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Talk is cheap
June 19, 2001 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Talk is cheap Coming soon: 50-90% off. Discuss (in English).
posted by bregdan (48 comments total)

 
I know how Marie feels. When I was travelling around the French countryside last October, the sound of my own native tongue was music to my ears. Strange how we take it for granted when we're surrounded by those like ourselves. Of course, if you take the 30 bus in San Francisco, you can get an inkling of that feeling.

By the way, I took 8 years of Latin and I tell you, that language should not be dead. Once you go that far into it, you start reading Poetry from the Latin poets (Ovid et al). It sounds not unlike Italian. Only with fewer hand gestures...
posted by fooljay at 6:01 PM on June 19, 2001


It is a sad thing when languages drift into oblivion, but what is the objective value of a language, anyway? If it has poetry, literature, and songs, there is definitely something tangible that is lost. But without that, isn't it neat to be able to communicate with everyone? I mean, in Star Trek, they don't run into Romulans with different languages. What are we going to do in five hundred years? I'm not saying it has to be English, but it sure would be cool if we all spoke the same language. I'll duck now.
posted by norm at 7:37 PM on June 19, 2001


but it sure would be cool if we all spoke the same language

I agree. Speaking the same language unites us. I have no problem seeing the curse of Babel lifted. Dead languages are an anthropological and semiotic curiousity, and worthy of study for that alone. But a language isn't killed, it dies on its own accord when its time is finished. We should not mourn the passing of something who's time has come.
posted by UncleFes at 8:18 PM on June 19, 2001


If it has poetry, literature, and songs, there is definitely something tangible that is lost. But without that, isn't it neat to be able to communicate with everyone?

The problem, I think, is the poetry, literature and songs that are lost. I would wager that most of the languages that are dying do not have a written equivalent. These are cultures based on an oral tradition, and when the language dies it's not just words and grammar, but the entire culture, that dies with it.
posted by jpoulos at 8:56 PM on June 19, 2001


I volunteer to start learning Esperanto. I hear that's pretty cool.

No, I understand what the line of reasoning is here; the world culture is the English speaking, 'Merkan one, and that makes us at fault, right? I sympathize, but I feel like it's not necessarily our problem. Our culture is not inevitable, and neither is our language. Resist it if you want. More of a problem is the sins of the past -- aboriginal languages suppressed, families broken up, and other such unrightable wrongs. It's really too bad. Another terrible problem that has no good solution.
posted by norm at 9:05 PM on June 19, 2001


[tone serious="yes" sarcasm="off"]
Perhaps this is just a natural occurrence due to technology and sociological implications making the world "smaller" on cultural and economic levels. Then again, governments don't help. Quebec has been fighting other canadian governments for generations. It insists on keeping its part of Canada french, but has reluctantly found compromise in its larger cities by putting both english and french on streetsigns. Here in Texas, most public areas contain signs that are bilingual, and "habla espanol" is actually a positive thing for businesses, opening their doors to spanish and english alike, so long as they have money.

But as the world gets more interactive, and people of different cultures communicate on equal levels for purposes of business and government dealings, this trend is going to continue. The fabled story of "The Tower of Babel" is actually happening today, only in reverse.
[/tone]

"I mean, in Star Trek, they don't run into Romulans with different languages..."

[tone serious="off" sarcasm="on"]
[startrek technobabble="on" geek="yes"]
Actually they do. The cheesy explanation is that there's a "Universal Translator" which is on the ship and operates through everyone's communicators. Allegedly this seemlessly allows everyone of different cultures to communicate with one another, and for simplicity's sake the people making the show just have everything in 20th century Terran english. Allegedly that too was translated, via the Universal Translator, for the benefit of the audience.

Spock may have been speaking Vulcan when around others. Kirk was obviously speaking english, as was McCoy, but Scotty could have opted for gaelic, Chekov was no doubt speaking russian since he'd believe that tongue superior to any other. Uhura probably spoke Swahili - as her last name means "freedom" in that tongue. Sulu probably spoke english, having been born in California, but maybe his family still spoke chinese? We can only speculate. The Universal Translator wiped any evidence of its tampering. From our perspective, they were all speaking Terran english as it was used in the mid 20th century in the U.S.

Jean-Luc Picard could be speaking fluent french for all we know. And for all Riker knows. Wil Riker may even have chosen to speak Eyak, since he's a native of Alaska. I mean they saved the whales in Star Trek IV The Voyage Home. Why couldn't Starfleet save languages too? Or Riker may have been speaking English or Navajo. There's no way to tell. Deanna Troi may have been speaking fluent Betazed, or since she's half human, any one of several potential terran-based languages. Tasha Yar was born on a planet outside Earth and never set foot there until after she joined Starfleet. Odds are she had her own language. Having been raised by human foster parents, Klingon Security Officer Worf Rozhenko might have known english, but I believe the Rozhenkos were Russian, so Worf might actually speak a strange combination of Klingon and Russian. Data could speak any of the thousands of languages he knows at any particular moment, and no one would know the difference thanks to the Universal Translator. A handy device to have around the house, eh? Or the spaceship, as the case may be.
[/startrek]

[MST3K]
Granted, lips on any Star Trek series should be moving strangely from our perspective, like in a japanese kung-fu or monster movie, but at this point you have to follow the advice of Joel and the 'bots: "repeat to yourself it's just a show. I should really just relax."
[/MST3K]
[/tone]
posted by ZachsMind at 9:35 PM on June 19, 2001


Are non English speakers humanoid?
posted by crasspastor at 9:48 PM on June 19, 2001


another view:

THE LAST WORD
efforts to save world's small languages

"It is not merely a writer's conceit to think that the human world is made of words and to remember that no two words in all the world's languages are alike. Of all the arts and sciences made by man, none equals a language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world. I saw this once, in the forest of southern Mexico, when a butterfly settled beside me. The color of it was a blue unlike any I had ever seen, hue and intensity beyond naming, a test for the possibilities of metaphor....

There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth." - rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 10:44 PM on June 19, 2001


Of course, it doesn't have to be English. We all know what happened to the lingua franca...
posted by fooljay at 1:05 AM on June 20, 2001


It's not so much communication as a way of seeing.

The Englishes of Beowulf, Chaucer and even Shakespeare are, in different degrees, dead languages to us. But, if we care enough, we go back and learn enough to have a readers' knowledge of that range. If anything small languages are even more precious, because they carry oral traditions

To say that "a language isn't killed, it dies on its own accord when its time is finished" is often not the case, UncleFes. Languages are political weapons: Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Scots Gaelic were driven to the margins by the English; Franco suppressed Catalan and Basque; other countries have restricted the use of local alphabets and forced parents to give their children names in the dominant language. In cases like that, survival is a mixture of luck and longevity.

Yes, we're losing microlanguages. Yes, in many cases it can't be prevented. But at least we have the opportunity, more than ever, to record as much as it as we can.
posted by holgate at 2:19 AM on June 20, 2001


UncleFes: But a language isn't killed, it dies on its own accord when its time is finished.

Holgate's already addressed this, but it'll bear underlining. When my great-grandparents were in school, at the turn of the 19th/20th Century, children were beaten for speaking Welsh. Anyone heard speaking Cymraeg would be given a token to wear around their neck (the "Welsh Not"). The only way to avoid a beating was to inform on one of your classmates.

My great-great grandfather was monoglot Welsh speaker, his son was bilingual. My grandfather (b.1913) was monoglot English. Job done. (Well, almost.)

Do you think Navajo would have naturally faded away if Europeans hadn't colonised America?
posted by ceiriog at 3:55 AM on June 20, 2001


This may be obvious to other readers, but it is also worth remembering that in an oral tradition, the sound of the words is almost as important as their meaning.

Ask any poet.
posted by boomtish at 5:26 AM on June 20, 2001


Something that Rebecca picked up on, as well, is that when we lose a dialect, or a microlanguage, we become desensitised to the most explicit way we can measure its speakers relating to their environment. Further, when you're in a multi-lingual environment, you become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the toolkit your language provides.

Or, could I put it another way: no-one plays the hautboy or the viol that much these days, but you'd never want to be in a position where music could only be written for one instrument, just because "everyone" plays the guitar or the piano.

George Steiner writes in a very moving way of being brought up speaking a fusion of three languages -- German, French and English -- and the instinctive negotiations that he made between them to match the language to the mood and the nuance.
posted by holgate at 5:29 AM on June 20, 2001


All of the hand wringing and romanticization aside, what are any of you doing to keep such valuable languages alive? I know that Ceiriog is a Welsh speaker, and that is the sort of action instead of punditry that I can respect. My suspicion is that most of the decrying of this trend is done by people who themselves are monoglots and are very much in favor of keeping other languages alive, as long as they don't have to do it.

The point about Beowulf is a great one; we don't sit around and rue the day that Old English was lost forever; languages evolve and so do the speakers of the languages. I am sorry that poetry sounds neat in a dead language, but who would know what it means if no speakers remain? As for not being able to see butterflies in extra shades of blue, that's frankly absurd. I don't have to be able to name something to see it. The power of words is not absolute, they only mean what we agree they do.
posted by norm at 6:35 AM on June 20, 2001


When my great-grandparents were in school, at the turn of the 19th/20th Century, children were beaten for speaking Welsh

My bet would be that this was a local phenomenon. But I see your point. But this is "natural," too. What I meant when I said that languages die naturally was sort of backhandedly saying that languages stay alive so long as they are useful. Language (capital L) at its basic level, is a tool, not an art. When a tool stops being useful to the user, it is discarded. And while the Welsh your relatives spoke was literally beaten out of them, they didn't go from Welsh to nothing, they went from Welsh to (I'm assuming) English - English was a better tool for them, as it allowed them to better communicate with the rest of their community, to assimilate better into the culture (which was a very important norm at the time) and promote local cultural unity. Diversity, remember, was not nearly as prized a century ago as it is now.

An anthropological and semiotic curiosities, dead and dying languages are invaluable to science. But when considered as a tool for effective communication, they simply don't work as well as the replacement and, subsequently, they die. One discards the spinning wheel when one acquires a loom. Poetry is nice, but is not the primary use of a language.

Do you think Navajo would have naturally faded away if Europeans hadn't colonised America?

Well, we'll never know. My guess would be that, in the absence of European colonists, Navajo would have evolved as the culture evolved, and either become more dominent or died away based on its effectiveness as a communication tool. Knowing what I know of Navajo (very little really, other than it is extremely complex and nearly unique from all other language systems), I would suspect that Navajo was pretty much doomed - limited speakers, high complexity (means that it wouldn't be easily assimilated by incoming cultures) and unique form (means it would be difficult to meld with other languages) would cause it to die quickly compared to other languages.

Which makes for a good counterpoint - English is such a successful language because it has all the things that Navajo doesn't: a large and historically growing body of speakers and a high level of flexibility when it comes to assimilating elements from other languages. We already do speak a meld of English, German, French, and Spanish - check your OED for word deriviations (it's really interesting).
posted by UncleFes at 7:15 AM on June 20, 2001


This may be obvious to other readers, but it is also worth remembering that in an oral tradition, the sound of the words is almost as important as their meaning.

yes, in a oral tradition. The written word evokes more. we dont look at what was created by the fading of these traditions. The tonality, cadence, modulation can say alot, but to me the written word evokes a stronger image. To have something 'speak' to one, without sound, is more powerful. The human voice is more then just talk, recitation, and speech. It is being able to convey without a word spoken.
posted by clavdivs at 8:35 AM on June 20, 2001


UncleFes: My bet would be that this was a local phenomenon.
You'd lose that bet. It happened all over Wales.

Unc: But when considered as a tool for effective communication, they simply don't work as well as the replacement.
Says who? Google works as well in Welsh as it does in English, and would work as well in Navajo if there was sufficient demand. There's nothing you can discuss in English that I can't discuss in Welsh.

It's got nothing to do with which language is the most efficient, and everything to do with which language is better armed. Welsh has survived in Britain because the Welsh got pissed off enough to do something about the destruction of their language. If enough people are prepared to go to jail for a road sign or starve themselves to death for a TV station, any language can survive.
posted by ceiriog at 8:42 AM on June 20, 2001


There's nothing you can discuss in English that I can't discuss in Welsh.

Then why don't we all speak evolved Welsh? Google is making allowances for your language is all, reacting to a demand. There do exist Welsh speakers, they demand search engines that can render in that language, so Google supplies to that demand.

It's got nothing to do with which language is the most efficient, and everything to do with which language is better armed.

That may be true in isolated, short-term cases, but is decidely false outside of the environment you are describing. I'm not trying to shit on your chosen language here, and I'm not denying that the British have historically oppressed Wales. What I'm saying is that, if Welsh was a more useful language than English - in that it was flexible enough to evolve as quickly as English does, and that it addressed the communicative needs of the surrounding cultures better than English did - it would have supplanted English, rather than the other way around. The English, by virtue of the two cultures colliding, would have determined that Welsh was the more useful language and started using it.

I'll make another bet - I'll bet current English has a wide variety of words of Welsh origin...? I'm betting that for some things, Welsh was a better language than English. And English subsequently assimilated what it could use.

If enough people are prepared to go to jail for a road sign or starve themselves to death for a TV station, any language can survive.

Survive, perhaps; Latin survives, artificially preserved by those who love it and study it. But be a evolving, useful language thriving among the greater language systems? Probably not. Languages do not - indeed can not - live in stasis.
posted by UncleFes at 9:20 AM on June 20, 2001


What I'm saying is that, if Welsh was a more useful language than English - in that it was flexible enough to evolve as quickly as English does, and that it addressed the communicative needs of the surrounding cultures better than English did - it would have supplanted English, rather than the other way around.

This is patently false. The only way Welsh would have dominated is if the Welsh-speaking people had won political dominance over the English speakers. The linguistic prevalence of English all over the world is due primarily to imperialism, not to any inherent superiority of English. If you're really interested in understanding this, spend some time studying historical and social linguistics and language contact. I have, and this point isn't even disputed anymore.

I'll bet current English has a wide variety of words of Welsh origin

Another bet you'd lose. English has very few words derived from any of the Celtic languages, and most of the ones it does have were borrowed a long time after the initial Anglo-Saxon conquest of Celtic-speaking peoples. (Interesting point: some of the Celtic words English now has came to us through French, following the Norman conquest.)

You are right that languages do not and cannot live in stasis. They always change. But to claim that linguistic dominance is established for reasons of "language quality" is absurd. Your two missed bets make it clear that you haven't done much research in this area.
posted by binkin at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2001


I'll make another bet - I'll bet current English has a wide variety of words of Welsh origin...?

Not wining many bets today Fes ;-)

English has exactly one word of Welsh origin: corgi. There are residual traces of Brythonic (pre-Welsh Celtic language) words in English, mostly in place names.

On the other hand, Welsh is chocabloc with English words and Welsh speakers often use English words even where perfectly good Welsh words exist: compiwter rather than cyfrifiadur, for example. To say that the former is somehow a better word than the latter is just plain daft.

Look at your earlier point about the mongrel nature of English. There are lots of classical influences in English (Roman empire, Catholic church), lots of French (1066, all that) and, these days, lots of American, I guess. But how many words have the English taken from the cultures they've dominated (rather than been dominated by)?

The article rebecca linked to earlier had a brilliant quote:
This killing of a language happens exactly as one would expect: the weak must speak to the strong in the language of the strong. Eventually, the language of the weak loses its utility, except for secrets and the making of ill-fated rebellions.
As for Welsh surviving rather than thriving, this is the longest English conversation I've had this week, and it's been a busy week ;-)
posted by ceiriog at 9:51 AM on June 20, 2001


Or, what binkin said...
posted by ceiriog at 10:18 AM on June 20, 2001


My bet would be that this was a local phenomenon.

Not to beat a dead horse, but it's not local even to Wales, or Great Britain. Speakers of Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, etc. were treated the same way. As were speakers of Native American languages in their schools (by policy of the U.S. government). As were, in all likelihood, speakers of minority tongues in many countries all over the world. Languages die out naturally, but they are also killed intentionally.
posted by feckless at 10:21 AM on June 20, 2001


But how many words have the English taken from the cultures they've dominated (rather than been dominated by)?

I would guess a significant amount (no more betting for me!). That's a significant portion of how languages evolve.

The linguistic prevalence of English all over the world is due primarily to imperialism, not to any inherent superiority of English.

OK. But IF English is inferior to the previous local language(s), why then are the previous languages not returning to reclaim their purely political losses? And if Welsh (or any other dying language for that matter, because if what ceiriog is saying is true, it sounds like the death of Welsh is, as they say, greatly exagerrated) is so great, what prevented the language from spreading throughout neighboring cultures in times of peace, such that the body of Welsh speakers grew to a size whereby in times of conflict the Welsh speaking culture could make an effective defense?

English is not even remotely the most popular language, anyway. Chinese is, followed by Spanish. The Chinese were colonialists, but not to the extent that the English were; as for Spanish, their colonial period preceeded the English period; why then did not English supercede Spanish?

This killing of a language happens exactly as one would expect: the weak must speak to the strong in the language of the strong. Eventually, the language of the weak loses its utility, except for secrets and the making of ill-fated rebellions.

I concede this: but how is this NOT natural? And how does "loses its utility" differ from my saying that languages survive or die based on their "usefulness"?

speakers of Native American languages in their schools (by policy of the U.S. government). As were, in all likelihood, speakers of minority tongues in many countries all over the world.

Is it impossible to imagine that a benevolent government, in an effort to help minorities whose language would serve as a barrier to racial and economic equality, mandate instruction in the language of the politically and numerically dominant culture so that minority cultures would have the same communication skills necessary to succeed it in a culture that makes a significant effort to function as a meritocracy?

If you're really interested in understanding this, spend some time studying historical and social linguistics and language contact. I have, and this point isn't even disputed anymore.

I have an MA in Communication, with a solid just-barely-not-a-minor in Semiotics. Plus a bunch of political and cultural history. Whaddya want? Non-linguists barred from from the thread? 'Scuse me for having a different viewpoint, I didn't know it was pro-dead-languages-only here :)

Typically, I've found that "any point that isn't even disputed anymore" nearly always needs additional dispute.
posted by UncleFes at 11:09 AM on June 20, 2001


I think all of this revolves around human nature - for most of recorded history, conflict between cultures was the norm. It still is in many places.

I agree that the supression of culture and language is wrong. But it happened. A lot. And, it happened for a long, long time before we got to the point where some people in some cultures could feel guilty about it. I don't know didly about Celtic migration patterns, but if they weren't the first peoples there, they either drove out their predecessors or assimilated them. No different than what happened to them later on.

In the Western world, in the late 20th century, we seem to be mostly finished with this kind of imperialism. But, things continue to change. Some cultures adopt components of others. The question is this: in the absence of of the kind of dominance activities discussed above, why does it happen?

Seems to me that the individuals making the choice must see some benefit from it (on the individual level). Whether it's "better" or not from some supposedly objective standpoint is a moot point.
posted by Irontom at 11:23 AM on June 20, 2001


[UncleFes, in reference to the addition of new words to a language] That's a significant portion of how languages evolve.

Of course, it's important to remember that the lexicon of a language and the syntax of a language are two very different things. That's why we can still read Shakespeare, although the syntax of English has changed since the 1600s. When you say "languages evolve", are you talking about the evolution of the lexicon or the evolution of syntax? Or both (in which case it would be interesting to know exactly how the two are related).

The loss of a language involves more than just the loss of a lexicon. It also involves the loss of information about how to put those words (or any words - words are arbitrary for the most part) together. And different languages tell us different things about how syntax works (especially if you subsrice to a Universal Grammar). Thus, the loss of a language make understanding how any language works just that much more difficult. It's the same way that extinction of species makes the biologist's job more difficult.
posted by iceberg273 at 11:25 AM on June 20, 2001


Whaddya want? Non-linguists barred from from the thread? 'Scuse me for having a different viewpoint, I didn't know it was pro-dead-languages-only here

The arguments you're putting forward have been refuted in a lot of linguistics texts. I'm just saying that, despite your education in related areas, it seems you haven't spent a lot of time studying this specific issue. I have. I was only using English as an example (vs. Chinese, which is popular by virtue of China's huge population, and Spanish, which is popular for the same reasons as English) because we were talking about Welsh vs. English.

But IF English is inferior to the previous local language(s)

I didn't say English was inferior. Part of my argument is that no language is inherently inferior or superior to another, which more or less makes your question (as phrased) invalid. In fact, that's the main point of my argument. So, once the change has occured, there is no reason to revert to the previous language, since [insert conquering language here] is just as good.

And yes, generally these things bear further dispute, and probably there are some ways in which one language is better than another. English, for instance, is more likely to cause problems for dyslexics than French. But generally, people do not consciously undertake language change for its own sake. This is well documented (for example, even the revival of Welsh is, to my knowledge, politically motivated: the maintenance of an independent spirit and culture is important, and the language is a signal of that), and the general consensus among people who study this extensively is that it is true. I don't have a problem with you disputing it; it just might be helpful if you knew more about this issue *specifically* so you could make arguments that haven't already been rehashed a thousand times.
posted by binkin at 11:27 AM on June 20, 2001


Part of my argument is that no language is inherently inferior or superior to another, which more or less makes your question (as phrased) invalid.

I think this is where we mainly disagree. I feel that languages are either inferior or superior to others when compared in the ability to provide for effective communication within a culture. It's not a value judgement, it's a use judgement, like determining whether a hammer or a screwdriver is best for hammering nails. If Welsh is a better vehicle for the people of that region to move information between individuals, then my contention is that it would naturally be adopted by increasing numbers of people in the long-term, regardless of political machination.

The arguments you're putting forward have been refuted in a lot of linguistics texts.

it just might be helpful if you knew more about this issue *specifically* so you could make arguments that haven't already been rehashed a thousand times.

Was unaware that I was, my apologies. I was just putting forth ideas based on the semiotics theory I studied back in the day, and extrapolating in ways that seem to make sense based on what I know of cultural behavior.

Realize, however, that you didn't mention that you were a linguist. Had I known that, I might have lent your responses credence higher than "other guy's opinion." :)
posted by UncleFes at 11:53 AM on June 20, 2001


English is not even remotely the most popular language, anyway. Chinese is, followed by Spanish.
And the Chinese policy towards Tibetan is... let it die a natural death? Or legislate against its use?

Is it impossible to imagine that a benevolent government, in an effort to help minorities whose language would serve as a barrier to racial and economic equality,
Of course it's not impossible to imagine, that's how "civilising the natives" is usually presented. For whose benefit is the Tibetan language being destroyed?

I agree that the supression of culture and language is wrong. But it happened. A lot.
It's still happening. A lot. It may not be happening to you, but that doesn't mean that the history of linguistic imperialism is a closed book. This was the point of the original article, wasn't it? Languages are being pushed (or falling) into extinction at an ever-increasing rate.

Why is a big question, and the pub is calling. Read some Chomsky, he's good on why these things are happening (which is pretty much the same reason they've always happened: yes, even back when my woaded-up Celtic ancestors were kicking indigineous British butt).
posted by ceiriog at 11:59 AM on June 20, 2001


Languages are being pushed (or falling) into extinction at an ever-increasing rate.

OK. But I suppose the grand question in my mind is, is this necessarily a bad thing in and of itself? Oppression is bad, certainly; exploitive colonialism, bad too. And though I'm by no means an environmentalist, I can even agree that the extinction of various biological species can be harmful to an ecosystem. But I don't think the analogy holds up with regard to languages, since a dead language is invariably replaced with another one, where biological species are not.

I think the overall argument here seems to be a straw man for the loss of cultures (if one assumes that different languages are indicative of different cultures, and I think that's a pretty safe assumption), and to be honest, I'm not sure that the death of cultures are necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves either. Suppose the Celts HAD wiped out the Brits...? We might be speaking a highly evolved version of Gaelic right now - but would we be mourning the loss of classical Anglish? Are we now mourning the loss of traditional Celtic culture? Should we mourn the end of all cultures? There was much to admire in the culture of the Samurai... but do we want it back? There was similarly much to admire in the culture of my ancestors, the Prussians, but do we want that culture - with its aristocratic totalitarianism, its love of war and conquest, and its rigid Crusader morality - back, either?

And in the end, is there much we can do about the loss of either languages or cultures, other than record and study the remains as we might an archeological site?
posted by UncleFes at 12:22 PM on June 20, 2001


For me, I think that cultural diversity is as important as biological diversity, and--not having no fancy degrees or nothing--I think that language is inextricably tied up with culture. Different cultures produce different thoughts, and different thoughts are a vital thing.
posted by claxton6 at 12:26 PM on June 20, 2001


Different cultures produce different thoughts, and different thoughts are a vital thing.

I agree. But, we have a great deal of cultural diversity right here in the good ol' USA, all under the rubric of "American Culture." Can not a greater culture inculcate within itself all the diversity of a million smaller cultures while still maintaining a sort of cultural baseline set of norms?

OK, modify my Should we mourn the end of all cultures? to Should we mourn the assimilation of all cultures into a a greater, pangeographic but monolingual culture?

I think that's what's happening now.
posted by UncleFes at 12:37 PM on June 20, 2001


not having no fancy degrees or nothing

Fancy is as fancy does, sir :)
posted by UncleFes at 12:59 PM on June 20, 2001


Realize, however, that you didn't mention that you were a linguist. Had I known that, I might have lent your responses credence higher than "other guy's opinion."

Whoa! I never realized being a Linguist got me privileges. Does this mean free drinks? Maybe free lunches? ;)

Speaking as a linguist, I think language loss is a Bad Thing in its own right. The more languages you observe, the better enabled you are to make generalizations about human language as a whole (and how it relates to the mind, that mysterious entity). So it's OK to lose languages (because that's the course of things, and ever has been) - just document 'em for me first, wouldja?
posted by binkin at 1:04 PM on June 20, 2001


(I am not a linguist) I think language is an important force in shaping how an individual thinks. the ways in which different languages approach the formulation of a thought, force thinkers in different languages to different approaches to the same problem.

sometimes it's a very subtle difference, sometimes it's not so.

the more ways you have of approaching a problem, the more effective you will be in solving it.

the more languages we have shaping people's approaches to the world, the richer it is culturally, but from a pragmatic point of view, the more ways we have of approaching the world, and thereby solving the problems we find there.

I think we all benefit from the widest possible variety of approaches. - rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 1:12 PM on June 20, 2001


And to build on all that, tho the US may be culturally diverse, I think that, given the way (I believe) language undergirds thought (not something I can really defend if challenged, btw), that diversity across language is (metaphorically) an order of magnitude higher than diversity within language.
posted by claxton6 at 1:15 PM on June 20, 2001


I think this is where we mainly disagree.

I think you're right.

I feel that languages are either inferior or superior to others when compared in the ability to provide for effective communication within a culture.

Let's examine that from a syntactic viewpoint. In order to convey and idea, we must transform that idea into language and either say or write the language we have chosen. English is a very fixed word order langauge. Thus, ostensibly, it's easier to verbally paint yourself into a corner, because you might start to say something that your grammar does not allow you to finish. On the other hand, a language like Odawa (a Native American language of the Great Lakes Region) has free word order - you can start a sentence any way you like and never get painted into a corner. This should save on working memory capacity and thus make you an more effective communicator. Likewise, a great deal of English syntax is covert - case marking for example, or optional that - and thus can lead to ambiguity. Ambiguity is not usually considered effective communication, especially when the amibguity is interpreted incorrectly.

It's not a value judgement, it's a use judgement, like determining whether a hammer or a screwdriver is best for hammering nails. If Welsh is a better vehicle for the people of that region to move information between individuals, then my contention is that it would naturally be adopted by increasing numbers of people in the long-term, regardless of political machination.

This would assume that language acquisition operated by some sort of Darwinian process since we acquire the language of our parents. However, that is probably not true: the speakers of a certain language probably don't have any reproductive advantage, ceteris parabus. If, however, a political or economic (e.g. the East India Company) power can change the primary language that people speak (not to mention giving certain groups a reproductive advantage), and thus the language that is acquired.

But I don't think the analogy holds up with regard to languages, since a dead language is invariably replaced with another one, where biological species are not.

As a psycholinguist and a biologist, I disagree. Here are a couple exhibits:

cane toad : native australian toads :: english : native australian langauges
bushtail possum : kiwi :: english : native australian langauges

Niches do not remain unfilled. When a species is wiped out, either the niche is gone (see destruction of rainforest) or the species' place in the ecosystem is usurped. The second case is appropriate as an analogy for loss of languages: people don't stop speaking, they just stop speaking a praticular language: it's a niche that has been usurped. Does that mean that the language that took over is better? Not necessarily. A lot of extinction due to competiton occurs because the exotic organism lacks predators. That is, the exotic organism isn't any better at exploiting the niche except for the fact that it cannot be preyed upon by predators in that ecosystem since it has not adapted within that ecosystem. Likewise, a politically or economically powerful language can defeat a native language because, like an exotic organism in an ecosystem, it's not competing on level terms.
posted by iceberg273 at 1:32 PM on June 20, 2001


In some ways - the English language was the 18th and 19th century Borg of languages. Others cultural distinctiveness (and a large amount of vocabulary) became one with ours.

It started as English, grew a bit with new words, and was still recognisable English at the end.

Or maybe even analogous to Jeet Kune Do - absorb what is useful.

It is when a language refuses to grow and adapt that it becomes weakened (violent countries not withstanding). I seriously worry when the French academy tries to stop words because of their non-French origin.
posted by bregdan at 2:39 PM on June 20, 2001


As a psycholinguist and a biologist, I disagree

Jesus Christ! Alright already, I concede! I CONCEDE! :) I'm heading out to find that pub where ceiriog is.

Did one of my posts get lost?
posted by UncleFes at 2:53 PM on June 20, 2001


Did one of my posts get lost?

The cane toad may have eaten it. They'll eat anything. I should never have brought a cane toad in here. :)
posted by iceberg273 at 2:57 PM on June 20, 2001


I'm heading out to find that pub where ceiriog is.

Ah, it's a shame you didn't make it. You wouldn't've understood a word, but we could've explored the international language of beer for a couple of hours. Next time you're in this neck o' the woods, drop in.
posted by ceiriog at 3:22 PM on June 20, 2001


i'm not sure if someone already addressed this -

"It's horrible to be alone," she told The Associated Press on Monday. "I have a lot of friends. I have all kinds of children yet I have no one to speak to" in Eyak.

If she had 'all kinds of children' why didn't she teach any of them the language?

-- alethe
posted by alethe at 3:37 PM on June 20, 2001


That's how languages die. The children don't learn it, or they learn it imperfectly, or they forget. (You don't "teach" kids a native language, especially an unwritten one; either they learn it or they don't.) They spend their time in mixed-language situations, and gradually spend less and less time in the dying language. Then their children learn even less, and so on. I was involved with some work on a nearly-extinct California language a few years ago; the speakers we managed to locate were some elderly women who sat around their Kern County farmhouses trying desperately to dredge up memories of words they hadn't heard spoken in fifty years.
posted by rodii at 4:58 PM on June 20, 2001


Alright already, I concede! I CONCEDE!

Frankly, I think the entire point of this thread was to hear someone called UncleFes cry "uncle". ;)
posted by binkin at 6:29 PM on June 20, 2001


Now that Unclefes has conceded, I think that the majority of the horror in this thread is misplaced. Sure, egregious examples of oppression-into-extinction exist; on the other hand, the majority of the languages going into extinction are not due to deliberate malice but rather the assimilation of isolated ethnic clusters into the more dominate cultures of their area. Moreover, the main examples listed in this thread: Welsh, Scottish, Navajo, and Tibetan, are not extinct and likely not going to, either. Hell, Cornish went extinct in the eighteenth century, and it's making a comeback.

Beyond that, the majority of these languages "going" extinct are already dead. Those languages with a few dozen speakers? Most likely there is no hope. I appreciate that linguists want to study these languages for general knowledge, but beyond that it's just a pity. Poetry that doesn't sound the same? Unfortunate, but if you don't understand the words it's not terribly meaningful.
posted by norm at 7:54 PM on June 20, 2001


Nathan Hobbs, you are a cold, heartless, unfeeling man!
posted by rodii at 8:22 PM on June 20, 2001


Now that Unclefes has conceded, I think that the majority of the horror in this thread is misplaced.

Jeez louise Norm, I could have used you about ten posts ago when the MeFi Guild of Linguists was shutting me down like the Cali power grid :)
posted by UncleFes at 9:28 PM on June 20, 2001


Moreover, the main examples listed in this thread: Welsh, Scottish, Navajo, and Tibetan, are not extinct and likely not going to, either.
Oh well, that's all right then. Thanks, norm. So when the census results show that the borders of Welsh speaking Wales have been pushed that little bit further to the west, and that there are no communities left with 80% Welsh speakers (one measure of a language's sustainability), I can just shrug it off with a laugh.

I know this thread has quietly gone to sleep, but a book I ordered months ago just arrived at the library, tidily enough. It's called Can threatened languages be saved?

Not that any of this matters, of course.
posted by ceiriog at 8:40 AM on June 21, 2001


MeFi Guild of Linguists

Don't nobody mess with the MeFi Guild of Linguists.

(I'm using a constuction that's not acceptable in American Standard English, but is acceptable in many nonstandard (read: actually spoken) forms of English. Take that, prescriptive grammar. See, even standard english will die someday! Ain't nobody gonna stop it.)
posted by iceberg273 at 11:19 AM on June 21, 2001


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