Friday, October 30, 2009

McWhorter on the world's dwindling stock of languages

... 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.
On behalf of the editors of Pusteblume, with whom I've long discussed this issue, I can answer McWhorter's question affirmatively: the loss of languages is a problem. Whether this loss amounts to a problem depends upon the values of the person considering the loss. Some are untroubled by the destruction of texts, the attrition of cultural practices, and the homogenization that accompanies globalization. Even as we welcome improvements in, say, economic equality, we mourn the loss of what we consider to be irreplaceable. If languages were ready substitutes for one another -- if they were in practice replaceable -- the work of the translator would not be quite as subtle, demanding, and improbable as it is.
"Preservation [...] is what we do to berries in jam jars and salmon in cans. [...] Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.” -- Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, Tlingit oral historians
Luisa Maffi writes, "it is a human right for language communities to keep or reclaim their languages, and that this right is in no way dependent on the evidence from these research questions." I'd say that the concept of human rights entails human responsibilities. If we want to live in a world of diverse traditions and experiences, where human rights are respected, we have to accept the responsibility to support the exercise of those rights. With regard to language, our responsibility is to show value for and provide support to the living use of endangered languages. In other words -- conversation, cultural engagement, classroom use and academic study, publication and translation. Every word in a language, and every grammatical tricks employed by that language to use that word, represents the solution to some problem of expression. We are all better off having access to more solutions, rather than fewer; and as such solutions are only the product of many generations of language evolution, we can most efficiently maintain the stock of linguistic solutions by preserving the living communities in which those languages are spoken.

In The Tree of Meaning, Robert Bringhurst reflects often on the value of languages and oral literature, and on the significance of their loss. In an essay from the collection, ""Oral Literature and the Unity of the Humanities", Bringhurst writes:
Every normal, healthy human being, once past the stage of infancy, speaks and contributes to a languages. And every normal, healthy human language -- no exceptions -- speaks and nourishes a literature. It is harder, most of the time, for human beings to restrain themselves from telling stories than it is for them to keep from shedding tears. Perhaps that is why human beings keep on going, even when anyone can see they ought to stop and weep."
This insight captures something of my feeling of the value lost when a language is lost.

Read more:

Lone Pine by George Raab

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