Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas, Or Does It?

Sep 1, 2011 by

Yet another article appeared recently on that prides itself for “Smart journalism. Real solutions”. But as is often the case with the media reporting on language-related topics, facts, fiction and epistemological populism are all intertwined here. So once again, my goal here is to sift through all this, separating the grains of truth from the chaff of falsities, myths and bad logic.

While the main point of the article, that endangered languages are worth saving, is correct, the reasons provided for it, as well as some other claims made there are all wrong.

First of all, the article betrays poor understanding of the theory of linguistic universality. The article’s main source, Anna Kerttula, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation, is cited as saying:

“The debate about the universality of language, that we all have the same ideas and therefore language is just a function of history, that we’re basically using verbs and nouns [to say the same thing] — that’s a hypothesis… Or maybe it’s reached the level of theory. But that’s in no way been proven.”

But the debate is not at all about whether “we all have the same ideas”: it is abundantly clear to any linguist that languages encode different concepts; we teach this stuff in our introduction to linguistics courses. This is nowhere as clear as in the domain of color terminology, but other areas such as spatial relations, number, kinship terminology and others reveal the same thing: different languages have words for different concepts.

However, it does not mean that a linguistic group with the most words for a certain domain necessarily understands this domain the best (this is an assumption that Ms. Kerttula seems to make). For example, in Swedish a distinction is made between grandparents on the two sides of the family: your father’s father and your mother’s father are designated by two different words and the same is true of your two grandmothers. The Swedes do not have a word that translates simply as ‘grandfather’, but have two words where English speakers made do with one. But Norwegians are even richer when it comes to their “grandfather vocabulary”: like the Swedes, they have separate words for Dad’s dad and Mom’s dad, but like the English speakers they also have a neutral term for a grandfather from either side of the family. Does it mean that Norwegians have the best understanding of what it’s like to be a grandfather? And English speakers — the poorest understanding? I doubt anybody could take this idea seriously.

Yet, in the popular press this idea that a group’s understanding of a certain area of life is proportionate to its vocabulary for that area has been taken to extremes with such unsubstantiated claims as the notorious Eskimo vocabulary hoax. As we’ve already discussed in this blog, the idea that “the Eskimo language has four/seven/four dozen/one hundred/several hundreds (pick your favorite number) of words for ‘snow'” is flawed in numerous ways: for example, there is no one Eskimo language, but a family of languages; these languages do not possess many more roots for ‘snow’ than English does; what counts as a word in Eskimo is very different from what counts as a word in English, etc.

Still, NSF’s Ms. Kerttula and with her, falls pray to the long-ago disproven idea that “Eskimo have numerous words to describe what Americans would just call ‘snow’ and ‘ice'” (P.S. I have never seen a citation of this idea that included ‘ice’ in the list of what Eskimo languages have lots of words for). Not only that but they also believe that if Eskimos have many words for ‘snow’ and ‘ice’, they can “inform our understanding of the changing Arctic ecosystem”. Ms. Kerttula goes on to say that

“If you don’t understand and don’t have the language for what ice is, what ice should be, you’re not going to understand how it’s changing… Language is critical in recognizing change in your environment.”

And silly me, thinking that a scientific hypothesis such as the one about man-made causes of global warming, must be proven by objective, scientific, quantitative methods, and not by subjective introspection in order to find appropriate labels for different “types of snow”! Because if that’s the case, why haven’t we figured it all out simply based on our own introspective examination of such English labels as slush, slop and sleet?

This does not mean that endangered languages are not important for science. But they are crucial in a completely different way: examining all existing human languages, the more of them the better, allows us to gain a much better understanding of what is or isn’t possible in a human language. This means that saving (or at least recording) endangered languages is especially vital if one assumes the linguistic universality hypothesis, namely the idea that all human languages share a common core. It is to discover what that common denominator is that we need to examine as many languages as we can, including both endangered and non-endangered (and even, when possible, long-ago dead ones). And that is the chief reason that linguists are concerned with the language endangered problem (and not helping out our friends in the climatology department!).

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