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language endangerment
September 19, 2007 10:54 PM   Subscribe

every two weeks a language becomes extinct. there are ~7,000 human languages on earth, but that number is estimated to halve by the end of the century. swarthmore hosts extensive information about endangered languages, and the mission of the living tongues organization is to preserve and revitalize such languages.
posted by brooklynexperiment (51 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Poolio at 11:01 PM on September 19, 2007


every two weeks a language becomes extinct. there are ~7,000 human languages on earth, but that number is estimated to halve by the end of the century. swarthmore hosts extensive information about endangered languages, and the mission of the living tongues organization is to preserve and revitalize such languages.

Here's hoping they start by encouraging the use of capital letters.
posted by mudbug at 11:11 PM on September 19, 2007


Bah. Different languages just serve to separate us all. Let there be only one!
posted by zardoz at 11:24 PM on September 19, 2007


the mission of the living tongues organization is to preserve and revitalize such languages

Why? An apple by any other name is still an apple. Differences in languages only serve to hinder communication and increase the sense of 'other' in the world.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:47 PM on September 19, 2007


Yeah, same with music. We just need one kind of music. And dance -- we all need to dance the same dance. It's the same with all the arts. And one style of dress. One kind of food. One kind of home. One kind of book. One kind of film. And people, for that matter. What we need is one height, one weight, one color. One genetic structure. Why must people insist on being different? What good does difference do? It's so... uneconomical.
posted by pracowity at 11:48 PM on September 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bah. Different languages just serve to separate us all. Let there be only one!

Jes! Unu lingvo por ĉiuj. ne estas necese (ke) por diverseco!

*sings*

Esperanto, why don't you come to your senses?
You've been out writing sentences for so long, now...

posted by trip and a half at 12:06 AM on September 20, 2007


Other than linguistics majors and sentimentals, who wants to speak a dead language?

The problem with a dead / dying language is that nobody uses them! If they were being used, then, they wouldn't die.
posted by Sukiari at 12:08 AM on September 20, 2007


Differences in languages only serve to hinder communication and increase the sense of 'other' in the world.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:47 PM on September 19


Thats the worst excuse for laziness I've ever heard. Should we forget about algebra too because you got a D?
posted by vacapinta at 12:11 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Words shape how you see the world, and every time a language disappears, an entire shared model of the universe disappears. This is much like biological extinction...it's an irretrievable loss.

I am, sadly, no longer fluent enough in French to give good examples, but when learning, I was struck by how hard some ideas were to translate. You simply can't easily think some thoughts in French that you can in English, and vice versa.

A shared language is important for a nation, but a single human language would be, in my opinion, a catastrophe. Words shape how you see the world, and a language monoculture would mean a monoculture of thought as well, a sharp limitation in our ability to think.
posted by Malor at 12:18 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


The problem with a dead / dying language is that nobody uses them!

Languages don't exist in a vacuum, they are major parts of cultures that are dying, and "dying" perhaps obscures what is happening: small cultures, including their languages, are being killed, swamped, drowned, buried, by bigger cultural/linguistic species backed by bigger guns and bigger bank accounts. The widespread success of Spanish and English is not indicative of their superiority as languages or of the superiority of the cultures that spoke them except. It just shows the superiority of the armies and navies that spread them.

If it's too late to save all of the little cultures still remaining, it's at least worth documenting them, understanding them, and remembering them. Preserving their languages as long as possible is an important way of doing that.
posted by pracowity at 12:32 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, English seems poised to become the "king of languages."
posted by quite unimportant at 12:55 AM on September 20, 2007


The soon a language dies, the faster it will appear in a Mel Gibson film.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:26 AM on September 20, 2007


The death of languages is inseparable from the loss of the speakers' community political power. Many of those dying languages are dying because the speakers are discriminated against, or because those languages are being actively suppressed by the state, or because the community has been so shocked by change that it's breaking up.

I see the negative remarks above as the ignorance and arrogance of people who belong to a successful and dominant language community.

To preserve and strengthen a language is a political act and a declaration of independence, however circumscribed, for its speakers. Bugger world views, knowledge, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - let people have the security and power to speak their mother tongues without hesitation or fear. I see encouraging small groups to hang on to their native speech as an important way for them to survive. (And when such communities dissolve into the majority, the individual members often fare worse too. It's not just about preserving the group for some numinous notion of a valuable culture).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:30 AM on September 20, 2007


Language death isn't quite like species extinction, it's part of an inevitable and continuous process of language change. There's no corpse to mourn, the phrase "language death" seems a bit contrived and weepy.

As far as I'm concerned, the only real loss (aside from the debatable concerns over cultural identity and solidarity aspects) is a scientific one. Diversity and novelty give us more counterexamples, and tend to help quite a bit in the pursuit of an understanding of the universalizable and innate properties of human language (See: Dan Everett & the strange language of the Pirahã).
posted by litfit at 3:24 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


pracowity: "Yeah, same with music. We just need one kind of music. And dance -- we all need to dance the same dance. It's the same with all the arts. And one style of dress. One kind of food. One kind of home. One kind of book. One kind of film."

How ridiculous. Language is a fundamental mode of communication. These other things are not. Differences in music, dance, food, and art do not hinder one's ability to communicate with other people.

If I get lost in Beijing, playing music can't help me. If I want to order food in Egypt, it won't help me to do a dance about it. And if I want to make a business deal with someone in Norway, making a film about it is unlikely to help, especially with the language barrier still in place. But if these people are listening to different music, dancing different dances, eating different foods, reading different books? That has no effect on our ability to interact.

I don't expect everyone to think that having only one language is a good idea, but at least argue it on its own merits. Having a single language globally would enhance communication and our ability to interact with these other cultures. The question is, are the cultural trade-offs worth it? If you don't think they are, then explain why. Drop the straw-man arguments.
posted by CrayDrygu at 5:06 AM on September 20, 2007


One language is plusgood! Too much words is crimethink.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:48 AM on September 20, 2007


One language is plusgood! Too much words is crimethink.

People should also stop taking Sapir-Whorf to its most ridiculous extremes. Language doesn't restrict us in the thoughts we can think. And as old languages die, new ones inevitably emerge.

It's not Big Brother that's killing languages, it's the individual incentive of participating in a larger economy and making a better life for oneself. If I can be sarcastic for a moment as well: maybe we should bring back racism in a big way and all of this horrible language death will stop.
posted by litfit at 6:06 AM on September 20, 2007


I learned Fortran, but nobody uses it anymore.
I blame the government.
posted by rocket88 at 6:48 AM on September 20, 2007


Language doesn't restrict us in the thoughts we can think.

Perhaps ironically, nobody who has learned a second language could think this. Language absolutely does restrict thought, are you kidding? Or one might say "condition" or "determine." I was having a conversation a couple days ago with someone who was learning both Portuguese and Mandarin, and was finding the brain-partitioning process absolutely astounding; Mandarin in particular seems so foreign to her, so utterly different than what she's used to, not just in terms of what it's possible to say but what it's possible to mean. She felt like a different person when speaking a different language. Language isn't just a medium of communication between people about an objective reality, it is a component of that reality's construction.

And as old languages die, new ones inevitably emerge.

Maybe historically and over a long term and a huge geographical area, but what's probably at issue here is something relatively new in human history, ie, a demonstrable acceleration of language-death far outpacing language creation. Otherwise the headline would've been "Every Two Weeks, New Language Emerges" and it probably wouldn't have been written in English.
posted by sleevener at 7:22 AM on September 20, 2007


Language is a component of the construction of reality?! I guess this is a controversial issue (SWH, Everett's flawed Pirahã study, etc), but as a speaker of both Portuguese and Mandarin, I am not sure what your friend was getting at... I imagine constraints on what can/cannot be said and the ease with which certain ideas may be uttered is purely a function of accidental interrelated properties of that language.
posted by mateuslee at 7:45 AM on September 20, 2007


Perhaps ironically, nobody who has learned a second language could think this. Language absolutely does restrict thought, are you kidding?

I am absolutely not kidding. Linguistics was my major (I have two years of full-time study invested in the science of language), and I speak reasonable French and really poor Arabic. The sophistication of my argument is highly developed, and it's consistent with at least one line of mainstream thought within the discipline. Read Jackendoff and Pinker.

Language isn't just a medium of communication between people about an objective reality, it is a component of that reality's construction.

I'm sorry, but this is non-empirical, pomo bs. Realities aren't constructed, discourses are.

... language-death far outpacing language creation ...

The sky is not falling. Linguistic diversity doesn't buy us very much aside from making groups of people feel distinct and special. People will always have a need to express solidarity, it's why we have slang, jargon, accent and dialect. However, as geographical barriers disappear, groups of people become less isolated from one another, the benefits of communication with the rest of the world will trump everything else.

I'd certainly like to be doing field research cataloging the world's languages as they die. But I'm not going to get up in arms about the issue and make it into a cause to fight. This is not the same thing as equatorial deforestation or species extinction. They're just fucking words, for god's sake.
posted by litfit at 7:49 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Some linguist you are, LitFit! The only way to truly understand language is to take into account the parameters under which a language can exist - and those languages which are dissappearing are the very same ones which can help us learn more about the nature of language as a whole.

Again, when you say things like "they're just fucking words..." you don't sound like much of a scientist - they are just words, these are language systems, complete with syntax, phonology, morphology, morphophonology, morphosyntax, etc. Knowledge of these systems give us insight into how the brain works, how we learn, and, possibly on the development of our species.

If you would like to do some fieldwork, don't just talk about it, do so. There is a lack of trained field lingusits today. Put your money where your mouth is.
posted by mateuslee at 8:05 AM on September 20, 2007


for those who don't consider the extinction of languages a serious problem, it may still be interesting to look at language endangerment as symptomatic. for example, in one high threat area, oklahoma, language extinction was historically the result of assimilation and government oppression of native american cultures. the yuchi tribe was driven from tennessee to oklahoma in the 1800s. there, in government-run boarding schools, children were severely punished if heard speaking their native tongue.

the issue also ties in to the current debate about whether english should be the official language of the united states, whether immigrants should be forced to learn english, and at what cost.
posted by brooklynexperiment at 8:14 AM on September 20, 2007


Of the 7000 or so living languages, 820 are native to Papua New Guinea, a nation in the Indonesian archipelago with a population of 5.8 million, comprising half the island of New Guinea. On the other half of the same island, the Indonesian province of Papua, there are another 269 languages, for a total of 1089 (about 16% of the world's total) on this one island. Additional languages in the Papuan family are spoken on several smaller nearby islands.

The government of Papua New Guinea has taken an enlightened attitude toward preserving the nation's language diversity, by conducting most education in the early primary grades exclusively in the local language, so that children get a good grounding in it. Later the nation's lingua franca, Tok Pisin, is introduced, along with English which is used for business purposes. A discussion of the value of the Papuan approach is here. The United States has a far worse record in maintaining its native language heritage -- hundreds of Native American language have not only died, but were basically eradicated by forcing the use of English in schools on reservations.
posted by beagle at 8:23 AM on September 20, 2007


All right, quite apart from the "construction of reality" stuff (which I don't think is just pomo bs - as though "discourses" aren't part of reality - but we'll leave that to one side for a moment), do those of you arguing that this is no big deal not know what it's like to fall in love with a language? Every language is a kind of organism, a whole system of sounds and syntax and idioms that will be lost as the language dies. Sure, languages change constantly, but this rate of extinction is something new. Do none of you even care about the literatures and philosophies, the myths and traditions that will become inaccessible (or at least a lot less accessible, with no native speakers)? Would you care more if these myths and traditions were part of your own culture?
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:34 AM on September 20, 2007


do those of you arguing that this is no big deal not know what it's like to fall in love with a language?

Yes.

Every language is a kind of organism,

No.

a whole system of sounds and syntax and idioms that will be lost as the language dies.

Maybe.

Sure, languages change constantly, but this rate of extinction is something new.

No.

Do none of you even care about the literatures and philosophies, the myths and traditions that will become inaccessible (or at least a lot less accessible, with no native speakers)?

Yes.

Would you care more if these myths and traditions were part of your own culture?

No.
posted by litfit at 8:39 AM on September 20, 2007


When languages die a good part of the culture gets lost. As a speaker of Yiddish I can tell you that as Yiddish ceased being taught to children in the 1950s -1960s the entire focus of Ashkenazic Jewish identity underwent a big shift. Today Yiddish is actually growing, but only among ultra-orthdox and hasidic Jews. Its use and function has changed. (Michael Wex' Born to Kvetch is a great read about this shift. A Modern American Jew goes to Temple in English, while an orthodox Jew still goes to shul (school) in a shtibl (small house.) The language frames one's life experience.

Efforts to revive a dying language do have positive outcomes for varying resons. The Maori in New Zealand started immersion school programs that were effective, and these were copied by Hawaiians who began an immersion program including the last generation of children who were still speaking the language. A lot of American Indian tribal schools have language programs where the children learn a few words a week, but never become fluent in their language. Some of the programs to rescue language usage include the Cayuga Cool Program, the North Dakota Affiliated Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribes language program, and the Yurok program. Whether or not these programs produce fluent speakers, they rarely succeed if there is nobody left who was raised as a child speaking the target language, so they are all the more important when the language gets down to a few elderly speakers, like among the Yuchee.
posted by zaelic at 9:12 AM on September 20, 2007


The monosyllabic answers are useful if someone is extraordinarily interested in your mere opinions, but some more engaged form of response might make for a better conversation.

Organism was, you know, a metaphor.

Given your answers (you do know what it's like to fall in love with a language; you do care about literatures etc. becoming less accessible), why so uncaring about language extinction?

As far as the rate of extinction - everything I've read (and, admittedly, I'm not a linguist, so I could be wrong here) indicates that the rate at which languages disappear has increased dramatically in the recent past. This also makes intuitive sense, considering the amplified power of "standard" language groups that comes with improved infrastructure. If you have reason to believe that this isn't the case, do you have a link or two to offer? I ask out of curiosity, not just rhetorically.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 9:16 AM on September 20, 2007


(The above was addressed to litfit, by the way.)
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 9:16 AM on September 20, 2007


The monosyllabic answers are useful if someone is extraordinarily interested in your mere opinions, but some more engaged form of response might make for a better conversation.

Sorry, answering other people's rhetorical questions is amusing, and I thought it might clarify which ones weren't purely rhetorical.

Given your answers (you do know what it's like to fall in love with a language; you do care about literatures etc. becoming less accessible), why so uncaring about language extinction?

1. For the most part, languages don't exist in vacuums, they exist as parts of geographical continua, often with arbitrary boundaries when no physical or social ones exist
2. Languages seldom "die", they're generally subsumed
3. Things I care about include people, puppies and kittens, nice summer days and sailboats. Communication is beautiful, particular modes of communication do nothing for me.
4. Terms: "language death" anthropomorphizes, "language extinction" overstates the gravity
5. Language change within a culture doesn't destroy the culture itself

As far as the rate of extinction - everything I've read (and, admittedly, I'm not a linguist, so I could be wrong here) indicates that the rate at which languages disappear has increased dramatically in the recent past.

While it may be true in the more recent past, it's difficult to speculate what the number of spoken languages in the world might have been at any point prior to 20 years ago. However, the maximum shelf life of a language seems to be something like 500-1000 years. Take a look at what Salikoko Mufwene has to say: [link]
posted by litfit at 10:05 AM on September 20, 2007


@Hypocrite Lecteur: "...do those of you arguing that this is no big deal not know what it's like to fall in love with a language?"

Sure I do. I would love to learn German. I love the way it sounds, compared to English. I love its seemingly odd grammatical structures, with concepts that the English language isn't even aware of. I love that new words are often created just by stringing together existing words.

"Every language is a kind of organism, a whole system of sounds and syntax and idioms that will be lost as the language dies."

Well, not all of it. Useful or unique phrases tend to outlive the languages they come from. There's a reason we still say things like ipso facto and et cetera. A language doesn't need to die for that to happen, either -- a lot of English speakers have adopted the word schadenfreude because no equivalent word exists in English. You need a whole sentence to explain that one word.

Besides, I don't buy that you lose your entire cultural identity when you speak another language. You might lose an identifier, but not your identity. To borrow zaelic's example, a "Modern American Jew" can still go to shul in a shtibl, just like they can kibitz and kvetch, have chutzpah, be a shmuck or a shlemiel, keep kosher, eat lox, and get farshikkered. (Also "schlong" is Yiddish, but I couldn't work it into the sentence.)

"Sure, languages change constantly, but this rate of extinction is something new."

Is it? Or is just that we (as a society/culture) are only now aware enough of world events to notice? There are many, many languages which we are aware of, but are "dead," from Aramaic to Latin to ancient Egyptian. How many more do you suppose we aren't, and never will be, aware of?

"Do none of you even care about the literatures and philosophies, the myths and traditions that will become inaccessible (or at least a lot less accessible, with no native speakers)?"

Will they? Translate them. If they lose meaning in their translation, include notes. And don't get rid of the originals, either. We don't seem to have any trouble reading of Zeus and Thor in English. And while it's more difficult to truly appreciate some things like poetry without speaking the original language, it is still possible to understand them, and not a major effort to learn the original context.

I'm not saying it's perfect, but I also don't believe it's the earth-shattering (or perhaps, culture-shattering) thing you make it out to be.
posted by CrayDrygu at 10:50 AM on September 20, 2007


There is another aspect of language degradation which occurs when the supply of speakers gets very low in a language. Linguistically speaking, as the languages die they "go crazy" - syntax changes rapidly, grammar degrades, languages often lose gender distinctions, families speak different dialects and stop using the language to speak to each other, and at some point nobody can speak the language without somebody pointing out how they are not speaking it "correctly" causing them to not choose to speak the language at all. This happened recently with the disuse of the Siouan Iowa language. This is happening today in Khanty (the siberian Ugric relative of Hungarian)

A similar problem happens when the language is a local dialect of a "major" language. Cajun french managed to survive until the French Government (at the time of DeGaulle's francophone expansion program) sent French teachers to schools the Cajun bayou towns of lousiana during the 1970s. A whole generation of Cajun speaking children were taught that their language was "wrong" and that they had to learn the "real" french language. The result is that very few Cajuns under the age of fifty now use the language at all.
posted by zaelic at 11:20 AM on September 20, 2007


litfit: People should also stop taking Sapir-Whorf to its most ridiculous extremes. Language doesn't restrict us in the thoughts we can think.

Yes it does. That's why the Japanese are taking apart English in secret labs and reassemble it in new astounding ways. And then print it on T-shirts. And manuals. It gives them a competitive advantage.
posted by sour cream at 1:30 PM on September 20, 2007


The sky is not falling. Linguistic diversity doesn't buy us very much aside from making groups of people feel distinct and special. ... They're just fucking words, for god's sake.

You're a linguistics major? Glad I didn't go to your college. But I guess you're responsible for your own indifference.

Nice post, brooklynexperiment, and welcome to MeFi!
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's because I spend most of my time thinking about, reading and writing poetry, but the thought of a language going away (since "extinction" and "death" are apparently too loaded) seems sort of awful to me. Every time I try to read a poem in translation, I have a sense of something lost, and to think of a whole bunch of stuff becoming impossible to approach without that loss is kind of devastating.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 2:25 PM on September 20, 2007


languagehat: You're a linguistics major? Glad I didn't go to your college. But I guess you're responsible for your own indifference.

It's not indifference, it's actually outright intolerance for argument from pathos, reactionary activism and sloppy thinking. I care more about preserving language data now than trying to convince people and governments to craft policy that encourages people to choose to speak ancestral languages when it might not actually be in their interests.

Is this ad hominem attack some sort of a linguistics gangsta East Coast/West Coast thing?
posted by litfit at 2:56 PM on September 20, 2007


when it might not actually be in their interests

I guess I would prefer to see policy that allows speaking ancestral languages not to be against your interests. In general, speaking your own language is only against your interests when you are in a minority whose rights are not protected.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:11 PM on September 20, 2007


Right, but there's a difference between allowing and encouraging. Discouraging the study of a lingua franca can reinforce a minority group's minority status.

What do you say to school districts that hire speech pathologists in predominantly urban black schools to teach schoolchildren standard dialects? That they're killing language?
posted by litfit at 3:25 PM on September 20, 2007


hey litfit, sorry to drop out of the thread for so long, it was a busy day at work. I've been thinking about this stuff all day. Calling it "pomo bs" doesn't seem like much of a refutation, but it does bring up something I wanted to clarify. I don't mean to say that I think language solely constitutes reality, but that it's one element constituting the interpersonal, human reality. I'd be really curious to know why you disagree (if you still disagree), or how you can draw the line so cleanly between reality and discourse. It just seems to me that to argue it to the extreme in either direction (reality is only empirical or only constructed) leaves too many things (and words) unexplained.

On a more general note, every time one of these language-attrition articles pops up, it makes me think of the Rongorongo tablets & other language artifacts from Easter Island.

Also, what Hypocrite_Lecteur said about poetry in translation. Who are you into right now, H_L? I'm in need of an interesting book to read.
posted by sleevener at 3:41 PM on September 20, 2007


It's not indifference, it's actually outright intolerance for argument from pathos, reactionary activism and sloppy thinking.

My immediate reactions would probably strike you as ad hominem, so I'll just say that yours still seems to me a very strange attitude for a linguist. Or are you by any chance an adherent of one of those schools that thinks all languages are basically the same so you only need one? In that case I understand your attitude but continue to deplore it.

Informed commentary from linguist Claire Bowern here.
posted by languagehat at 3:52 PM on September 20, 2007


What do you say to school districts that hire speech pathologists in predominantly urban black schools to teach schoolchildren standard dialects? That they're killing language?

I'd say that a few hard cases don't dissuade me from following a general principle that preservation and encouragement are good things.

I'd also say that in my mind there's a big difference between teaching students how to get by in the majority culture with the majority's speech, and (as happened in my country and no doubt still does happen all over the world) administering corporal punishment to those who have the temerity to speak their own language in the playground.

I suppose that having lived through the renaissance of Maori language here and seeing how that goes hand in hand with reclaiming political power I have a hard time seeing language disappearance as merely a phenomenon to observe. Maybe national or ethnic identity survives without the language - the Irish are no less Irish for being almost all English-speakers now - but it's a terrible blow nonetheless.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:38 PM on September 20, 2007


It's a litfit pile-on, so I'll cherry pick and call it a day.

sleevener: I don't mean to say that I think language solely constitutes reality, but that it's one element constituting the interpersonal, human reality. I'd be really curious to know why you disagree (if you still disagree), or how you can draw the line so cleanly between reality and discourse.

I simply reject a definition of reality that assumes it's an agreement between observers or a result of discourse rather than a fact independent of observation or discourse. It's a philosophical position, and one I'm not likely to be talked out of.

languagehat: My immediate reactions would probably strike you as ad hominem, so I'll just say that yours still seems to me a very strange attitude for a linguist. Or are you by any chance an adherent of one of those schools that thinks all languages are basically the same so you only need one? In that case I understand your attitude but continue to deplore it.

I'll cop to having a strange attitude, but my argument isn't as extreme as the reaction to it paints it. I'm not adhering to any particular orthodoxy of thinking, least of all some fanciful newspeak school of thought. And I don't think I'm too far afield of the orthodoxy in both of the major schools in the US that no language is qualitatively "better" than any other language. That doesn't mean that you only need one. It does mean that you shouldn't get attached if you want to do real science.

i_am_joe's_spleen: I'd say that a few hard cases don't dissuade me from following a general principle that preservation and encouragement are good things.

Preservation and encouragement are fine, and I'm not arguing against efforts to preserve and to catalog and to teach. But linguists encouraging vulnerable people to do impractical things out of concern that we may "lose" a particular language is absolute folly. Language change happens, as a specialist in historical linguistics, if anyone should understand that, it should be languagehat. But maybe all that work spent on inductive reconstruction accounts for his attachment to preservation.

i_am_joe's_spleen: Maybe national or ethnic identity survives without the language - the Irish are no less Irish for being almost all English-speakers now - but it's a terrible blow nonetheless.

I'm wary of talk about preservation movements that are tied to nationalist agendas. It's an entirely different can of worms, and something that I'd like to study seriously someday, but probably not through the framework of sociolinguistics.
posted by litfit at 5:19 PM on September 20, 2007


Yeah, not trying to pile on, or talk you out of anything, just genuinely curious.
posted by sleevener at 5:37 PM on September 20, 2007


Maybe national or ethnic identity survives without the language - the Irish are no less Irish for being almost all English-speakers now - but it's a terrible blow nonetheless.

Frankly, I don't see national and ethnic identities doing a lick of good in the world. What they do is create artificial boundaries between people.

Why should I place the good of my fellow American over the good of my fellow human beings? Having language barriers only reinforces that "us-against-them" mentality and contributes to xenophobic and divisive political and social policy.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:50 PM on September 20, 2007


And I don't think I'm too far afield of the orthodoxy in both of the major schools in the US that no language is qualitatively "better" than any other language. That doesn't mean that you only need one. It does mean that you shouldn't get attached if you want to do real science.

I'm sorry if I seemed like I was piling on, but I really hate the "who cares if languages disappear?" attitude that is all too common in these discussions, and coming from a linguist it seems like an ornithologist saying "who cares if we lose bird species?" And I point out that no bird is qualitatively "better" than any other bird, and yet ornithologists tend to want to keep them around. Nobody's saying minority languages are "better," but they're different ways of being human, and while it would be absurd to try to preserve every language ever spoken, that doesn't mean it's a good thing that they're vanishing at a historic rate.

And it's not as if you've been encouraging reasoned discussion:
They're just fucking words, for god's sake.
posted by languagehat at 6:26 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


They're just fucking words, for god's sake.

I love that one. Paraphrasing my stepmom the English MA, counseling PhD :)
posted by litfit at 7:36 PM on September 20, 2007


but I really hate the "who cares if languages disappear?" attitude that is all too common in these discussions, and coming from a linguist it seems like an ornithologist saying "who cares if we lose bird species?"

Not really, being a linguaphile and being a linguist are two very different things.
posted by snownoid at 7:56 PM on September 20, 2007


being a linguaphile and being a linguist are two very different things.

And being an ornithologist and being a bird-lover are two very different things, and yet they tend to go together, because why would you devote your life to the study of birds if you didn't care about birds? I continue to find it weird and deplorable that there are whole departments full of linguists like litfit, who don't care about languages. It's the fault of that fucking Chomsky and his "all you need is English" bullshit.
posted by languagehat at 5:04 AM on September 21, 2007


linguists like litfit, who don't care about languages.

What? I certainly care about languages. I just don't see as much cause for activism in language as other people seem to. I value linguistic diversity, but for other reasons than caring about a particular language. I just trust that we're going to get linguistic diversity no matter what we do to influence the way people speak.

It's the fault of that fucking Chomsky and his "all you need is English" bullshit.

Heh. Yeah, we're just about ripe to move on from that mess.
posted by litfit at 7:16 AM on September 21, 2007


OK, sorry I mistook your position. I'm still not clear on what exactly it is, but you're not the barbarian I took you for.
posted by languagehat at 8:21 AM on September 21, 2007


Splengler has thoughts on the Bigger Picture, if anyone is still reading this
posted by IndigoJones at 8:52 AM on September 29, 2007


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