Strange Tongue

Starting from language you can get to anywhere.

Saving endangered languages

Some better reasons for keeping languages alive

I like contrarian. This blog isn't called Strange Tongue for nothing. But when I read a post from a year or two ago, in Roy Baumeister's blog Cultural Animal, saying it isn't worth the trouble to save endangered languages, my hackles rose and, just this once, I threw in my lot with the conventional wisdom.

Roy rightly skewered what he sees as the three strongest arguments for saving endangered languages. Multilingual children do better than monolinguals? Even if that's true, you don't need the world's seven-thousand-plus languages--a handful would do. Wars between speakers of the same language are at least as frequent and bloody as wars between speakers of different language? No stats on that, only anecdotes, and anyway, if language is irrelevant to war, the argument is neutral. Some languages have words for things that other languages lack? Big deal: any language can invent new words. I agree, if this were all that endangered languages could muster, their plight would be a sorry one.But it's not. There are at least three arguments for preserving languages stronger than any that Roy considered. Let's take the weakest first.

The early twentieth-century linguist Benjamin Whorf believed that speakers of different languages perceive the world in significantly different ways; for instance, a speaker of the Native American language Hopi might find modern physics easier to understand than a speaker of English would, since (according to Whorf) the categories and structures of Hopi are more fluid and dynamic than those of English. The jury is still out on Whorfism; though most would reject its claims in their strongest form, there are certain areas, such as perception of space, where some effects have been demonstrated experimentally. But even if such effects are minor, don't we risk shrinking our understanding of the world if the languages that cause them are allowed to die?

The second argument is based on firmer science. The whole thrust of modern linguistics is to determine just what language is: where it came from. how we acquire it, how it works, how it relates to the human brain. We know some of it must be learned and some is probably hard-wired, but how much (or how little) of each, and exactly which parts?

Does this matter? I'll say it does. Take away language and what's left? Everything that makes us human depends directly or indirectly on language. If we don't understand what language is, we don't understand ourselves.

The massive data-base that the world's myriad languages provide is an essential resource in this quest. Any generalization we might want to make must run the gauntlet of all its possible counterexamples. A case in point arose recently when Piraha, a language spoken by a handful of Amazonian tribespeople, was claimed to lack a proposed universal of language; the resulting debate even reached the pages of the New Yorker. Many if not most of these languages are still poorly described or not described at all. Can we afford to lose such a resource? Could you even put a dollar value on it? How much would we know about the human language faculty if, as Roy suggests, its sole exemplars were English and Chinese?

But it isn't just science that's in jeopardy. It's the human spirit.

A language is more than just a complex of sounds and structures and word-meanings. It's also the bearer of a culture, an incredible freight of human knowledge and experience and understanding--of epics, myths, nursery rhymes, proverbs, parables, ritual formulae, jokes, love-songs, dirges. When a language dies, all this dies with it. Think about that, then multiply it by the literally thousands of languages now at risk.

Could we survive without such richness? Oh, sure. You've seen climax forest in the North-West alongside the tree-farms of spindly conifers that are replacing it. Life survives, I mean, they're all trees, aren't they? More now than there were a century ago, idiots will tell you proudly. If what you want is a globalized, homogenized, utterly stultified and terminally boring world, go for it, let the languages die--we'll all speak nothing but Mandarin and English and we'll never know the wonders that we've lost.

Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.

more...

Subscribe to Strange Tongue

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.