Books, Uncategorized

Let The Dying Languages Die

“What’s to be alarmed about? The disappearance of a language is not like, say, a local crop failure that augurs starvation. In other words, if some obscure language ceases to be spoken, it is not as if millions or even dozens of people will be unable to talk. All it means is that the people who would have spoken that language will speak a different language. Maybe we should celebrate the disappearance of obscure languages. Wouldn’t there be considerable positive value if everyone in the world spoke the same language? I think it is fairly typical of how the media and the scholarly world have treated the topic. It seems to assume that the disappearance of languages is a bad thing, though it fails to present much in the way of actual harm that has come. First argument: a claim that multilingual children do better than monolingual ones. Is this worth spending billions of dollars in a futile effort to keep various obscure tongues alive? Even if the data on children are correct – and I can imagine they are confounded by having smarter children or more sophisticated parents – the world only needs 2 or 3 languages, not seven thousand. In fact, the future I foresee is that there would be two or three worldlanguages, such as English and Chinese (Mandarin), and every child would learn both. Hence everyone would be multilingual. Getting rid of the other languages would just facilitate this process. There are those who care about language, and I am one of them. Putting this into practice by preserving near-dead languages on some kind of technologically boosted life support is of dubious value. Instead, we should work to conserve the effectiveness of language to communicate. This means respecting grammar, syntax, writing style, and other hallmarks of a strong, useful language, because they contribute to clarity and precision of communication.”

—Roy F. Baumeister, Languages Are Vanishing: So What?

“Losing a language is essentially a loss of data but culture doesn’t bleed, living organisms do. There is a lot of concern among anthropologists about “lost” ways of life. ( I am more concerned with “lost lives” due to poverty, malnourishment and disease.) The educated and prosperous elite sometimes lament the loss of innocence and purity among indigenous cultures. I have seen that here and in India. Mostly the people whom they wish to see hold on to their culture are poor, uneducated and their quaint way of life is a curiosity for us. I wouldn’t go as far as to draw the harsh parallel to a zoo but sometimes I wonder.”

—Ruchira Paul, Cat (or Global Forces) Got Your Tongue?

“If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”

—Razib Khan, Language Is Not Value-Free

“Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless foreign-language self-teaching sets that are about as useful as the tonics and elixirs that passed as medicine a century ago and leave their students with anemic vocabularies and paltry grammar that are of little use in real conversation. Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers. Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. Assuming that we can keep 6,000 languages alive is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots. Here’s why. As people speaking indigenous languages migrate to cities, inevitably they learn globally dominant languages like English and use them in their interactions with one another. The immigrants’ children may use their parents’ indigenous languages at home. But they never know those languages as part of their public life, and will therefore be more comfortable with the official language of the world they grow up in. For the most part, they will speak this language to their own children. These children will not know the indigenous languages of their grandparents, and thus pretty soon they will not be spoken. This is language death. Thus the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English. But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.”

— John McWhorter, The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

2 Comments

  1. Y. R. Palia

    Honest people will understand that the market forces decide which language survives and which should perish. In reality, in today’s world no language will get extinct. It will be preserved in digital format for students of language to study.
    It is dishonest people who have no creative or productive work to do that raise such stupid subjects as a vanishing language. It is their blind supporters who give support to such nonsense.
    It is collectivists who suddenly realize their irrelevance in today’s world who bring up such stupid subjects and when such morons are on the seats of power, utilize their clout to impose their stupidity on the hapless children.

  2. Henry Mencken Author

    Thank You, Yazdy. Yes. if the corner grocer is no longer useful, he should go out of business. It is as simple as that. Of course, if it is as big a tragedy as they make it out to be, they should be happy that we can preserve ancient texts in the digital format. What I often notice is that even many writers who do not sympathize much with the panegyrists of the past are obsessed with learning the dead languages.

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