March 01, 2004

Dying Languages

Posted by shonk at 02:34 AM in Language | TrackBack

Interesting article by Jack Hitt in the New York Times Magazine today about dead and dying languages. I have to admit that I’m somewhat conflicted on the whole “save the dying languages” program. On one hand, it is a shame that entire languages and the unique cultural elements that they both reflect and reinforce are dying. As noted in the article:

To general linguists, the dismissive position is just deliberate ignorance. But they also argue that the utilitarian case is too narrow. In peril is not just knowledge but also the importance of diversity and the beauty of grammar. They will tell you that every language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews. For example, because of the Kawesqar’s nomadic past, they rarely use the future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary. The past tense, however, has fine gradations. You can say, “A bird flew by.” And by the use of different tenses, you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that you were not the original observer of the bird (but you know the observer yourself) and, finally, a mythological past, a tense the Kawesqar use to suggest that the story is so old that it no longer possesses fresh descriptive truth but rather that other truth which emerges from stories that retain their narrative power despite constant repetition.

On the other hand, I question the motivation of linguists and government officials that pursue these “conservation projects”; encouraging groups to preserve their traditional languages seems like a good way of ensuring that they are never able to engage in the economy or broader society. Of course, I don’t think academic or government conservation projects are going to do a damn bit of good, anyway. Like Hitt says:

The other paradox of this gathering twilight is that while the grown-ups are having their arguments about what we should and shouldn’t do — and after the linguists have compiled their dictionaries and put together their grammars — the future of all these resurrections will depend on teenagers.

Given the popularity of anti-globalization politics among teenagers, one would think language revival would be trendy these days, since preferring Kawesqar to English would seem to be the ultimate “Fuck You” to the global marketplace. Of course, the anti-globalizationists are primarily white kids with cell phones while third world workers wish they could get some more globalization, so I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that learning dying languages hasn’t quite attained the Chomsky/Biafra level of hipness.

On a side note, I’ve actually met and spoken with Hitt, who is a fellow Sewanee alumnus. I enjoyed his book Off the Road, which is a lively account of walking the Road to Santiago, but it might not be as interesting for someone who has never walked the road himself (Lee Hoinacki’s El Camino is another good book about the Road to Santiago, but is more religious and less “fun” than Hitt’s, if that sort of thing bothers you; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water is in a similar vein to Hitt’s book, though though it is about an entirely different walk).


Rats, you got to this article before I could write a post on it. I too am opposed to coercive government on this issue, if only because, in contrast with wilderness for example, dead languages can be preserved and revived later on, as long as their grammar and vocabulary is known--Hebrew being the most striking example of this and the one that the article mentions, as well as the classical languages to a lesser extent. On the other hand, it seems to me that when you suggest that linguistic preservation must necessarily come at the expense of economic advancement, I think you are making an assumption which is not entirely valid, namely that populations can only functionally monolingual, and hence that in order to preserve a spoken tongue a certain group would have to be entirely isolated from contact with dominant languages. Attached to that seems to be the auxiliary assumption that indigenous peoples will consistently choose to embrace modern culture and its dominant languages, leading once again to the supposition that indigenous linguistic vitality can only continue in a state of isolation from the modern world. There may be a third assumption at work, to the effect that a language can only be preserved if if it is being spoken colloquially, an assumption which is blatanly contradicted by the ongoing popularity of the classical languages. Under these assumptions, preservation of a language would necessarily take the form of coercive enforced isolation of native peoples. Whereas in fact, in my opinion, multi-lingual societies can be very successful both economically and financially, as is basically true in Scandinavia, for example, where basically everyone at this point either knows English or is learning it, as well as increasingly throughout the whole of Europe. As for the second assumption, the case of Scandinavia also demonstrates that a people will not necessarily choose to abandon its mother-tongue simply because it has access to a more economically central language; presumably the peoples of these multi-lingual derive a certain amount of pleasure or benefit from maintaining their native languages which more than compensates for the lost "efficiency" of not using the universal tongue English for every aspect of life. In fact, to the extent that languages like this become undermined, it is generally not out of economic considerations but rather, as the article points out, a factor of the whims of fashion and style embraced by the young. And as for the last assumption, a good deal of linguistic preservation can be done without forcing anyone to speak a language, in the way of compiling dictionaries, grammars, and pronunciation guides, in which state a language can be preserved indefinitely until a people wishes to reclaim a certain degree of its cultural identity, as is the case, as I said before, with Hebrew, as well as some of the resurgent indigenous tongues like Catalan and Yuruba.

Posted by: Curt at March 1, 2004 03:01 PM

Although I may have put the case too strongly, I think there are some differences between, say, the Scandinavian languages and languages such as the ones being discussed in this article. The biggest, of course, is population; even though Sweden and Norway have relatively small populations, Swedish and Norwegian have millions of native speakers, rather than a few dozen. Furthermore, those countries already had relatively modern economies prior to the widespread use of English in those countries, so there's a tradition of prosperity which is associated with the languages. On the other hand, a language only spoken on a windswept and impoverished island in the furthest reaches of the Southern hemisphere is much more likely to be associated with backwardness and poverty.

As for the multilingual point, I agree that it's fallacious to assume that people will be monolingual, but I do think that people must be able to interact socially in a particular language for it to have much of a future. A language only spoken by one or two families, as with the ones highlighted in the article, simply isn't going to facilitate that sort of social usage. There's a big difference, as I'm sure you're well aware, between reading in a language and speaking that language.

As for the final point, that people don't need to speak a language colloquially for it to be preserved, I tend to disagree. By which I mean to say that, of course, it will be preserved in the same sense that bargain bin CDs still preserve the forgotten music contained on them, but not in the vibrant sense if a language being spoken on the streets. One could make a case for Latin, Sanskrit and Attic Greek being the exceptions to this rule, but I would argue that there are special considerations that make these languages different than the overwhelming majority of languages that are in danger of disappearing. Specifically, all three have an extensive literature associated with them, a literature still actively and widely read, whereas most of the dying languages have no written literature whatsoever and I think it's pretty evident that oral literatures, because of their more fluid and flexible structure, tend to survive translation better. Which isn't to say that I wouldn't encourage linguists to compile grammars and pronunciation guides, but one has to wonder who is going to care enough about a language with no surviving speakers and no written literature to undergo the arduous task of learning it.

Hebrew is, of course, a special case in and of itself. It also has an extensive written literature and had the great fortune to be an excellent compromise to an almost unique political problem. Other languages may have the same good fortune, but probably not very many.

That all having been said, I think it's great that people are taking a more active interest in learning multiple languages and seeking out literatures in those languages, be they written or oral. After all, I'm plannning on picking up a third language myself within the next year or so and will have to gain some modicum of proficiency in two others within the next few years.

Posted by: shonk at March 2, 2004 12:15 AM

By the way, the actual apex of the linguistic fuck-you-to-globalization movement, and the one that almost makes it all worthwhile, was the literary revolt incited by the late great Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid by calling Norman Mailer and William Burroughs "cosmopolitan scum."

Posted by: Curt at March 2, 2004 10:05 AM

As for your first point, no one would deny that there is a large diffference between Swedish and the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego, but that does not mean that the case of Swedish does not nevertheless demonstrate the viability of economic prosperity among a people speaking a minor language. When you say that economic prosperity had already been attained in Scandanavia before English became widespread, that in my opinion would only serve to confirm my point that the use of a dominant language is not in and of itself a necessary condition of economic advancement, let alone continued social and cultural vitality.

As for your second point, it proves nothing in my opinion. The numbers of people speaking a language does not at all in my opinion prove anything about the fundamental properties of the language. I know that you are making a practical point rather than a theoretical one, but bear in mind that many of the events which have brought the current situation to pass, such as the of teaching dominant languages and the suppression of indigenous tongues in many parts of the world, were inspired by theoretical arguments about the relative superiority and inferiority of different languages. I am not asserting that certain languages are not necessarily inferior modes of communication, simply that their scarcity of speakers does not prove it.
And now for the third point. I do not mean to assert that there is necessarily a long epic tradition strewn with veritable "Iliads" and "Odysseys" among the minor indigenous languages of the world (though I would not, like Saul Bellow, necessarily assert the converse either), but nevertheless it seems a bit circular to me to argue that in terms of their ability to be preserved there is something unique and exceptional about the classical languages, when in fact the main point of exceptionality of them is the very fact that, unlike almost every other ancient language, they and their literatures have been preserved (though admittedly somewhat accidentally). Almost every language, no matter how obscure, usually has a body of oral literature associated with it, so if we really want to preserve a language, one must simply transcribe the literature after compiling the grammar and dictionary. Though I did not mention it before, as a matter of fact this actually is often the third step that linguistic preservationists take. Now, just because the oral literature has been transcribed does not mean that anyone will read it as they continue to read the literatures of the classical languages, but the opportunity awaits them nonetheless.

By the preservation of a language you seem to have something similar in mind to what the integristes have in mind for the preservation of French in Quebec, for example, namely a people interacting in a particular language in all facets of their lives: economic, social and cultural. But I don't think that this is the only poassible way of preserving a language, nor even the most desirable one. Since it is fairly well-demonstrated in the world's history that cultural integration and cross-fertilization are much healthier for all facets of life than isolation and "purety," it seems to me not only inevitable but ultimately desirable that all of the peoples of the earth should mingle and come to know each others' language and culture. In linguistic terms this will undoubtedly mean indegenous peoples become familar with and probably come to use dominant languages. However, the process must go both ways, even if realistically it is hardly equal on both sides. That is to say that each little tribe has something to contribute to world culture, and their languages seems to me most often to be the most excellent example of it, and I think that those peoples themselves, after the initial exhiliration of assimilation into the greater world, will come to desire a blend between dominant and native language and culture, just the people of Wales, Provence, etc. have increasingly come to already. I return yet again to the classical languages, though the same is true of a number of other dead languages, ancient Icelandic, old English, Old Church Slavonic, etc.: it seems to me that they are not in any way lost to us, even if they are not still spoken. The point is that they are still accessible to us, which if one's goal is intellectual rather than political is all that really matters.

Posted by: Curt at March 2, 2004 12:24 PM

The point is that they are still accessible to us, which if one’s goal is intellectual rather than political is all that really matters.

I think this sentence demonstrates that we're arguing at cross-purposes. You're addressing the issue from an intellectual standpoint, whereas I'm implicitly claiming that much of the furor about dying languages is political.

Posted by: shonk at March 2, 2004 10:40 PM

I suspected as much, but as you can guess the political does not interest me at all.

Posted by: Curt at March 3, 2004 12:58 AM