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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