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a language in the mind is worth two in the book
October 1, 2006 9:04 AM   Subscribe

More languages are in danger than ever, but some argue that this is no big deal. Is language extinction only worrisome because it means a loss of diversity?
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson (32 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's not worrisome in the slightest. It's a wonderful thing.

"Each language in the world is a unique vision of the world. Each has something to offer everyone else. The more visions of the world, the more you understand notions of tolerance."

Whatever ancillary benefits exist from having an extra 3000 languages in the world are far outweighed by the benefits of being able to communicate with more people. The fact that people are choosing to abandon these niche languages is compelling evidence for this.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:24 AM on October 1, 2006


I, for one, welcome our Sino-Europanto speaking overlords grandchildren.

It's not that everyone needs to be on the same page, but it'd help if most of the world's population were able to read the same books. I'm hopeful that one of the lasting effects of the Information Age is going to the bastardization off all languages into a more-or-less homogeneous world language with a million beautiful dialects.

An EFL teacher can dream...
posted by trinarian at 9:33 AM on October 1, 2006


Just because dominant languages are inevitable doesn't make it an either/or proposition, because we don't need to choose just one language. Or do we? Language groups are losing their speakers for lack of cultural support, although many will see it as a choice theory and be blind to the forces at work. It's like when McDonalds and Walmart roll into town and put the small businesses under and bury mainstreet commerce for the frontage road strip malls. To argue that it is about quality, convenience, cleanliness, flavor, or cost, is missing the point, because it had little to do with the decisions involved. What is lost is identity and control, and you learn to stand in line anonymously like everyone else.
posted by Brian B. at 11:01 AM on October 1, 2006


It's not just a loss of diversity that makes language death a bad thing. The loss of the history, mythology, and personal stories that is a part of any language death is the much greater tragedy.

There are whole civilizations that we know nothing about because they never left behind any written records, or at least no written records that we can decipher.

Also, hoverboards, speakers of moribund language don't stop speaking their language and teaching their language to their children because the majority language is *better*.

They abandon their language because of a variety of cultural factors that make speaking a niche language less desirable. These reasons are usually economic and social and apply not just to languages but to dialects and accents as well.
posted by bshort at 11:11 AM on October 1, 2006


The loss of the history, mythology, and personal stories that is a part of any language death is the much greater tragedy.

It may be a tragedy to you or I, but for those who must make the choice to either preserve personal stories or to have their children be economically successful and have access to a wider culture... well, it's an easy choice for them.

Also, hoverboards, speakers of moribund language don't stop speaking their language and teaching their language to their children because the majority language is *better*.

I didn't say that.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 11:36 AM on October 1, 2006


It may be a tragedy to you or I, but for those who must make the choice to either preserve personal stories or to have their children be economically successful and have access to a wider culture... well, it's an easy choice for them.

But the thing is, it's not really a choice; at least, it shouldn't be.
posted by maxreax at 11:50 AM on October 1, 2006


But the thing is, it's not really a choice; at least, it shouldn't be.

I dread to think what scheme you would put in place to remove that choice. Or do you mean it shouldn't have to be a choice between your heritage and your well-being? Perhaps it shouldn't. But it is.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 12:04 PM on October 1, 2006


hoverboards may actually have a point, ie that there is some benefit to universal mutual comprehension. That doesn't mean there is a significant and sad loss though!

I think we feel sad when any old cultural practise disappears, and what aspect of culture is deeper or richer than our language? We even have a word for that sadness, "nostalgia". Whether or not things are better in the end is hardly the point.

I'll add another reason - the loss of language parallels the loss or lack of political power for minority groups. The collapse in world languages mirrors the assimilation, voluntary or forced, of smaller peoples into larger groups and is a strong indicator of oppression. That's more than sad.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:09 PM on October 1, 2006


ISN'T a significant loss. damndamndamn.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:10 PM on October 1, 2006


To my knowledge, linguists are concerned with language death because it means we will lose a sense of the natural bounds of language. If everyone speaks the same language, it makes it hard to know what grammars are or are not possible (or easy) to instantiate in the brain. Michaels appears to confuse linguists' claim of "equality" of language (in terms of ease of use) with "equivalence" (meaning effectively, if you've studied the structure of one language, you've studied them all). Linguists argue the former but not the latter.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 12:43 PM on October 1, 2006


Jet Li's take on the subject.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:10 PM on October 1, 2006


This saddens me a great deal. This is, most definately, a symptom of globalization, and a trend that will only accelerate.

What bothers me most is the implication that the civilizations and cultures that spawned these languages, themselves have ceased to evolve independently and have joined a larger, global, progression.

I feel all the civilizations and cultures from antiquity are such priceless gems because they evolved independently, in the context of boundless possibility. I'm not saying global culture is bad, just that it will never produce that breath of "fresh air" that culminated in new languages and cultures. We will never again have an opportunity for a completely fresh and new vision of the cosmos, as long as the cohesive structures of globalization remain in place and grow; And they will continue to grow, more and more pervasive such that nothing short of the world's rebirth will stop it.
posted by kuatto at 1:16 PM on October 1, 2006


It's not worrisome in the slightest. It's a wonderful thing.

Different languages appear to have different characteristic patterns of brain activity; to lose those languages would seem to mean losing a royal road to understanding our own minds and brains.

I think there is also an argument to be made that learning a second language during certain critical periods in childhood will make you a smarter person than you would have been without it.

I also think having different languages in the world imposes barriers to the spread of malignant ideologies, such as American NeoConservatism, and the related idolatrous worship of markets, across the entire globe, much as genetic diversity in immune systems, which does tend to follow geographic barriers, imposes impediments to global pandemics.

Also, as some members of this site undoubtedly know to their cost, having your native language go global in an information economy exposes you to competition from, say, ~100 million Indians and many, many others on the way, that you will find practically impossible to meet because of your (temporarily) higher standard of living. In other words, insofar as we are an information economy, a global language makes it extremely difficult for any society to give its members a much better way of life than the poorest societies do. The extinction of all these languages will therefore contribute to making the average American, Briton, Australian, and Canadian substantially worse off than they would have been.
posted by jamjam at 1:34 PM on October 1, 2006


I dread to think what scheme you would put in place to remove that choice. Or do you mean it shouldn't have to be a choice between your heritage and your well-being? Perhaps it shouldn't. But it is.

If one is offered a choice between heritage and survival, then one is a de facto slave. Necessary choice is a method of force, and implies surrendering one's freedom as a survival strategy.
posted by Brian B. at 1:44 PM on October 1, 2006


The kind of language death these articles talk about does not apply to existing global languages. There are dozens of major languages which stand no chance of going extinct any time soon. We will never be short of new perspectives (unless you are the kind of person who can learn dozens of languages).

I say again that to restrict someone's ability to become part of a larger culture is to condemn them to poverty and isolation.

exposes you to competition from, say, ~100 million Indians

How terrible that those 100 million Indians are now able to enhance their quality of life by working harder than you.

In other words, insofar as we are an information economy, a global language makes it extremely difficult for any society to give its members a much better way of life than the poorest societies do. The extinction of all these languages will therefore contribute to making the average American, Briton, Australian, and Canadian substantially worse off than they would have been.

What are you saying here? That anglophones somehow deserve a higher quality of life than anyone else? Globalization has losers as well as winners, except the winners are chosen from the hardest working, not privileged racial/national/cultural groups.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 1:51 PM on October 1, 2006


If one is offered a choice between heritage and survival, then one is a de facto slave. Necessary choice is a method of force, and implies surrendering one's freedom as a survival strategy.

It's not between heritage and survival, but between heritage and continuing poverty. Sometimes this is imposed by a ruling class, which is indeed deplorable, but most poverty is of natural origin. Is poverty not the natural state of mankind?
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 1:57 PM on October 1, 2006


Is poverty not the natural state of mankind?

Measured by how? Leisure or printed money or something else? If farm machinery exists, but someone still has to work their fields with hoes, they are probably poor, but the machinery that measures their poor state is not relatively a natural state. I also don't think slavery or hierarchy is relatively natural, but relatively artificial.
posted by Brian B. at 2:20 PM on October 1, 2006


That's faulty logic, hdwow. Yes, some poverty is of natural origin. However the case in point here is specifically poverty caused by minority oppression, ie poverty of human origin. And ignoring that confusion, whether poverty is a natural state is irrelevant. It is a bad or undesirable state.

You claim out at the outset that people choosing to abandon these niche languages is compelling evidence for the benefits of being able to communicate with more people. But that supposes that "communicating with more people" is the reason people abandon their native tongue. Given the well-documented propensity of majorities to discriminate against minority language speakers, and the history of state-sponsored efforts to eliminate minority languages all over the world, I suggest that the desire to communicate with more people is not the most compelling or likely explanation. I suggest that being punished at school for speaking your language, having publications in your language outlawed, and having state policy be elimination of your language are far more compelling explanations.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:33 PM on October 1, 2006


What are you saying here? That anglophones somehow deserve a higher quality of life than anyone else? Globalization has losers as well as winners, except the winners are chosen from the hardest working, not privileged racial/national/cultural groups.

Somebody once said that the word globalization was a word that went from being useless because it was unknown to having so many different meanings to different people that it became useless for that reason without an intervening period of being useful. So, to continue this (useless?) discussion about globalization (which most sensible people are for, for some meaning of the word), I think the original post was quite clear that the average American/Canadian/Aussie would be worse off. The privileged classes will of course make a killing, like always.

One thing worth remembering is that American workers are among the most productive in the world. (The amount of hours they work boggles my European mind) Jobs are outsourced not because workers in the West are lazy, but because workers in the developing world are cheaper, environmental regulations are not so strict, healthcare and pensions don't exist, and so on. Personally, I see industry as necessary for innovation, so I don't see how it is possible for a country to thrive in the long run by cutting each others hair. I'm probably missing something.
posted by JoddEHaa at 2:47 PM on October 1, 2006


Some languages have a completely different view of the world built into them as the result of thousands of years of experience. Coded into these languages are the life experiences of thousands of human beings, living in the world as they understood it.

One of the effects of colonial language-imposition is that these sources of human wisdom are lost. The words can be "saved", but a catalog is not a culture, nor can a catalog rescue the subtleties of syntax. Each loss, like the extinction of a species, is a great tragedy.
posted by Twang at 3:08 PM on October 1, 2006


"most poverty is of natural origin"

Ouch ouch ouch
posted by Twang at 3:12 PM on October 1, 2006


How terrible that those 100 million Indians are now able to enhance their quality of life by working harder than you.

I'm prepared to believe you are an extremely hard worker, hdwow, but with the per capita US income at ~$40,000, and per capita India income at ~$700, I'm utterly amazed at your superhuman ability to work harder than the more than 50 Indians an employer could hire for less than you would work for-- either that, or I'm amazed at your ignorance of simple economics.
posted by jamjam at 3:17 PM on October 1, 2006


VisualBasic.net is totally at risk, nobody uses that shit.
posted by Artw at 5:38 PM on October 1, 2006


What I am worried about is that when we all speak the same language we will try and build a tower to heaven and in doing so anger god!
posted by I Foody at 6:13 PM on October 1, 2006


If there were only one language how would we talk in code?
posted by Gungho at 7:26 PM on October 1, 2006


What's amazing to me as I try to learn a language is how deeply language is tied to culture. I think about some of my favorite English words and expressions ("marmalade", "vegemite", "behoove", "hiatus"), and I can remember distinctly when I first heard them, or first read them, and I will always carry around that connection with me.

In learning a new language, then, I've got to recreate that experience, and it's a years-long process. I have to read fairy tales and nursery rhymes in this new language, I have to memorize the lyrics of rock songs, and I have to learn quotes from famous movies. In short, I have to try and re-construct an entire culture, the equivalent (in English) of memorizing the meaning and reference of everything from "D'oh" to "It was the best of times..." to "wherefore art thou, Romeo" to "I am not a crook" to "I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords". And that's just the macro culture! The micro culture of a family or a community is equally as broad and rich. Think of how many favorite phrases you used in high school, or with your cousins, or with your spouse.

So, when we lose a language, we lose all of that. I think of what would happen if I could only use my second language to raise my child, and wasn't able to use English. How could I connect my daughter with my past, with my culture, with my family? How could she ever learn about me, and about herself? Perhaps she would be wealthier in another language, but would she be happier? Would she be my daughter?
posted by math at 10:32 PM on October 1, 2006 [1 favorite]


Here's mine. Well, some of my ancestors apparently spoke it.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:53 PM on October 1, 2006


I design computer systems that help document low resource languages (a.k.a critical, but not dead languages). The software tools can be used just the same for languages with one or two speakers left.

First of all, there is nothing we can do to keep people speaking their native languages. Good or bad, people have their own reasons for not teaching their language to their children. We can try to make it easier to keep a language alive through education or making media available to the larger ones. Language classes are keeping some languages alive and plenty of Native American languages have benefited. However, without a place in social life outside of the classroom any language is doomed. Some cultures are fighting this. For example, in Southern France there is a current effort by parents to raise children in completely Provençal-speaking environments.

Unfortunately, many other languages will not have a chance over the next century. There is a big movement in the applied linguistics community to document what is left right now, but there are not enough resources to capture languages in their entirety (I’m also not convinced that is possible). So, no matter what we do we will lose quite a bit of information.

I’m all for people all around the world understanding each other better, but no one said that everyone has to speak only one language. I’ll be a little sad that so many wonderful living languages will no longer be with us. It’s really hard to make sure that we capture the peculiar fuzziness of Kayardild or the spikiness of Ingush. We are also losing so many wonderful, eccentric words. Thousands of people are working very hard to record and document these languages, but a recording of someone is not the same as having a conversation with them. I feel like we are losing friends before we have a chance to really get to know them.

Seriously, if you have any language data sitting around, even if it is your grandpa speaking Navajo, please send it to the OLAC archive. There is so much high quality data sitting out there that is looking for a home.
posted by Alison at 7:54 AM on October 2, 2006


I'm curious about language in general, but I don't get a whole lot of time to indulge this particular area of curiosity - this thread is fun.

Having a language fall into disuse is normal - languages come and go. While "losing" a language is a bad thing in the academic sense, I'm not so worried about having a language fall into disuse because the original population no longer requires its use, or because the language structure is unable to adapt to change, or any of several other reasons that cause languages to fall by the wayside. I applaud the efforts by so many to record & catalog the these fading languages, but I mourn not the languages that fade.

Besides, I'm looking forward to swearing in Mandarin.

What interests me is the use of language as a way of not just establishing, but enforcing, cultural identity. I'm not just referring to the governmental push for a "national" or "official" language, or common business requirements forcing products to be translated to a specific language, but actually watching governments interfere in the development of a language to preserve its "cultural integrity," or persecuting people who speak a given language.
posted by FormlessOne at 5:31 PM on October 2, 2006


What interests me is the use of language as a way of not just establishing, but enforcing, cultural identity.

I've heard that, until very recently, Basque parents in France were not allowed to give their children Basque names. The only ones they were allowed to use were those at the registrar's office. Is this true?
posted by jason's_planet at 8:10 PM on October 2, 2006


I dread to think what scheme you would put in place to remove that choice. Or do you mean it shouldn't have to be a choice between your heritage and your well-being? Perhaps it shouldn't. But it is.

I just meant that it's possible to speak two languages.
posted by maxreax at 10:56 PM on October 2, 2006


I'm shocked (shocked!) that languagehat hasn't posted in this thread.
posted by bshort at 7:00 AM on October 3, 2006


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