Are dying languages worth saving?

Sep 21, 2010 by

A recent conference at the Trinity College Carmarthen in Wales focused on the question of language endangerment. Experts estimate that 25 languages die each year. This amounts to losing 250 languages in a decade, something many people, including linguists, are saddened by. Overall, approximately half of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today are endangered.

A language is considered endangered when it is still being acquired natively by children, but present conditions predict that learning will cease within a generation or two. An endangered language may enter into a moribund phase, when it is no longer being learned natively by children and often used only by the very elderly. The next step is language death, which comes when the last native speaker of the language dies. For example, earlier this year, the Bo language of the India-owned Andaman islands died out when an 85-year-old Boa Sr, who for the last 40 years was the only remaining fluent speaker of the language, passed away.

While in the developing world we tend to think that language endangerment and death are phenomena of the Third World, even in developed countries (and perhaps even more in the developed countries than anywhere else) languages are going the path of extinction. And it’s not just Native American languages or Australian Aboriginal languages that I am talking about. Even in Europe plenty of languages fall into the “endangered” category. In the UK alone, the fate of such Celtic languages as Cornish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic hangs in the balance. Elsewhere in Europe, Corsican, Romani (the language of the Gypsies) and Yiddish are threatened. And further east, in European Russia a number of Finno-Ugric languages — including Ingrian, Livonian, Veps and Votic — are endangered or even moribund.

A typical profile of an endangered language includes the following signs: a small number of speakers and a small proportion of speakers within the total ethnic population; poor competence in the language on the part of its last speakers; advanced age of speakers; lack of transgenerational transmission (i.e., children are not acquiring/using the language); use of other languages regularly in various cultural settings, especially in education; negative feelings and attitudes about ethnic identity and language; lack of a writing system and of a literary tradition; little or no documentation about the language; and the lack of prestige for the language.

Many people — including the organizers of the above mentioned conference — equate the loss of a language with a loss of a culture. For instance, Nicholas Ostler, the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, thinks that endangered languages are well worth saving. He said:

“Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human. … And when languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays we want access to everything but we don’t want to be thought of as no more than people on the other side of the world.”

And language loss is not only a loss of cultural knowledge, individual identity and social cohesiveness. For linguists, the biggest worry is that language loss has a negative effect on our ability to accurately reconstruct language families and historical analyses, or to gain unique insights into human cognition. After all, with each dying language — especially if that language remains undocumented, as most endangered languages are — we lose the another opportunity to understand the true extent of linguistic typology, of what a human language can be like. In other words, our search for “universal truths” about language and human cognition more generally is hampered every time a language dies because potential counter-evidence to proposed “universals” may be found in undocumented languages, if only we got to them in time. Thus, Derbyshire & Pullum (1981) remind us that

“…linguists should consider the possibility that the historical accident of European colonial expansionism may have played a large role in shaping alleged universals of constituent ordering and consequent claims that certain basic orders are rare … the geographically widespread character of SVO [Subject-Verb-Object] order, for example, may be more directly related to population expansion by speakers of those languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Bantu, etc.) than to the ‘inherent naturalness’ of SVO order…”

But others disagree with this view that endangered languages must be saved. For example, the writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is “irrational” to try to preserve all the world’s languages. For him,

“To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. [It is not clear] why it’s in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter. … If a language is one that people don’t participate in, it’s not a language anymore.”

And herein lies the problem. While in many cases language death is due to outside pressures from a politically more powerful group (e.g., when Native Americans were forced to switch to English or the peoples of Siberia forced to switch to Russian), often language endangerment and death are due to attitudes within the language community itself. Even where people are not directly forced to abandon their language, they may often want to do so because of a belief that speaking a prestige language is more profitable socially or economically. And experience shows that if speakers of a language are prepared to hold on to their linguistic heritage, the language will remain alive. For example, despite the former Spanish dictator Franco’s efforts to stamp out the nation’s regional languages, today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular. Moreover, both groups demand strengthening their autonomy.

Thus, both the efforts for and against language preservation are not without their ethical problems. While kidnapping children from their parents and raising them in institutions where the access to their language and culture is denied them does not seem like a good idea in anybody’s book, the ethical status of language maintenance is likewise questionable. After all, one very powerful reason for language death around the world is that the language is not economically viable. Is it ethical for us, who are lucky to have been born into a rich and powerful linguistic community, to deny socio-economic advancement through language shift to those who were less fortunate to be born into a lower-prestige, poorer linguistic community? And is it fair for us to impose our views of multiculturalism and linguistic diversity on people whose culture may lead them to perceive these issues differently? Solving these ethical dilemmas may prove harder than actually preserving an endangered language.

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