Losing Languages
November 28, 2004 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Losing Languages. It's estimated that between one and four languages are lost every year, the result of the only remaining speakers dying off. Many have been actively surpressed in the past, such as the Mayan and Ryukyu languages - some of which are said to be further from Japanese than English is from German. Is it worth the effort to preserve languages? Are languages and culture intristically linked?
posted by borkingchikapa (57 comments total)

 
Is it worth the effort to preserve languages? Are languages and culture intristically linked?

Yes.
Yes.
posted by jokeefe at 10:26 AM on November 28, 2004


No.
Yes.
posted by ChasFile at 10:29 AM on November 28, 2004


Oui, oui...
posted by moonbird at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2004


Ya.
Ya.
posted by booksprite at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2004


Ethnologue is a pretty good searchable compendium (41,000 strong) of the world's languages, both the dominant ones and the not-so-dominant (along with estimates of the numbers of speakers of each).
posted by blucevalo at 10:39 AM on November 28, 2004


interesting articles. thanks for posting. i passed them on to a friend of mine who is studying linguistics and will probably be doing his senior BA thesis on klamath, which is an endangered north american indian language from oregon.

as for the debate on whether language affects culture... i live in iceland which is a tiny country, only about 280,000 people. there are probably 500,000 native icelandic speakers [my own guess] at present. there has been panic that icelandic will die off, mostly due to the prevalance of more popular languages such as english and danish. myself, i'm an american and can get by here fine just speaking english. but in reality, the icelandic language is in little danger - being that this is an isolated population on an island in the middle of the north atlantic, it's hard to think that icelandic will suddenly stop being spoken - especially as there's a strong market for books written in english to be translated into icelandic. tho thankfully for me, english books in bookstores are still plentiful :P
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:35 AM on November 28, 2004


When you lose a language, you loose a good potion of the knowledge and culture that are intertwined with that language. Therefore, by preserving languages we are preserving more than just a grammar or vocabulary.

That said, there is even more money than ever going to fund the preservation of low resource languages, especially from the NSF. However, the biggest obstacle to this is the lack of standards and reliance on handwritten notes. This information is useless unless it is pooled. Organizations like Emeld are doing a great job of creating a gold standard for recording language typologies, but we are definitely due for a culture change among linguists.
posted by Alison at 12:02 PM on November 28, 2004


Fascinating stuff. I am conflicted on this issue. It is sad to see a language die, because it seems beyond debate that a language is inextricably tied to a culture. But, at the same time, languages are simply a collection of completely arbitrary associations of sounds to things, so why should their loss be tragic?

Icelandic, mentioned above, is very cool. It is an extremely conservative language. I have been told that the modern Icelandic speaker can grasp almost all of Old Norse, a language that has been dead for the better part of a thousand years. For comparison, most English speakers would not recognize the English of a thousand years ago as being even remotely English in nature.

The NYTimes article on the people at the tip of S. America was particularly good.
posted by teece at 12:08 PM on November 28, 2004


Anyone have an up-to-date estimation of the world's most-spoken languages?

This one is probably good enough: Languages with more than 30,000,000 speakers as of 1993

Also, in college linguistics class, I heard that:

- The top 30 languages were spoken by 50% of the world.

- Many of those old dying languages are completely different in every way (sounds, sentence structures, tense, meanings, suffixes, prefixes, interfixes, circumfixes, body language, lexicon) from common languages today.

From this PDF, the frequency of subject/verb/object orders in languages around the world:
SOV: 45%
SVO: 42%
VSO: 9%
VOS: 3%
OVS: <1%
OSV: <1%
posted by MarkO at 12:19 PM on November 28, 2004


But, at the same time, languages are simply a collection of completely arbitrary associations of sounds to things, so why should their loss be tragic?

They're far from arbitrary-- the relationship of one language to the next (or lack thereof) is (in my opinion) the most fascinating aspect of language.

That said, if a language were to die without being fully documented, it would be tragic because the intricacies of it are valuable for study and further understanding. If a language merely stops being used conversationally, that's fine.

Any given language as a means of communication has the most value to the people who speak it. If it isn't worth it to them to preserve it, it's pretty condescending for you to want to save it for them.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:36 PM on November 28, 2004


further from Japanese than English is from German.

Very few languages are actually as related to English as German is. Wikipedia has a nice family tree of the Germanic languages, and the article on English has a section entitled Classifcation and related languages.

I mean, sure, you can't speak German if you speak English already, but it's probably the second-easiest popular language to learn after French, for English-speakers.

Japanese, incidentally, is a very weird language, from a linguistic evolution point of view, and is often considered a 'language isolate', i.e, having no known certain relatives.

There are very many speakers of Yucatec Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, and is very similar to Classic Maya, so I don't think there's too much to worry about, despite the guy in the NYT article.

Languages are tools of communication, so, uh, if no one's communicating in them, there's really no point in encouraging people to keep using them. They can be preserved and studied in scientific records, sure, and they should be respected as part of cultures, but knowing a language that has only a handful of speakers seems pretty useless to me.
posted by blacklite at 12:43 PM on November 28, 2004


languages are simply a collection of completely arbitrary associations of sounds to things, so why should their loss be tragic?

Actually, a language is much much more than that. If what you say were true, we could string words together in any order we wanted - but this is not the case ("saw John Mary" is not a grammatical word order in English, but it is in other languages). Words in a language could consist of any arbitrary sounds, but this is not the case (e.g. tlap is not a grammatical word in English, but it would be in other languages).

And the fact is, the languages that are endangered and dying are typically the least studied and farthest from English (which is the most studied language). Endangered languages are to linguistics (which, by and large, hopes to understand what universals hold of language) as rainforest plants are to biology or medicine. They are dying at a rate faster than they can possibly be described in any detail, and the ones that are dying contain the phenomena that are understood the least.

So quite independent of culture, there are reasons to preserve endangered languages. If we ever hope to understand the human language faculty, which many view as an important part of understanding human cognition, we need as many and varied languages as we can find.

That said, if a language were to die without being fully documented, it would be tragic because the intricacies of it are valuable for study and further understanding. If a language merely stops being used conversationally, that's fine.

The problem is that once a language stops being learned natively, all efforts at documentation stop there. There is no language that is documented fully (not even English), and we barely even know what the right questions to ask about most of them are. We basically won't know what it would take to fully document a language until linguistics is done and solved (which won't be soon). Linguistic research on a dead language is very difficult, because if you need to test a hypothesis, and no suitable sentence or utterance was recorded that can confirm or deny your hypothesis, you're out of luck. If there are native speakers around, you can just ask them.
posted by advil at 12:57 PM on November 28, 2004


Linguistic research on a dead language is very difficult, because if you need to test a hypothesis, and no suitable sentence or utterance was recorded that can confirm or deny your hypothesis, you're out of luck. If there are native speakers around, you can just ask them.

So it basically just limits the different angles that someone can write a grad school thesis about, say, Dalmatian. (Historical was my concentration for my linguistics degree.) Languages have been dying since they came to be. A language having no native speakers is no more tragic than the leaves dropping off in the fall-- they're supposed to fall off and they always have.

(I'm not being flip-- you do make an excellent point and you probably understand the cycle of language at least as well as I do. But language preservation is pretty futile.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:08 PM on November 28, 2004


Those are some neat statistics, MarkO. I never would have guessed that the SOV construction just edges out SVO for popularity, since out of all the languages I've studied or have a working knowledge of (including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, German, Japanese and Hebrew), only Japanese is SOV. Klingon is OVS, but that probably isn't germane to this discussion.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:11 PM on November 28, 2004


Because consensus is at the root of language, language is the basis of culture.
posted by malaprohibita at 1:11 PM on November 28, 2004


Language (even body language) IS culture.
Watch a French Canadian TV program with the sound off, and you can tell if it is from France or Quebec. What bothers me most is that we are losing our stories—and maybe that's the reason we're losing our languages.
IMO too much of our conversation involves the entertainment and news media. I don't even have cable TV, and it's difficult getting my kids to tell me their unique, personal stories without reference to media. Among peers, their personal stories don’t seem as important as the Simpsons, and that is so wrong, and so sad. The world's cultures are getting stirred into one big pot, and we're losing our souls.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:20 PM on November 28, 2004


I think it is a good thing on the whole that there are fewer languages, as it makes people more likely to be able to communicate with one another.

However, for every language that you speak really fluently, you have a different personality. Dead languages are lost modes of being. Speakers of minority languages and their descendants will choose bilingualism if they value that way of being.

But it is pointless for anyone but them to decide. It is really just natural selection in action, a process which does include periodic mass extinctions.
posted by apodo at 1:24 PM on November 28, 2004


Disclaimer: I work on a team that designs machine translation systems for minority languages and my specialization is in language elicitation.

and we barely even know what the right questions to ask about most of them are

That isn't really true, though field linguistics is more of an art than a science. The Comrie-Smith checklist, despite its flaws, is an excellent guide and has been around since 1977. The problem is finding people with the time and know-how to do the field work and disseminate it.

Also, just because a language is no longer natively spoken doesn't mean that it can't be documented. You'd be surprised how much you can learn from a few recordings or written records. Of course, you won't know everything about a that language, but that doesn't mean that what you do learn isn't useful. While native speakers are always the best resource, that hasn't stopped people from studying dead languages like Ainu.

Also, language is a living organism; it constantly changes. I would argue that there is no way that any language could be 100% documented. Everyone uses language in their own way, and new words and phrases are constantly being invented. That said, there are finite things about a language that can be documented (productivity, typology etc.) and should be documented. English, in this case, is very well covered. It is also very possible to document lesser known languages in this way.
posted by Alison at 1:32 PM on November 28, 2004


apodo: Wonderful logic. If the whole world spoke American, we'd be as close as the red and blue states.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:36 PM on November 28, 2004


If your native language is English, and you are unable to read Anglo-Saxon (sayk Beowulf), why worry about a language you never had to begin with?
posted by Postroad at 2:40 PM on November 28, 2004


The relationship between language and culture is hotly contested. Regardless of the answer, I consider it a sad (if often inevitable) thing when a language dies... but then I would, wouldn't I?

I think it is a good thing on the whole that there are fewer languages, as it makes people more likely to be able to communicate with one another.

Please. You think speaking the same language means people can communicate effectively with one another? Does the discussion on, say, MetaFilter support this? Many of the worst wars in history have been civil wars. If anything, the effort involved in dealing with another language might give a little more room for reflection.
posted by languagehat at 2:49 PM on November 28, 2004


If your native language is English, and you are unable to read Anglo-Saxon (sayk Beowulf), why worry about a language you never had to begin with?

If you grow up watching TV and you are unable to read, why worry about reading?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:57 PM on November 28, 2004


If you go with the Sapir-Whorf theory, the way one communicates shapes the way one thinks. Orwell's Newspeak is an exercise in this idea. Therefore to lose a language would then mean not simply losing a significant aspect of a culture, but to lose the very thought processes that created that culture, i.e. the culture itself.

Not to say the ideas shaped by one language will always run completely separate from those shaped by another, but valuable methods of thought could be lost from eliminating one or the other.
posted by schroedinger at 3:06 PM on November 28, 2004


Because language is inextricably tied up with culture, you lose a culture when you lose its language. Choices for the future funnel down and become less. You can watch it happening here in Australia as the Aborigines struggle to preserve their identity.
posted by tellurian at 3:17 PM on November 28, 2004


Because language is inextricably tied up with culture, you lose a culture when you lose its language.

Yes, absolutely consistently. Which is why there's no one who identifies ethnically as Cornish. And why Irish culture is gone except for a few thousand people in the Gaeltachtai.

yes, one half of one percent of the population of Cornwall speaks Cornish that they revived as an academic pursuit a hundred years after it died. As in "people ceased learning it and speaking it." So it's a (dead) language with no native speakers except for professors' kids.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:56 PM on November 28, 2004


yes, one half of one percent of the population of Cornwall speaks Cornish that they revived as an academic pursuit a hundred years after it died.

On the subject of "revived" languages, correct me if I'm wrong (I speak only from half-remembered childhood religious education) but isn't modern Hebrew a 20th Century invention? Jews the world over had been using Hebrew in religious contexts for thousands of years, but I don't think there were any colloquial Hebrew speakers for much of the intervening time until the Zionists decided to make it the language of Israel.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:04 PM on November 28, 2004


isn't modern Hebrew a 20th Century invention?

You are correct. Elizer Ben Yahuda (Google seems to suggest "Yehuda,"but I learned it with "a"), an emigre to Palestine in the 1800s, is generally credited with basically creating Modern Hebrew as well as disseminating it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:15 PM on November 28, 2004


Well, in that case it would appear to be a 19th Century invention, but I'm pleased to be at least partially vindicated. :)
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:16 PM on November 28, 2004


Mayor Curley, you're right - it's not absolutely consistently, I should have said [lose or change]. The link I made points to losing I think.
For Australia's Indigenous people, languages are inextricably linked to cultural and spiritual identity.
Language holds the key to our people's history...

Your examples would have a rich written record to refer to as well - not the case with Australian Aborigines.
Incidentally, one of the points brought up at the recent conference was that by accepting the grants to research and document their language they are assigning copyright to the government for that work and all future works that use it.
posted by tellurian at 4:54 PM on November 28, 2004


The sooner all these superfluous languages die out and we all speak Welsh the better. There's nothing that can be said that can't be said better in cynghanedd.
posted by ceiriog at 4:58 PM on November 28, 2004


you loose a good potion of the knowledge and culture that are intertwined

the way one communicates shapes the way one thinks


to lose a language would then mean not simply losing a significant aspect of a culture, but to lose the very thought processes that created that culture


Choices for the future funnel down and become less


Most interesting (and I never knew about the revival of Hebrew in the 19th century, cool) but among all these assertions, does anyone have an actual material example. I mean, one that matters beyond the academic?

Can anyone offer an example of any invention or discovery of science we wouldn't have if the scientist hadn't been thinking in their native language? How about a religious concept, is there really anything significant religiously that can't be grasped by an English or Cantonese or Hindi speaker?
posted by scheptech at 5:09 PM on November 28, 2004


I doubt it has anything to do with language, but I know the Japanese had trouble understanding why they couldn't be Christian, Shinto and Buddhist at the same time.
posted by borkingchikapa at 5:29 PM on November 28, 2004


Peter Gordon did a study on the Piraha tribe in the Amazon. Check his publications section for how to get access to the article. Basically, their language defines numbers in terms of "one", "two", and "many". He found they could do basic arithmetic with objects up to three, but more than that and they started having problems.
posted by schroedinger at 5:37 PM on November 28, 2004


Can anyone offer an example of any invention or discovery of science we wouldn't have if the scientist hadn't been thinking in their native language?

I don't know about inventions or scientific discoveries (facts and objects are kind of universal, I think), but there are plenty of philosophical concepts which can be expressed much more clearly in German or French than in English.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:43 PM on November 28, 2004


scheptech, Orthodox Jews believe that the sages composed the standard Hebrew prayers to produce spiritual effects through their very pronunciation, which is one of the reasons they don't pray in the vernacular. Therefore from an Orthodox point of view there is NO substitute for Hebrew that can do all that Hebrew does in prayer. I wouldn't be surprised if Muslims feel the same way about Classical Arabic. And of course apart from the sound, there are numerous concepts which map poorly onto English words, even if they are expressible in a paragraph or two.

Likewise in my own country, English is a poor substitute for Maori whenever matters pertaining to Maori and society are discussed. English is lamentably poor in kinship terms, which are pretty important when discussing family and tribal relationships, and many words for everyday concepts and practises don't exist in English (except to the extent that New Zealand English has borrowed Maori words wholesale).

English has had to borrow "kosher" and "tapu" because these concepts were not easily expressible in an English paraphrase - that in itself should tell you something.

However, I really don't care about what use languages are. Everything created by humans is potentially precious to our descendants, and we don't know now what our descendants might have treasured that we are throwing away.

Maybe you've heard the children of immigrants lament that their parents never taught them (Yiddish/Cantonese/whatever). Or heard the parents sigh that their children don't speak their grandparents' tongue and will never really understand them. Try and imagine what it's like to have that happen in your own country, when your children prefer the language of foreigners, colonists and conquerors to your own. That pain represents a language's value more than some sort of notional semantic carrying capacity.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:57 PM on November 28, 2004


languagehat: Many of the worst wars in history have been civil wars. If anything, the effort involved in dealing with another language might give a little more room for reflection.

That's why they say that the U.S. and the UK are separated by a common language.
posted by sour cream at 6:02 PM on November 28, 2004


A couple of afterthoughts.

In the first post, the writer seems to suggest that language loss is actually causal in suicides in the smallest communities. I would say that suggests that your native tongue is of great value, if to no one else but you. Who will you talk to when you are old?

And that link to the Rykyuan language irks me, because the host site is one of those Wikipedia parasites. Here is the original article, which I bet will be better maintained as well as being ad free.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:50 PM on November 28, 2004


Are language and culture intrinsically linked? Does language influence thought? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the classic theory taught to anthropology and linguistics students that encompasses these ideas.

The theory has been in and out of favor over the past half-century. I myself see language and abstract thought as intertwined to the point of inseparability... so of course one's specific tongue has a lot to do with how one forms ideas, interprets situations, etc.
posted by killdevil at 6:54 PM on November 28, 2004


The Long Now folks are building a physical, universal rosetta stone.
posted by Tlogmer at 7:14 PM on November 28, 2004


Most interesting (and I never knew about the revival of Hebrew in the 19th century, cool) but among all these assertions, does anyone have an actual material example. I mean, one that matters beyond the academic?

Hawaiian, for instance, had a rich collection of legends and stories that were forgotten when the Hawaiian language was supressed up until the late 20th century. Also lost were words for local flora and fauna along with the knowledge of their properties. There are some written records, but they are not complete.

Here is a report on losing knowledge of plants and agricultural practices when languages go extinct. I've only skimmed it, but it seems to be relevant.
posted by Alison at 7:22 PM on November 28, 2004


From the NYT article: I asked her if she ever had a conversation with the only other person in the world who could easily understand her, Cristina Calderón, the official ''last speaker'' of Yaghan.

''No,'' Emelinda said impatiently, as if I'd brought up a sore topic. ''The two of us don't talk.''


That would be almost hilarious, if it weren't so sad.


On a different note, the FPP says that "between one and four languages are lost every year" but that can't possibly be true, can it? If it were, then a hundred years from now, there would still be more than 90% of todays 6,800 or so languages intact, which wouldn't be that alarming at all. The actual rate of decay must be much higher.
posted by sour cream at 7:40 PM on November 28, 2004


Does language influence thought?

In English, it's generally assumed that "the week ahead" means next week, and "what lies ahead" refers to the future. In Japanese it's the opposite. "Raishuu" (lit. "come-week" or "week to come") means next week and "Senshuu" ("ahead-week") means last week. English has an action verb that expresses ownership: "have". Some languages, like Russian, do not.

It's really hard to say how far the S-W hypothesis can take us. There are certain rules that all human languages follow (such as which colors get names first), which are just a product of our physical bodies. I think it's true, though, that languages come loaded with certain implicit assumptions about how the world works.
posted by Laugh_track at 10:00 PM on November 28, 2004


I highly reccommend the work of Keith Basso on Apache language, landscape and place names, for example this book.

Sadly, in my work with aboriginal groups in Canada, I find that there is far more interest in language revitalization in theory than there is in practice. Language is a symbolic and political statement about culture, but very very few language revitilization programs have been successful. In most cases, the students learn only a few simple words and phrases, and especially insults and four letter words. For example, my crew this summer taught me "chee-gee-dup", which means "pencil dick" in Haida.

And yes, we should care about language loss, its a loss of cultural diversity which could be as important as loss of biodiversity.
posted by Rumple at 11:37 PM on November 28, 2004


"Raishuu" (lit. "come-week" or "week to come") means next week and "Senshuu" ("ahead-week") means last week.

I suppose that one of the meaning of the characters "Sen" is "ahead", but that's more in the mening of "arrive ahead". Someone who arrives ahead is arriving earlier, so if you boil it down to the meanig of that character, "earlier week" is probably a better literal translation. But in any case, we are looking at a compound here, and "senshuu" just means "last week" without any mysterious or screwed up thought processes going through a Japanese person's head thinking of that word.


English has an action verb that expresses ownership: "have". Some languages, like Russian, do not.

Are you sure? How would you say, for example, "I have two dogs, but I used to have three." in Russian?
posted by sour cream at 11:55 PM on November 28, 2004


It's too early to say whether they'll work or not, but here in New Zealand Maori are trying hard with kohanga reo. A lot of New Zealand primary schools now have bilingual or full immersion Maori classes for those kids to go on to as well.

sour cream: in a lot of languages, you can say something like "to me, two dogs; once [upon a time] to me, three dogs". English verb decadent luxury. Copula superfluous. Ownership state, not action.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:02 AM on November 29, 2004


Endangered Species: Human Languages Are Becoming Extinct

::cough::
posted by y2karl at 12:09 AM on November 29, 2004


Hmmm, same--there as here--NYT article linked, too.....

::taps foot::

posted by y2karl at 12:16 AM on November 29, 2004


in a lot of languages, you can say something like "to me, two dogs; once [upon a time] to me, three dogs". English verb decadent luxury.

Yes, I'm dimly aware of that. I was just doubting that Russian is one of those languages, what with it being indoueropean and everything. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, though.
posted by sour cream at 12:20 AM on November 29, 2004


Russian is indeed one of those languages. You would say, "U menja jest dve sobaki" which word-by-word is something like "at-me-there-is-two-dogs", but of course it means "I have two dogs." (I hate typing Russian in transliteration but as I recall mefi doesn't display cyrillic).

Russian does also have an active, transitive "to posess/to own" verb, imet', but it's not the generic way of saying "Someone has something."
posted by Wolfdog at 5:29 AM on November 29, 2004


I hate typing Russian in transliteration but as I recall mefi doesn't display cyrillic

Well, let's give it the old college try: ? ???? ???? ??? ??????.

Wolfdog is correct about the situation in Russian; what I fail to understand is what difference it makes whether you use a single word ("have") or a group of words ("? ????"). Is English somehow deficient because we say "wake up," and did we have a better understanding of the waking process back when we routinely used the verb "awake"? Do Inuits have a clearer grasp of the world because they express in a single word what takes us a whole sentence to say? In a word, no. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, at least in weak forms, intuitively plausible, but it's very difficult to substantiate.
posted by languagehat at 7:35 AM on November 29, 2004


Dammit. All together now: It worked on preview. (And yes, I replaced the Cyrillic before hitting Post.)
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on November 29, 2004


I had this same discussion about 'to have' on another forum:

http://www.antimoon.com/forum/posts/4563.htm
http://www.antimoon.com/forum/posts/4734.htm

Apparently some people strongly feel that it makes a difference whether you use a dedicated 'to have' verb or some other equivalent structure in the language... but I am not one of those people. I believe in S-W to a limited extent -- some things are easier to say in some languages, and those people will tend to say those things more often. But I never sincerely believe claims along the lines of 'Concept X is impossible to say in Language Y', or 'Y has no word for X'.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:12 AM on November 29, 2004


Worth preserving? Yes.
Worth teaching to the public as a way to force cultural identity on an ever-changing society? No.

Yes, it's nice if a Navajo can still speak Navajo, but it should not be essential as a way of enforcing Navajo culture. Cultures change, and with it, language. Statically preserving a languae is an academic process, not a cultural one. It serves an important cultural function, but should not be an active part of a current culture's evolution if it is a hindrance.

For instance, Latin has always been important to western culture, and it will always be spoken and taught and preserved. But it is not at all a requirement for everyone in a western culture to have to know Latin to honor that culture's history and tradition.
posted by linux at 9:21 AM on November 29, 2004


teece : actually, the modern icelandic speaker has about the same grasp of Old Norse as we english speakers do of middle english [i.e., chaucer]. the notion that a modern icelander can just pick up one of the old sagas and start reading is a bit of overstatement. that said, there are active laws in place to keep the icelandic language from "evolving" too far, the idea being that anyone who speaks icelandic should have at least some access to the old sagas.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:33 AM on November 29, 2004


There is no language that is documented fully (not even English)

While any living language is probably not fully documented at any given time, Lojban comes close (and is curiously not on the ethnologue site). It was designed for, among other things, testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Some other bonuses include:
# Lojban is designed to be culturally neutral.
# Lojban grammar is based on the principles of logic.
# Lojban has an unambiguous grammar.
# Lojban has phonetic spelling, and unambiguous resolution of sounds into words.
# Lojban is simple compared to natural languages; it is easy to learn.
# Lojban's 1300 root words can be easily combined to form a vocabulary of millions of words.
# Lojban is regular; the rules of the language are without exception.
# Lojban attempts to remove restrictions on creative and clear thought and communication.
posted by nTeleKy at 9:57 AM on November 29, 2004


Languagehat - You think speaking the same language means people can communicate effectively with one another?...If anything, the effort involved in dealing with another language might give a little more room for reflection.

You argue - rightly - in favour of bilingualism, but the acquisition of a foreign language is so difficult and slow. and conflict is surely more likely with those of whose language and culture we are ignorant.

Let us declare war on the monoglots :)
posted by apodo at 2:12 PM on November 29, 2004


Can anyone offer an example of any invention or discovery of science we wouldn't have if the scientist hadn't been thinking in their native language?

It probably happens all the time, but it's difficult to prove, since inventions and ideas so quickly become universal. You could probably cut a finer point than that: The atomic bomb might not exist if Albert Einstein's great grandmother hadn't made spaetzle the night she conceived. Once ideas lock in, the qwerty effect displaces options. In Heaven and Hell, cultural effects are different. Turn your question around: If there were no cultural diversity, there likely would be few inventions, more fascist governments, and boring food, art, and sex.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:16 PM on November 29, 2004


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