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Dying Languages Should Be Saved: But Will They Be Spoken?

You never know which ones of your pieces are going to get around. Last week World Affairs published an essay I wrote exploring whether it would necessarily be such a horrible thing if only one language were spoken in the world.

I write that within a context: of the 6000 languages on earth, it is estimated that only about 600 will exist a hundred years from now. The big languages are edging the tiny ones, and even the medium-sized ones, out. In recent centuries, this has been first because of active extermination--Native Americans were often forbidden to speak their home languages in school--and later because of “globalization”: children raised in a city by migrant parents are unlikely to learn the language their parents spoke back in the village.

Meanwhile, there are efforts of revive languages that are no longer spoken or are in danger of being no longer spoken, such as Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Maori (Mark Abley’s book Spoken Here is a nice introduction, journalism-style, to such programs).

However, in these cases what seems to be happening is more that the languages are living as what I have called elsewhere “taught languages,” spoken by almost no one from the cradle, mainly used as second languages by a dedicated set but hardly an entire country of people. Even this is great. Yet in 2009 the simple fact is that there is a single example of a language brought alive from the page and now used as a native language by a massive population of users: Hebrew, and that was a very unusual story driven by a unique confluence of religious commitment, a sudden mixture of people speaking many different languages, and arrangements such as children early in the experiment that became modern Israel being removed from their parents and raised on kibbutzes where only Hebrew was spoken. This kind of thing can’t ever happen in, say, Ireland.

Many address this issue as a threat to linguistic “diversity”--a diversity which I have revelled in avocationally my entire life and vocationally for most of it. However, given current realities, I ask in the essay whether this diversity is essentially an aesthetic issue, that we could approach largely with a dedicated commitment to documenting languages before they are no longer spoken. Along those lines, I also ask whether it would really be, in itself, such a horrible thing if all humans spoke one language.

Opinions will differ, but I worry that in the publicity the piece is getting, I am going to be thought to have said, or “implied,” three things which I did not mean to.

First: Contrary to the Times’ innocent sum-up of my point Sunday as “It doesn’t make sense to try to save dying languages,” I do think they should be saved, on paper and in recordings, diligently and copiously. This is much of what linguistics is about, and I have even contributed in writing a grammar (to appear) of a minority language (although it is not in immediate danger of death). I just question whether we can maintain them as spoken languages. I outline all of this in my The Power of Babel, where it is clear that I am not among those who simply shrug at the thought of indigenous languages dying. Linguists who teach sometimes encounter a cheeky undergrad who, when you do a lecture on language death, raises his hand and says “Why should we care?” That question from “that guy” chills me a bit just as it does other linguists.

Second: The sentence that seems to be excerpted most from my essay is “At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together.” And it is--but I make that statement late in the piece, in the wake of assorted other points made sequentially. In isolation I would put it that:

“At the end of the day, despite the tragic--yet irreversible--horrors of aggression, dislocation and cultural extermination, the diminution in the number of the world’s languages is ironically a symptom of unity.”

The sentence getting around the web in isolation can be taken as implying that I see, for example, Wounded Knee as people “coming together.” I do not. It’s just that once a language is no longer spoken, it is so very, very difficult to make it a spoken language again--in which case new questions must be asked.

Third: Finally, I hope the piece does not give any sense that I think of English as somehow “better” than other languages. I do write that if it ends up being the last one, we could do worse than one that is relatively easy to learn the basics of--no gender, few conjugational endings, etc. However, in my other writings I think it is clear that I have no interest in the idea that English is uniquely “subtle” because of its mixed-heritage vocabulary, and have widely argued that grammatically, in many ways English is a rather coarse tongue because of aspects of its history (my Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue from last year explains much of this). My entire career as a linguist is founded, ultimately, on envying people speaking other languages and finding my own faintly homely. My statements in the essay about English are not advocational, but descriptive.

What drove me to write the essay was, genuinely, what I mention at the end: let’s imagine what it would be like if we spoke one language. Whether it’s English is beside the point; imagine it being, say, an African “click” language, Thai, or Navajo. The question--one I see as worthy of posing amidst a debate that will take in a great deal else--is, as I write: “whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.”