example, in another post ( I discussed the Americanization of British English, which is often perceived as a cause of cultural change (for the worse, of course!), not its accompaniment.

  • Lameen Souag

    "99 distinct types of sea ice formations which their language gives specific names to" is no doubt debatable given the ambiguity of "name", but certainly seems to be in the right ballpark; over 90 ice terms have been documented for each of Inupiaq, Igloolik Inuktitut, Sanikluaq Inuktitut, Labrador Inuttut, and Qeqertaq West Greenlandic, according to (= and the references cited there.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Lameen Souag: Thank you for your comment and the links. Still, even though Eskimo languages may have many special terms for various snow and ice conditions, they do not have many more distinct *roots* than other languages. My skiing friends can give as many special terms for English or Russian. Besides, what counts as a word in Eskimo is completely different than in English, so it makes the whole counting words enterprise rather moot.