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November 14, 2005

Save Dying Languages?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm not sure there's an official list, but items in the press claim that around 6,000 languages are spoken in the world.

It's axiomatic that languages develop in isolation, and a corollary of speedy modern travel and inexpensive telecommunication is that the isolation is rapidly ending and minor languages are dying. Academic analysts speculate that X% or Y% of all languages will disappear over the next 50, 100 or however-many years.

A number of those same academicians have Declared A Crisis. In my opinion, the crisis is pretty much one for the academicians themselves, at least those who specialize in linguistics: they will run out of subject-matter.

Some of their arguments are worthy of Spinmeister Hall of Fame status. (For example, read this or else Google on "dying languages." Even UNESCO and The Discovery Channel are in on the action.)

One argument for language preservation is that isolated languages embody folk-wisdom offering insights into herbs or leaves or bark or other substances that can cure one disease or another. Therefore I must conclude if a language becomes lost, I might DIE!!! Uh, okay.

Another argument that catches my attention is based on the assumption that languages are like genes or DNA and that the loss of a language is equivalent to the extinction of a biological species.

I find the first argument a pathetic stretch and the second one absurd.

What exactly might a language spoken by 250 people living near the Amazon River possess that, if lost, could never ever be reinvented in the future? If they have 12 names for beetles, that is nothing compared to taxonomies already performed by biologists. And if they have eight names for various types of tropical rainfall, so what? That information would be irrelevant to an Arabian nomad and the same information could be largely conveyed in other languages by use of adjectives.

Furthermore, unlike biological traits that slowly change from generation to generation, languages can be modified almost instantaneously. English seems to be particularly adept at incorporating words. No English word expressing that tinge of pleasure people sometimes feel at others' misfortune? -- then borrow the German word schadenfreude. And in the far future if English is the last language standing? -- then invent a word if the concept is an important one ("blog," anyone?).

With the end of isolation, a drastic reduction in the language-count is inevitable. Attempts by outsiders to maintain a small language's viability strike me as being elitist fantasies. The elitist can feel smug about doing A Good Thing while the speakers of the minor language remain mired in semi-isolated poverty, being little more than zoo-animals for the elitists and academics to coo over.

Romantic fantasizing aside, it must be recognized that people are usually rational caretakers of their own well-being. The spread of railroads in Nineteenth Century France created motivation for villagers to abandon their dialects because they could be more prosperous if they could deal with traders who only spoke French. (Yes, the central government force-fed the process with the establishment of government-sponsored French-only schools. But absent this, the outcome would have been about the same even though it might have taken longer.)

This is why Lingua Francas are found in history. I suppose the hot-house atmosphere in some academic departments has fostered the notion that a Lingua Franca is simply a power play by an evil white male group, but this makes little sense in the real world. While some people have a knack for learning languages, it is economical in terms of time and effort for most folks to learn the minimum amount necessary.

For instance, there are more than 20 non-trivial languages spoken in Europe and few people would take on the task of learning them all. An educated Dane might learn German because Germany is a large country bordering on Denmark. He might also learn some French for cultural or literary reasons. But he'll almost certainly speak English because he knows he can travel anywhere in the world and have a good chance of being understood; the same can't be said for Danish or even French or German.

Back to dying languages.

One area of effort under way is to compile data on vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc. for languages in imminent danger of dying. I have no problem with this. I respect the need for data and knowledge for their own sakes provided the price isn't too far out of line from potential practical benefits.

The other approach is to preserve languages as "living" entities, used daily by people. Justification for this is wrapped in the notions that Cultures are Good Things and are Worth Preserving. My take is that, in our modern high-tech world, cultures can and do visibly change: consider the fate of Western culture over the past hundred years. So just what is to be preserved if cultures wax and wane, changing all the while?

Nevertheless, if a majority of a group of people (not just a few elitists or cranks) decides to preserve what it considers its culture and makes the effort on its own, well that too is fine with me. I'm not so thrilled about outsiders such as the United Nations throwing money into such work, however. Unless the language-speakers are strongly motivated, the effort will probably be wasted.

Finally, for another take that parallels what I've said and offers other ideas and examples, click here.



posted by Donald at November 14, 2005


One thing to remember here, at this moment (as I type) new languages are being born. Consider how many English dialects there are around the world, and they're not all mutually intelligible.

Or consider the Mexican dialect of Spanish. Consider how it is spoken. In a century or two the dialect may well become a tonal language.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 14, 2005 02:42 AM

How many languages do you speak Donald? Or write, for that matter? Would it be too bold a guess of me to think it's just the one? The one that became a lingua franca worldwide because of empire building, both economical and cultural later? Your rather simplistic ideas on language, or culture for that matter, suggest as much.

I really don't want to go into a discussion about this. Let me just say: every time a language dies, another library of Alexandria burns down.

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 14, 2005 05:20 AM

What I am still not clear about is how this language preservation effort is supposed to happen? What is the mechanism? Prevent the old speakers from dying? Prevent the young ones from learning English? Pay people to do nothing but stay in their village and speak the dying language?

How do you do it?

Posted by: David Sucher on November 14, 2005 05:23 AM

I'm not sure there's an official list, but items in the press claim that around 6,000 languages are spoken in the world.
Check out Posted by: Ken Hirsch on November 14, 2005 07:53 AM

Regarding _schadenfreude_, Bill Bryson astutely noted that it's a *good* thing there's no English equivalent, as the presence of such a word in German says a lot, and not anything nice, about the German mindset.
I'm not so sure that the "dying languages" problem is quite as severe as some worrywarts claim. It seems as if most of the languages truly in danger of extinction are limited to small local groups rather than being of widespread use. To use your example of Danish, while most Danes may speak English or other languages in addition to their own, Danish is in no danger of dying out despite its limited geographical scope.

Posted by: Peter on November 14, 2005 09:02 AM

ijsbrand: It's just like the library of Alexandria, only without all those irreplaceable works of universal genius. Which is kind of a key difference, I think.

Listen, I'm big on preserving the past - I'm a big fan of Roy Underhill, frex - but you'll not convince anyone with ad hominems and exaggeration.

Posted by: Brian on November 14, 2005 09:13 AM

I think the preservation of languages is better left to:
a) people who speak them;
b) national governments in the areas where they are spoken (or local governments in case of large countries).
UN/UNESCO/academics in faraway countries should generally stay away, since they tend to be less competent. A "global effort" too often turns into a global waste of resources. (I would make exception for the case when a national government is deliberately destroying minority languages. Then, the rest of world has a reason to interfere. But, otherwise, this is an issue that is best solved locally.)

Posted by: Adrian on November 14, 2005 10:08 AM

Wasn't it always thus -- that is, hasn't information always disappeared with the passing of each generation? This seems to be one of the sad facts of human existence rather than a crisis. Perhaps what's different now, if anything, is that our ubiquitous communications allow us to see events as they are unfolding that in the past would not have been noticed until afterwards, if at all. But seeing something happen is not the same as being able to do something about it, though it is tempting to believe that it is.

Posted by: Jonathan on November 14, 2005 10:25 AM

Ijsbrand -- For whatever it's worth, I took German for two years in high school. I've forgotten much of it, but when I speak it, I have a deceptively good accent -- folks think I know it much better than I do. Also, I taught myself enough French to read with maybe 70% comprehension books about familiar subjects. But I only speak it well enough to order food, etc. I can read a (very) little Italian and sometimes can figure out sentences in Spanish. And just for the hell of it, I once ordered a Hamburger in Haarlem speaking Dutch.

But I have very poor language skills and find it hard to learn languages. Truth is, Americans (and Brits, Australians and New Zelanders) have little practical motivation to learn other languages unlike, say, a Czech or Latvian whose language is limited to a small population base. People are practical: it's not necessarily a Yank or English-speaking thing in my opinion.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 14, 2005 10:45 AM

The figure of six thousand languages in the world sounds absurd — the sort of number somebody with a vested interest makes up and which gets quoted by a gullible reporter, after which all the other media copy it. But for the sake of discussion, let's say it's true.

Does a world that is now thoroughly interconnected by satellite communication and electronic media need six thousand languages? Logically, the fewer the languages, the better for cross-cultural understanding. The idea that a single, "universal" language would help people get along with one another has led to the invention of such well-meaning duds as Esperanto; but while an artificially constructed new language is a non-starter, there are obvious advantages in a lingua franca, such as Latin continued to be among the educated as late as the 18th century.

Of course there might be humanistic reasons for saving dying local languages. Anthony Burgess claimed that Iberian dialects, in which fine degrees of poetic sentiment could be expressed, were being suppressed by then-Dictator Franco because Spanish was more suitable for government transactions and other pedestrian stuff. Burgess was far more of a linguist than I am, but the argument seems dubious. Most native Spanish speakers would probably argue that their language is perfectly capable of expressing heights of poetry. Likewise speakers of French, Italian, Russian, etc.

But even if a language or dialect of one valley in the Pyrenees was the perfect vehicle for the most exalted literary expression of all time, would it be worth an outside effort to preserve it for the few hundred people and a few dozen scholars who could appreciate it?

Like you, I am all for people who speak a threatened language, like the Welsh, trying to preserve it — but I believe not even fanatical Welsh nationalists hope to replace English with Welsh, only to supplement it.

For now, English is the world's equivalent of Latin. I might strain at that a little if my native language were something else. But English owes its pre-eminence partly to its ability to absorb words from so many other sources, so that for all its quirky grammar and comparatively complicated rules, speakers of the Latin-derived languages and German don't find it completely foreign.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 14, 2005 11:33 AM

jcb, would you call Portuguese killers of languages? I'm sure at the time they were the dominating force in the world, economically, military and culturally, lots of small dialects somewhere in Brazil disappeared without a trace; is Brazilian culture poorer for that?
Who knows how many Gaolic tribes adopted Latin at the time of Roman victories; do we care?

History, like languages, is a living mechanism; something dies, something is born every minute.

Artificial constructs very rarely show signs of life; if people on the street are not willing to speak the language, no amount of academic courses, kleismer bands or esperanto internet communities will sustain it. I have Philippino coworker - he speaks Tagalog, English, Mandarine Chinese and Portugal - because those are languages he acquired living in different regions of his country.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 14, 2005 11:45 AM

Languages die because they are insufficiently useful to their practitioners. If the people who regularly use the language don't care enough to keep it alive, why should I care?

More importantly, why should you* be able to confiscate my money to keep this useless affectation alive?

It's not as though it's all that difficult to create new languages (see this, for instance).

* Royal 'you', not addressed to anyone in particular.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 14, 2005 01:14 PM

The preservation of any particular language is certainly the responsibility of its speakers alone. That being said, many languages are abandoned by its speakers because of the perceived economic benefits of a mega-language like English. Yet, is there any evidence that this is the case? In South Africa, for instance, matric pass rates have plummeted in recent years because of the government's one-sided promotion of English over the indigenous tongues. English language education is supposed to make higher education more accessible, yet 32% of all students are native English speakers whereas that group comprises only about 5% of the total population. In a worldwide context, isn't the promotion of English an instinctive strategy to advance the interests of the Anglo-Saxon collective?

Posted by: Will on November 14, 2005 02:07 PM

What I am still not clear about is how this language preservation effort is supposed to happen? What is the mechanism? Prevent the old speakers from dying? Prevent the young ones from learning English? Pay people to do nothing but stay in their village and speak the dying language?

How do you do it?

There are quite a few practical things that can be done, for example:

- devise an orthography (some version of the Latin alphabet, please!);

- write dictionaries, grammars, and language courses (to develop fluency in marginal speakers);

- develop a common literary standard, if the spoken varieties are excessively fragmented;

- develop periodicals, a publishing program, radio and TV broadcasts;

- provide education in the language (immersion, or as a subject, or outside the regular education system).

Now some of this may require subsidy - editing a novel, say, for a 40,000 speaker community is substantial cheaper than editing one for a 400m speaker community - and the question is how badly we (including majority-language speakers) want to preserve the minority language. In fact, how badly do they want to preserve it? A good deal of language abandonment (a better term than language death) is voluntary. People stop speaking Grandma's language, the language of the little village or the mountain valley, and start speaking the language of the city, because that is the language of opportunity. A change of language can be a liberation.

A while ago I heard CBC with a woman who was learning Cree, which had died out in family. The interview followed the usual script: the grandparents had been Cree speakers, but the parents had been punished for speaking Cree at school. The interviewer then asked a non-scripted question: despite their schooling, her parents still knew Cree - why didn't they pass it on to her? "Oh, they said you couldn't do anything with Cree." Well, maybe they were right.

Posted by: Chris Burd on November 14, 2005 02:09 PM

On a more temperate note than my last comment, the value of any language is strongly correlated with the number of people that speak it, and even better correlated with the number of people that you know that speak it.

When the only people you interacted with regularly were your neighbors and the people in the next valley, it was only important that you be able to speak with those people; there wasn't much evolutionary pressure on language. As commerce (using the broad meaning of "commerce") widened to include people from farther off, local dialects began to atrophy faster.

Unless there is some strong niche value to a specific language, I would expect network effects to predominate and most currently extant languages to disappear from day-to-day use.

As to which language will "win" this competition, I'd bet on something that will then be called English*, but not because of any inherent superiority. The process seems strongly path dependent to me.

*The "English" that wins (assuming I'm correct) may not bear all that much resemblance to the current form, of course.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 14, 2005 02:29 PM

Ay yo Trip!
Yo, donALD, I'm on the DL the 411's up with you putting the 187 on my edgy words-speak.
Knuck if you buck! Boneyard, Dawg? Dat ain't right 'n I'm not to be drawin' about dat. I'm hopin' you could dust dirt off your shoulders, ya know, seein' da thinks from a dif'fe'nt perspective.
Sholda than show.

Watch it or da Hova'll getcha! No diggety, sure?!

Posted by: HipHopinguist on November 14, 2005 04:58 PM

I get the impression that Mr. Pittenger's orginal posting was largely a rather dyspeptic reaction to that linked article in Whole Earth Magazine by one Rosemarie Ostler. And the article does have a Sociology 101 term paper aroma to it. The argument that dying languages must be saved because they might contain valuable information is seriously flawed, in that it confuses content (information) with container (the language).

A dictionary of an obscure language might have every word in that language, but you still wouldn't know what plants are valuable for medicinal purposes because you still don't know what order the words have to be arranged in to express that knowledge. I think the implication is that some last living speaker of the language has that information, and you need to know the language to ask that person and understand the answer. (But doesn't that also imply that once you pump the remaining speakers of the language for everything they know, you can safely let them die and their language with them?)

One interesting thing here, though... The writer of that article was Rosemarie Ostler. A recent book on the subject of language history is called EMPIRES OF THE WORD, written by Nicholas Ostler. Rosemarie even quotes Nicholas in her article, but doesn't explain the coincidence of names. "Ostler" isn't such a common name that you'd think it likely two people writing on the subject of linguistic history would accidentally share it. My whimsical speculation is that Rosemarie might be Nicholas's college-age daughter and the article was based on what she grew up hearing discussed at the dinner table, but I certainly don't know that.

Also of interest, Rosemarie's article mentions the revivial of Cornish, a Celtic language spoken in Cornwall. The last living speaker of Cornish died in 1777, but there's been an effort to revive it in recent years based on surviving written materials. If a language can be revived after more than 200 years without any existing sound recordings, how much better could it be done in the future with languages that go extinct now? I can see an effort by universities and foundations to document endangered languages, compiling dictionaries and sound recordings with the help of the last living speakers. That way, if they do die out but someone decides a hundred years from now to revive them or at least study them, that knowledge wouldn't be lost. A language is the collective memory of a people, and while it may be in the natural order of things for languages to come and go, and for languages to die out over time, it still represents a loss of human knowledge and experience. If a dead language can be preserved in amber, so to speak, surely that would be better than letting it be lost entirely. No argument from me about that.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 14, 2005 05:25 PM

The important point here is that while information is encoded in language, language itself is fairly informationally destitute. It's just a medium for communicating thoughts. There's a small amount of unique "content" in each language, in the form of rhyming and alliteration and such -- it's the reason most poetry simply sounds better in its native tongue -- but it's nothing that can't be arbitrarily recreated at any point in the future. Programming in COBOL probably resulted in some minor functional quirks as a result syntactical peculiarities, but nobody will lament its passing as it continues to die out. Same thing with languages.

Posted by: Alex on November 14, 2005 05:32 PM

In my previous posting, I referred to a language as "the collective memory of a people." I didn't mean the specific content or information the language was used to express, as I mentioned further above, but more like the sum total of the history and experience that shaped the language. As a folksy poet of an earlier day put it (and as I paraphrase from memory), it takes a heap of living to make a house a home, and a language is a large-scale expression of that. When it's gone, something of the people that spoke that language goes with it.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 14, 2005 05:36 PM

Dwight --

Not sure I agree there. History and experience expressed in one language can be expressed in another. It's not like English isn't accomodating of new idioms.

I'm not totally blithe about the abandonment of other languages, but, really, it's mostly just a proxy to disparage the spread of capitalism and western values. If you're looking for attempts to be interesting and innovative in language, look to the ones that are being created, not the ones that are being abandoned. I suspect that the number being created actually outweighs the abandoned ones.

Posted by: . on November 14, 2005 08:39 PM

Yiddish has been on the endandgered language list for a long time. Is it worth saving?

Or do you feel it too should go quietly into that linguistic good night, along with the fading syntaxes of other cultures?

Posted by: chelsea girl on November 14, 2005 10:45 PM

Dwight -- Actually, I've had this bee in my bonnet for quite a few years. Once upon a time I did feel sad about Cornish doing its Dodo act, but later I got to thinking about how transient languages and cultures are, as well the need for individuals to live the best life possible. By "best life," I don't necessarily mean it in materialistic terms, but that is likely the way it would be for the majority. Therefore, the notion that a language/culture should be imposed by fiat on native populations with other priorities strikes me as inhumane regardless of the goal or the intentions of those trying to actualize the goal. Then I got to thinking about the justifications being advanced: they weren't convincing.

On the other hand, I believe immigrants to a country need to make the best possible effort to assimilate -- a different case from what I mentioned above.

Chelsea Girl -- As I tried to make clear in the posting, it's perfectly fine by me if people make the effort to preserve a language and succeed. As a total outsider who simply notes observable facts such the evolution of the Jewish Daily Forward, I think the odds are long regarding Yiddish. As to whether it's worth saving, I have no stake in Yiddish and therefore no opinion.

Hebrew is a counter-example. An effectively dead language like Latin, it was revived for historical/cultural/religious reasons and because migrants to Israel were a polyglot lot who needed a common means of communication.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 14, 2005 11:21 PM

Folks, here's the difference between French and English. French works its ass off to keep its purity. English goes stalking down dark alleys looking for other languages to mug, so it can rifle through their pockets for loose vocabulary. Which language is prospering?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 15, 2005 02:39 AM

Donald – I largely agree with you that language preservation is largely a futile enterprise. Technology, human needs, and many other factors influence changes in language. Internet usage and cell phone text messaging appears to be leading to the simplification of English and German spelling (e.g., the elimination of the umlaut in the latter). And this is just the most recent example of a continual process. I’ve read that the invention of the printing press in the West helped dislodge the original Lingua Franca – Latin – and led to the development of national languages and also perhaps influenced the creation of national identities. But it also had a huge impact on spoken language. Even though regional dialects might vary greatly, the widespread printing and dissemination of books meant that spelling had to become standardized (so you have continued oddities such as in the pronunciations “Mannering” and “Sinjin” and “bosun” for “Mainwaring” and “St. John” and “boatswain”).

By the way, I think that the Internet is also spawning a kind of reverse illiteracy as people who don’t regularly read books, novels or magazines type as they speak, and so simplify or distort spelling, which then becomes the new standard for written English. For example, I am convinced that increasingly “moot” is spelled as “mute” because people hear it now and again but rarely read any text in which the term “moot point” is actually used, properly and in context. And I consistently see “masturbate” spelled as “masterbate” because, I think, English words spelled with “ur” are relatively rare and so people who talk about it are re-standardizing the spelling based the “common sense” of spoken speech.

And while languages may develop in isolation, they are often refreshed, re-set and renewed through the rough and tumble of contact with other languages and people. Yiddish and English are polyglot languages. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, but was brought into the area by waves of immigrants (and in later history was displaced by Arabic). And so the linguistic beat goes on.

Posted by: Alec on November 15, 2005 08:15 AM

Alan - In my opinion the ascendancy of English is mainly due to the economic and political dominance of the Anglophone countries. English is not the only language that borrows from other vocabularies.

Posted by: Will on November 15, 2005 10:14 AM

Will -- For what it's worth, I think the position of English in the world is a consequence of the British Empire roughly 1700-1940 and American dominance since World War 2. Which is probably putting what you wrote in different words. Aside from that, English is easier to learn than some other languages. I'm aware of the quirky spelling and other odd bits. But the "inflected" part (I hope I remembered that right) is pretty much absent. By this I mean you don't have to worry about gender: la, le, der, die, das etc. when speaking. Just use "the" (if you can pronouce the hard-"th") and you're set. It's getting the agreements along with tenses right that I find so hard when dealing with other languages.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 15, 2005 11:33 AM

Another nice thing about English is that it doesn't use gender for inanimate objects.

Posted by: Peter on November 15, 2005 11:43 AM

Donald - No argument about the relative simplicity of English. The popularity of English is also a case of success breeding success. And the more people adopt English
the more Anglophone economies benefit. A global economy requires a global language and English is it.

Posted by: Will on November 15, 2005 12:22 PM

Native speakers tend to overrate the simplicity of English relative to other languages. For example, reasonably fluent non-natives are often making mistakes (!) with verbal aspect, something natives rarely think of as a difficult feature.

Where English, or anglophone societies, have an advantage is in linguistic tolerance. I used to work with a quebecois who drop de las letter off half de word, but that didn't stop him from getting into management (it wasn't 'cos of his French skills either). That was in Canada, and the same would apply to the United States. The same would not apply to a non-francophone or in France, I bet. I'm not even sure it would apply in Britain. It's really a matter of immigrant societies versus ethnic societies, rather than a linguistic question.

Posted by: Chris Burd on November 15, 2005 11:54 PM

Something else to consider is that there are tomes of research that show how important mother tongue education is for the development of academic skills. Having a language other than the mother tongue as medium of education severely prejudices a child's life chances. For example, one of the great ironies of South Africa's adoption of English as preferred medium of instruction is that today only 15% of non-English speaking matriculants are functionally literate in English as compared to 51% 14 years ago.

Posted by: Will on November 16, 2005 09:53 AM

reply to cornish issue
the people who keep alive or revive a language are usually people who a proud of it and feel its a part of their identity.
On the subject of should minority languages such as cornish and welsh be saved what comes to my mind is that their declined by english policies such as in flintshire(wales) you were forced to were a heavy lead weight around your neck if you spoke welsh in school. If it wasn't for p[olicies such as this such languages as welsh would be in a much healthier position.
Remember if the brythonic celts in britain had repelled the anglo-saxon invaders the world could be an entirely different place. Simply put english just happens to be the largest spoken language in the world and may be ever changing but it does not mean it is superior to any other.

Posted by: BrynDaf on November 19, 2005 07:51 AM

If the language is dying that means that there is noone to speak that language and it's not useful anylonger. Anyway it will remain in books for the history. There is no need to force people to speak it.

Posted by: Helen on December 12, 2005 05:06 PM

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