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7. Overheard on the Web

Language Death, Beetle Larvae and the Question of Motive

The following appeared in the Wall Street Journal,( March 8th 2002, page W 13) and led to some controversy on the Endangered Language List.

How Do You Say 'Extinct'": Languages die. The United Nations is upset about this. By John J. Miller

When Marie Smith-Jones passes away, she will take with her a small but irreplaceable piece of human culture. That's because the octogenarian Anchorage resident is the last speaker of Eyak, the traditional language of her Alaskan tribe. "It's horrible to be alone," she has said.

Yet she isn't really alone, at least in the sense of being a lst speaker. There are many others like her. By one account, a last speaker of one of the world's 6,000 languages dies every two weeks.

To Unesco--the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization--language extinction is a disaster of, well, unspeakabble proportions. Its new report warns of a "catastrophic reduction in the number of languages spoken in the world" and estimates 3,000 are "endangered, seriously endangered, or dying."

In other words, children have stopped learning half the world's languages, and it's only a matter of time before their current speakers fall silent. Unesco calls this an "irretrievable and tragic" development because "language diversity" is "one of humanity's most precious commmodities."

But is in really? Unesco's determined pessimism masks a trend that is arguably worth celebrating: A growing number of people are speaking a smaller number of languages, meaning that age-old obstacles to communication are collapsing. Surely this is a good thing. 'Egalitarian Multilingualism'

Except for those who believe that "diversity" trumps all else. We've heard claims like this before, in debates over college admissions and snail darters, and they're often dubious. The chief problem with Unesco's view--shared by many academic linguists--is its careless embrace of multiculturalism, or what it labels "egalitarian multilingualiism." This outlook gives short shrift to the interests and choices of people in tiny languages groups. Languages disappear for all sorts of reasons, not least among them their radical transformation over time. Consider English. It helps to have a gloss handy when reading Shakespeare's plays of four centuries ago. Chaucer's Middle English may be understood only with difficulty. And the Old English of the Beowulf poet is not only dead but unintelligible to modern speakers.

Because languages evolve, it should come as no surprise that some expire. Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks --the leading expert on the Eyak of Ms. Smith-Jones--believes that 10,000 years ago there may have been as many as 20,000 langguages spoken by a total human population of perhaps 10 million, roughly 0.0017% of our current world census. Assuming this is true, it would suggest a connection between more people and fewer languages, and between language and the technology that lets people communicate over distance.

That makes sense, because geographic isolation is an incubator of linguistic diversity. A language doesn't require more than a few hundred people to sustain it, assuming they keep to themselves. The forbidding terrain of Papua New Guinea is home to the highest concentration of languages anywhere--at lest 820 different tongues in an area smaller than Utah and /Wyoming combined. For Unesco, this is a kind of Platonic ideeal. Its report describes Papua New Guinea as "a fitting example for other civilizations to follow."

That's an odd thing to say about a country where 99% of the people don't own a phone, but it's typical of the attitude of the language preservationists, who apparently would like to see tribal members live in primivitv e bliss, preserving their exotic customs. A thread runs through the preservationist arguments suggesting that we can benefit from them [this last word italicized]--that is, we in the developed world have much to gain if they in the undeveloped world continue communicating in obscure langguages we don't bother to learn ourselves.

David Crystal makes the point unwittingly in his book "Language Death" when he describes an Australian aboriginal language "whose vocabulary provides different names for grubs (an important food source) according to the types of bush where they are found." He's trying to say that we may learn about biology if we preserve and study obscure languages--but he seems oblivious to the reality that most people would rather eat a Big Mac than a fistful of bettle larvae.

Many linguists are deadly serious about he biological connection; they would like nothing better than to join forces with environmentalists. In "Vanishing Voices," Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine even write of "biolinguistic diversity," which they define as "the rich spectrum of life encompassing all the earth's species of plants and animsl along with human cultures and their languages." This invention allows them to suggest that "the next great step in scientific development may lie locked up in some obscure languages in a distant rainforest."

Forced Dissimilation

Then again, it may not--and the only way to find out requires that some people continue living in a premodern close-to-nature existence. The Unesco report and linguists everywhere say that governmental policies of forced assimilation have contributed mightily to language extinction, and they certainly have a point. But what they're endorsing now is a kind of forced dissimilation, in the hope, apparently, that a cure for cancer will one day find expression in an Amazonian dialect.

That's the fundamental mistake of the Unesco report. "Linguistic diversity is an invaluable asset and resource rather than an obstacle to progress," it claims. Yet the most important reason some languages are disappearing is precisely that their native speakers don't regard them as quite so precious. They view linguistic adaptation--especially for their kids--as key to getting ahead. This is understandable when about half the world's population speaks onee of only 10 languages and when speaking English in particular is a profitable skill. Nowadays, the difference between knowing a lingua frfranca and an obscure language is the difference bewteen performing algorithms on a computer and counting with your fingers.

Linguists say that about half the world's population is already able to speak at least two languages, and they insist that such bilingualism is a key to preserving "diversity." Perhaps, but it sounds better in theory than it works in practice. Simple verbal exchanges are one thing; communicating at high levesl of proficiency is another. If bilingual education in the U.S. has revealed anything, it is that schools can teach a rudimentary knowledge of two languages to students while leaving them fluent in neither.

Each language captures something about a way of life, and when one goes mute, it is hard not to feel a sense of loss. But languages are not less mortal than the men and women who speaker them. Maybe linguists should try to learn as much as they can about "dying" languages before they vanish completely, rather than engage in a quixotic attempt to save them.

(Mr. Miller writes for National Review.)

On this, Doug Whalen whalen(at) of the Endangered Language Fund commented briefly:

... Miller's basic point is that promoting minority languages entails a "careless embrace of multiculturalism" that "gives short shrift to the interests and choices of people in tiny language groups." Miller makes many mistakes, including confusing language change with language death and, by extension, the death of entire language families with language change. He is dismissive of native culture, preferring the "reality" —his word— "that most people would rather eat a Big Mac than a fistful of beetle larvae." He says that the reason "some languages are disappearing is precisely that their native speakers don't regard them as quite so precious" as linguists make them out to be. He shows no recognition of the many factors ranged against minority languages, and even against a "decision" about abandoning a language.



I have written a response, but it will probably not be published. If it is not, I may post it here.

Doug Whalen DhW

Space forbids the inclusion of Doug’s full response, but the discussion went on to take an interesting, if initially gastronomic, turn, which was best represented by Hartmut Haberland’s Socratic contribution. hartmut(at)

Fri, 29 Mar 2002
... First, I agree that preferences or non-preferences for food are most likely not 'objective', but based on cultural and even political attitudes. Why do many people, even staunchly non-vegetarian, object to eating horse meat? I guess that the line of thinking goes something like this: you cannot eat an animal that has a (given) name, horses are usually named, hence, eating horse meat is a kind of minor cannibalism. But I have tasted sakura-sasimi in Japan, paper thin slices of raw horsemeat (after some hesitation, I admit), and must say it was a real treat. (The name in itself is interesting, a euphemism based on sakura 'cherry (blossom)', but probably via sakurairo 'pink'.) I have also eaten fried jellyfish in Hong Kong and fried mutton testicles in Greece (even my daughter, 6 years old at that time, liked them) and wouldn't hesitate calling them delicious.

(I wondered, by the way, why there were no vegetarian voices on the list in this particular thread of discussion -- there must be people for whom the idea of eating a grub must be as appalling as the idea of eating a Big Mac, and vice versa.)

But probably more important is Miller's article itself. I found it extremely interesting, for several reasons, one of the being his line of argumentation -- I must admit, I am not so much interesting in whether he is wrong or what he got wrong (quite some figures, e.g.), but where he goes wrong.

Last year, one of my Irish friends said to me, "You can never make peace if you only listen to your friends." He was referring to the Northern Irish Peace Process, of course, but I think his words have an even broader significance. "You can never find out what's right and what's wrong if you only listen to your friends." For this reason, I wouldn't dismiss Miller's article as a mere nuisance; of course he is irritating, but so was Socrates. We need people like him to continually check and counter-check the positions to which most of the subscribers (more or less, I hasten to add, because I hope that there is a certain productive disagreement even among the subscribers to ELL) share. Not all of the questions he raises can be dismissed as irrelevant. Obviously Miller suffers from monolingual myopia and he lacks a proper understanding of what bi- and multilingualism really is about; a not uncommon phenomenon in the part of the world he comes from. But when he says, "This outlook gives short shrift to the interests and choices of people in tiny languages groups," he raises an interesting issue: what comes first, the languages or the speakers? Now let's not shortcut this issue by saying "you cannot make this distinction", since you obviously can. I guess Miller is being ironical when he says about the UNESCO paper, "it’s only a matter of time before their current speakers fall silent" [i.e. the speakers of languages close to extinction], since of course nobody is going to fall silent -- people will continue speaking, just in another language. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that they will be heard by many, no matter which language they speak.) Where he goes wrong is his assumption that language change takes place in a kind of market place (which is a metaphor that makes sense, especially to those who have read their Bourdieu) where choices are being made rationally and without external pressure. He appears to assume that language change (or language switch) is a result of a free decision and always works to the best interest of those who abandon their former language. Hence the extinction of threatened languages, in his book, is the result of linguistic market forces and hence, a sign of progress. This is pretty far away from reality, as many people know.

But if it were really true what Miller says, viz.
"A thread runs through the preservationist arguments suggesting that we can benefit from them—that is, we in the developed world have much to gain if they in the undeveloped world continue communicating in obscure languages we don’t bother to learn ourselves." we would have to stop and think. Assuming that global cultural and linguistic diversity is a good thing globally there would still be the question who benefits from them most. Maybe some of us consider this question a heresy, but if this is the case, I would be happy to be the gadfly that, keeps asking this question -- out of the conviction that heresy and, in general, the asking of unpleasant questions is a good thing. Of course, ideally we shouldn't be dependent on people like Miller to ask these questions for us...

If others would like to offer views on this, Ogmios (c/o the Editor) would be happy to act as another forum for them.

“A Real Language” — Language Morale in Yunnan and Kimberley

Peter Constable Peter_Constable(at) wrote to endangered-languages

2 May 2002
One of my colleagues was recounting for me a couple of days ago his experiences with one of his Lahu co-workers and another potential Lahu co-worker he recently met in the US. [Lahu is a language of S.W. Yunnan in China - Ed.] He was noting how much more linguistically aware the fellow he had just met was than his other co-workers typically have been.

But then, he had brought his regular co-worker into one of his discourse classes to act as a consultant for the students, and afterward, the Lahu co-worker spoke with him. The experience had given him a better understanding of the kinds of research questions my colleague had been asking him. The key point that I want to highlight, though, is this: one of the things the Lahu man said to my colleague, eyes wide with revelation, was this: "We have a real language, don't we?" Since then, he has been spreading the word through his community that they have a real language.

I know these stories happen often -- at least, I have heard similar accounts from many of my colleagues. Talking to my friend the other day was just an encouraging reminder that, while many factors combine to create serious threats for the world's endangered languages, there are also lots of situations, many that aren't as noticeable, in which speakers of endangered languages are growing in confidence and pride in their own language. And those are important steps toward language viability.

This may seem trivial, but I was encouraged, and wanted to share thatencouragement with others.

Claire Bowern bowern(at) commented:
Thu, 2 May 2002
On a similar note to Peter's story, Toby Metcalfe (a linguist who worked with the Bardi Aboriginal community in the 1970s) is known as the linguist who "put the nouns and verbs in the Bardi language"; ie, he made it into a real language by writing it down and showing that it had structure. [Bardi is spoken in the extreme N.W. of Australia, just north of Broome - Ed.] People have also said to me that now Bardi has a dictionary (Aklif 1999) people can't say it's not a real language anymore, because they've got a lot of words and they can be written down just like English. Finally, when I was asking the old women I worked with if I could use data in my academic papers without clearing every sentence with them first (which would effectively stop me publishing anything as I'm in the US and they are 250 km down a dirt road in North Australia with no email, unreliable mail deliveries and intermittant phone access) they were pleased to grant permission, as, they said, linguists use words from French and German all the time and they don't have to ask permission for that, and they felt Bardi should be up there in the linguistic literature with those other languages.