March 29, 2004

The Death of Language

Is language diversity dying? Despite Prof. Huntington's fears, here in the US everyone seems to think so.

In the past month, such revered cultural institutions as the New York Times Magazine and "The Wall Street Journal's renowned front-page A-hed" have devoted much-coveted column inches to the coming global epidemic that is killing off languages. Killing them off at the rate of over one a day for the next century.

What does that mean for the study of language? Will academic linguist journals become nothing but pages upon pages of surreal obituaries?

Oneida is survived by Seneca, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Cayaga, and Mowhawk, all spoken in the northern New York/southern Ontario and Quebec area. In lieu of flowers, donations are asked to be made to Chingachgook Memorial Fund...

Will Language Hat become one long Shakespearean soliliquy?
Alas poor Yanom·mi, I knew it well...

More seriously, while these articles rehash the "globalization is killing localization" argument as to why these languages are dying, they really don't address what makes some languages survive. What's most striking about language survival is that while something like two-thirds of the world's languages are tonal languages, only one (Mandarin Chinese) of the "major" (let's say 100m or more native speakers) languages is tonal. Like New Coke, are tonal languages just not fashionable?

Posted by Mike at 10:31 PM GMT

I think there are far too many languages in the world. The average human can learn maybe 5, geniuses 10, so why should we want there to be more?

Translating between languages incurs costs in terms of, time, money and accuracy, not to mention waste of paper. Let languages die out by themselves; if the people speaking them don't manage to procreate or write enough literature that makes the lingo compelling to learn, then catalogue the cultural relic and and let the odd scholar peck at it.

Many many languages is only a feasible idea in a disconnected world. That is no longer the case. Everybody is much better off in an interconnected world, and the fact that everybody is forgetting loser languages by their own volition (nobody is forcing anyone) shows that this is what everybody wants. Except maybe for the culturally relativist page 1 editors. Before these selfsame editors are allowed to peep about dying languages we should force them to learn one first. If they can say "Don't extinguish my cultural legacy" in Oneida then maybe I'll listen to them.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on March 29, 2004 10:48 PM

Now the whole WSJ editorial staff is going to go on an intense, six-week trip to Foxwoods, all in the name of journalistic ethics.

Posted by: mike on March 29, 2004 10:58 PM

There's a saying - learn a language develop a new soul. I speak two languages (English and French) and there are things that can be said in English that the depth is lost in French and vice versas. It's not just a question of's a question of soul. A language speaks to the way a culture and a people think. Native Hawaiian had something like 11 words for water, each one describing a different texture, viscosity way of falling. Understanding this gives you insight into that culture. All which may seem unimportant NOW but in twenty years...who knows? We turned to the ancient Romans as to how to set up a republic (and the Iroquois as to how to set up a democracy), and that would have been lost if in the dark ages, the monks in europe, and the Arabs in the middle east hadn't kept the language, the thought process and that culture alive. But even then who is to say how much we've lost, how much better our society could have been if we hadn't lost so much insight into not only their successes but their failure. Maybe translating IS expensive, but I'm sick of the value of everything being lumped into a cost benefit analysis. Biologists acknolwedge the need for diversity in an ecosystem not because it's pretty (though often it is) but because it's essential for survival of that system. Who is to say that language (and the cultural diversity it represents) isn't as equally essential to OUR survival?

Posted by: Kendra on March 30, 2004 10:03 PM

I'm in Peru right now, with muy poco Espanol, and I'd much rather that everybody spoke the same language. I'm off to Japan soon, and there it's a real issue: language barriers are a serious impediment to cross-cultural fertilisation. But never mind the global jet-setting intelligentsia. 56% of Peru's population lives on less than $1 a day, and the majority of that 56% doesn't speak Spanish. That's not a coincidence. Speaking a tiny language might be wonderfully soulful and romantic to the likes of Kendra, but it spells poverty and an early death for indigenous Andeans.

Posted by: Felix on March 30, 2004 11:15 PM

Usually I would probably roll my eyes at anything that Kendra has to say. She's got that icky PC crystal-wearing, tree-hugging thing about her, whereas I'm a cold-hearted, rational, efficient capitalist bastard who opted for invading Iraq. But today I'm bucking the trend and plumping with Kendra.

Felix is right to point to the drawbacks of not speaking the dominant language. The minority of immigrants in the US who don't learn English and stay in the barrio remain mired in the underclass. Hong Kong Chinese that can't speak either Mandarin or English are in the same position. So by all means, learn a big language or take your chances.

But does this mean that you must automatically forget your funny little language? Language is inextracably linked to memory, and a culture - inherited social habits - depends on it to survive. Cultures may come and go, but the past century has witnessed an alarming extinction rate.

This loss of diversity should be recognized as a cost of globalization, as well as the primacy of nation-states. For example the Levi have so assimilated into Turkey that only a few dozen people still speak that language. The same goes for many of the aboriginal tribes in Malaysian Borneo. I recall an enjoyable evening of tuak rice hooch with an Iban our age who no longer remembered his tribe's dances or songs; he spoke English and Malay, wore jeans and Man U jerseys, and seemed slightly adrift because an entire way of life had died before his eyes.

It doesn't mean globalization is Bad and should be Stopped. But it does mean we should realize that small communities are vulnerable, that identities are being assimilated into the greater language, and that at the very least, these languages and cultures should be catalogued and recorded.

I wouldn't go farther than that, however. It is one thing to preserve a language, and those cultures with especially tight bonds and a commitment to education (Jews, Cantonese) can keep it going for centuries. But reviving a mostly dead language for political purposes is a luxury of the wealthy (Wales) and kind of annoying (Wales).

Posted by: Jame on March 31, 2004 04:04 AM

The minority of immigrants in the US who don't learn English and stay in the barrio remain mired in the underclass. Hong Kong Chinese that can't speak either Mandarin or English are in the same position. So by all means, learn a big language or take your chances.

But the interesting point is that the barrio already speaks a "big language". You can get farther than you think in the US just speaking Spanish- I was in Miami last week, and the friend I was staying with was surprised to find out that a native-Miami anglo didn't speak Spanish.

Likewise, comapre the situation in Peru (Felix, have a pisco sour for us) and Paraguay. Broadly speaking, both have similar economic strata, broad underclass, etc. But whereas Quechua has only been recently aknowledged in Peru, Paraguay has (always, I think) recognized GuaranĖ as an official language, and it's used widely in the country, etc.. So even speaking the dominant language doesn't necessarily help...

Posted by: mike on April 1, 2004 04:15 PM

Mike's absolutely right: there are lots of places in the US, including my very own Lower East Side of New York, where someone who only speaks Spanish can get on fine. The bank, the supermarket, the post office -- you can assume that whoever you're dealing with will speak your language. Same goes for most of the world's Chinatowns. These are big languages, with lots of power to help their speakers. But if you move to Lima speaking only Quecha, you'll have enormous difficulty finding a bank to take your business. If you want to move to the US and start remitting your earnings back to your family, not only will you have to learn Spanish, but the chances are that one of them will, too, in order to be able to receive the money. In the US, the most exploited foreign workers tend to be those, like the Fujianese (sp? Jame?) from China, who are at the mercy of those who can bridge the language barrier to, in this case, Mandarin.

Also, I'm back from Peru now: lots of pisco sours, but to be honest I prefer them the way the Chileans make them. Off to Japan later today, so posting will be infrequent at best, most probably nonexistent, for the next few weeks.

Posted by: Felix on April 1, 2004 05:49 PM

I think it's frankly ridiculous to assign organic qualities to language or even culture for very obvious reasons. If languages "die," and they have "died" in past, oh well....they weren't alive to begin with.

Posted by: sharon on April 4, 2004 04:00 AM