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Fading Species And Dying Tongues: When The Two Part Ways

So if the study of languages is a scientific enterprise, the effort to preserve them is not. It is a political question: which voices represent the communities whose languages are fading?

Hearing how his ancestors were punished for speaking their own language at school, a young speaker might be persuaded by an elder to learn the ancestral tongue. That is a reason to preserve that language in the archives. Suppose, though, that the tales of days long gone do not resonate with this hypothetical child. Is it science's job to help the elder preserve his sense of importance at the expense of the younger?

Language bullies who try to shame a child into learning his grandfather's language are not morally different from the language bullies who tried to shame the grandfather into learning English. The elucidation of language in all its complexity is an enthralling scientific enterprise. But "saving endangered languages" is not a part of it.

This is an important issue. There is no shortage of instances in which language loss is the result of clear injustices, such as Turkey's ban on teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish and assimilationist boarding schools for Native American and Aboriginal Australian children. But most language loss seems to come as a result of less clear-cut forces. Some languages lose their usefulness -- if you need to use Spanish to conduct business and deal with the government, why bother retaining Quechua? Some also get labeled "old-fashioned" or "rural" in contrast to progressive urban tongues.

Languages tend to disappear because they lose their critical mass of functionality (both utilitarian functionality, in terms of who it allows you to communicate with, and prestige functionality, in terms of what it says about you that you can speak a certain language, and the joy of knowing a language). People are lazy, and beyond a small population of language geeks most people will not retain an unneccessary language.

It seems that language loss is in part due to an individual-vs-the system dynamic, meaning that we can't assume a dying tongue has simply lost out fair and square in the marketplace of languages. When confronted with the larger society that speaks a different language, individual speakers of a minority language will tend to lose out. Forcibly altering the larger system -- for example, through government bilingualism or subsidies to minority-language publications and broadcasts -- can help a little. On one hand, there's something uncomfortable about this approach. It resembles subsidizing producers of Betamax videos so that they aren't driven out of business by VHS. But of course few people's identity and sense of self-worth is tied up in watching Beta videos, whereas that is true of language. It seems that the real way for a language to remain viable is community cooperation among people with a shared interest in preserving the language, creating a sort of local home for the language. That's what we see in the revival of Native American languages. The problem is that -- in part due to a history of clearly unjust language loss -- minority language communities are disempowered, lacking the social, economic, and political resources to establish a viable language community. And outside aid can easily fall into a top-down language preservation approach like that criticized in the article I quoted.


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