Language Extinction

by John J. Miller on August 3, 2010 · 2 comments

in Articles,Culture

  • SumoMe

March 8, 2002

Languages die; The United Nations is upset about this


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 last 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, unspeakable 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 commodities.”

But is it 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.

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 multilingualism.” This outlook gives short shrift to the interests and choices of people in tiny language 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 languages 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 least 820 different tongues in an area smaller than Utah and Wyoming combined. For Unesco, this is a kind of Platonic ideal. 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 primitive bliss, preserving their exotic customs. 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.

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 beetle larvae.

Many linguists are deadly serious about the 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 animals 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 language in a distant rainforest.”

Then again, it may not — and the only way to find out requires that some people continue living 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 a key to getting ahead. This is understandable when about half the world’s population speaks one of only 10 languages and when speaking English in particular is a profitable skill. Nowadays, the difference between knowing a lingua franca and an obscure language is the difference between 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 levels 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 no less mortal than the men and women who speak 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.

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