Monday, January 17, 2011

Language Death

I found a fabulous article by John McWhorter about language death.

Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.

That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word 'ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.

The thrust is languages die, but there's little reason to care besides the aesthetic. That isn't to say language death isn't often accompanied by moral nastiness, things that are rightly condemned, but the language death in itself isn't morally important.

Now compare UNESCO's endangered language page:

Half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends, a process that can be slowed only if urgent action is taken by governments and speaker communities. UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme mobilizes international cooperation to focus attention on this grave situation and to promote innovative solutions from communities, experts and authorities.

I love languages, particularly the exotic, particularly the ancient. I wish the Proto-Indo-European revivalists the best of luck. There are apparently a handful of native Sanskrit speakers out there, and I'll be sad when they're gone. But if you're going to spend money on social problems, spend it on food.

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