The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 19, 2007

Linguistic Death

Shortly after my brief rant about the legitimacy of the likes of Spanglish and Hinglish as a replacement of the teaching of English, I came across (yet another) distressing article ruing the death of the planet's linguistic diversity.

This is not a new thesis. Languages have been created and have died across the span of human existence on Earth. In the early part of human history, most people continued to live in fairly isolated communities, providing the possibility of linguistic drift and local innovation. As communications improved and man's essential warlike nature exerted itself, languages could (and often would) get wiped out by the victors in conflicts. In more recent times, bilingualism and the increased dominance of a few tongues, and the slow diminishing of cultural diversity, cause more and more languages to expire.

Several books have documented the languages on the verge of extinction. Notable among them is Helena Drysdale's Mother Tongues: Travels Through Tribal Europe is a readable example of linguistic death, revival, parochialism and passion in modern day Europe. She covers - among others - Basque, Occitan, Sami, Frisian, exploring why their speakers are restive, marginalised, angry and facing a long defeat. Mark Abley's Spoken Here - Travels Among Threatened Languages is another good account of linguistic death, an elegy to the diversity of languages and their beauty, and describes the tragedy that saps our collective humanity when they perish. He argues persuasively that people must fight to preserve their linguistic heritage, and do so not just by speaking it, but by adopting modern technologies to propagate it (for example, this), and by being flexible and adaptable. Languages are living things, accreting new concepts and vocabularies and words from other sources; if this is prevented and the language is treated as fixed and immutable, it is doomed to failure.

Languages die because their last speaker dies. They die because younger speakers move away and find little use for the old tongues. They fall into disuse because their communities emigrate and jettison them out of embarrassment, and out of a desire to fit in the new homeland. Dictatorial governments force new languages on ethnic groups as a way of destroying their identities, or to promote loyalty to the larger nation. Each one of these deaths is a tragedy. We find ourselves diminished in the vanishing of a way of thinking. The disappearance of cultural and literary tradition costs us the wisdom of ages. A particular gestalt and wonder is gone.

There are worldwide efforts, both big and small, to record languages before they die. National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project is one. Enthusiastic (and scary) evangelical Christians make some of the world's best linguists, as knowledge of disparate tongues enables them to propagate the word of their God. Secular and academic organisations such as the Foundation for Endangered Languages do their bit.

Very few languages have recovered from the brink of extinction. Hebrew is one example, Welsh another. Yiddish was almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust. The few speakers of it in the USA stopped using it soon after the Second World War. It now survives in Lithuania, where it is beginning to be revived by the small Jewish communities. Likewise, the once politically dominant Manchu language in China is now being resuscitated.

There is still hope: faint and forlorn, but hope nevertheless.


Anonymous said...


Good post on a topic I feel strongly about and am mostly sad about...

About languages being revived, how about Gaelic? I have recently moved back to England after 3 years in Edinburgh where I found much activity, funding and momentum towards reviving the language and not just in Skye.

Mark Abley's book is great. It combines two of my interests - travel and languages. I was amused to find things like a NE Indian language has a word for 'falling in the well unknowingly'. How precise!

I reviewed the book 4 years ago on Amazon when I used to write smaller reviews of course. The permalink is:


Fëanor said...

@laviequotidienne: Thanks for stopping by, and cheers for the review link! I suspect the Scottish Gaelic revival is not as strong as its cousins', Irish or Welsh. The former established the Gaeltacht to preserve Irish, and now face conundrums such as this. But English is still exerting considerable pressure on the language, and there's evidence that even kids growing up in the Gaeltacht are not 100% au-fait with the language. I guess their first language continues to be English... The Welsh have been militant about their language for much longer and have possibly achieved critical mass for it to continue to thrive. I can't say I am very optimistic about Scots Gaelic. If you look at the Israeli experience, they took enormous pains to suppress all other languages in order to resurrect Hebrew, so much so that Arab Jews who speak Arabic now find themselves marginalised. In Scotland, English will not be suppressed, so it's difficult to see how that critical mass of speakers can be generated, you know? I daresay it might remain a small tongue spoken by a fanatic few.

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