Should Languages Be Saved?

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Should Languages Be Saved?

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feb 16, 2015, 12:19am

I'm not making as much progress as I had wished due to my lack of reading time. I also got very distracted with the Old English.

I just finished Spoken Here, which is a book about various endangered languages, the people that speak them, and the efforts to save some of them. It is interesting to hear about some of these languages, such as a couple of Aboriginal languages from Australia. And with the first couple of chapters I was feeling a bit sad and depressed because these languages were hanging on by a handful of speakers. Somewhere in the middle of the book, around the time he started to talk about the efforts save some, I got wondering was it worth it. It takes so much work to save a language when there's under a 100 speakers.

I'd love to hear what others think -- should attempts be made to save all or even most languages? What is lost when a language is lost?

Redigeret: feb 16, 2015, 5:40pm

>1 LMHTWB: "What is lost when a language is lost?"

You live in California, where, "before European contact, native Californians spoke over 300 dialects of approximately 100 distinct languages". (Wikipedia).

Now, in place of these, seventeen non-native languages are each spoken as first languages by more than 100,000 Californians, starting with English (57%) and Spanish (28%), then Tagalog, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, Armenian, Persian, Japanese, Russian, Hindi, Arabic, French, German and Punjabi, followed by a long tail of other non-native languages. Up to and including "23 different indigenous languages of Mexico that are spoken among California farmworkers". (Wikipedia again).

You tell us. Has anything been / is anything being lost?

feb 16, 2015, 6:29pm

I'm not sure what has been lost, which is why I asked my question.

Does a culture that no longer has its native language cease to exist? While language is part of a culture, does a language define a culture? Can one be part of a culture without speaking the language?

Redigeret: feb 16, 2015, 6:45pm

Well I have managed to be part of the US culture, despite language difficulties (I was a Brit), but yes, significant losses do occur when a language dies. We have seen in Europe efforts to cherish gaulish tongues in Wales, the Scot's Islands, Breton ...
Scholars are still studying the ancients scripts - so they are not really lost, as far as historical importance and culture is concerned. But each language lost diminishes us all ... for whom the bell tolls.

feb 17, 2015, 2:35am

I'm not sure if any language with less then 100 speakers can ever really live, unless it has a significant literature. You've already lost so much vocabulary, so many idioms, had the fine distinctions between words switch to match the dominant local language, ended up using the Cat in the Hat, Alice in Wonderland, and Harry Potter to teach the language.

On another hand, I'm an American with mostly vaguely British ancestry. It's easy for someone who speaks the world's dominant language and quite possibly has that as the language of a plurality of his ancestors back a thousand years to tell someone else they should spend their time learning and working with a language that will never be useful on a job application, that will never be useful to speak to a cashier or colleague or police officer, that opens basically no literature to them. If a would-be Mutsun speaker learns Spanish or Russian or French instead, they've traded the theoretical values of their culture for access to the writings of and personal communication with hundreds of millions of speakers.

I'm certainly not against anyone reviving or preserving a language they want to. But I get a little uncomfortable when it feels like the mainstream society that feels free to culturally mutate and syncretize wants to push a small culture to spend time preserving maladaptive customs they'd rather not. A major force of language death is that kids see no point in learning the language; who are we to encourage that when we wouldn't teach our own children a quaint culturally-valuable useless language?

feb 17, 2015, 9:00am

>5 prosfilaes:

Good points.

feb 17, 2015, 12:28pm

One of my working assumptions is that different languages provide inter alia different ways of perceiving and thinking. My worry with language death is that as a species and as cultures, we are narrowing our potential understanding of the world, quite possibly in ways threatening to our good (if not survival).

Of course, language is not the only way to "think differently", and there's no guarantee that any given language will hold a particularly meaningful "different way of thinking". New languages and dialects also emerge. New ideas in our present language are always possible, perhaps with an equivalent meaning to that we might gain by exposure to a different language. But preserving old languages is a ready reserve of these distinct ideas and perceptions, certainly quicker than developing new languages and potentially a useful resource when new ideas are needed.

I don't argue it's the most important consideration, but one that remains persuasive to me when I consider the trend in languages and a converging modern culture.

feb 17, 2015, 12:48pm

One of my working assumptions is that different languages provide inter alia different ways of perceiving and thinking.

I think that theory has been disproved. The Inuit do not have 50 different words for snow and that Amazon tribe that doesn't have a future tense in their language is also a myth. People by and large think and perceive the same way around the world and language doesn't affect that much.

feb 17, 2015, 1:17pm

>8 jjwilson61:

I've heard of those specific myths being debunked, but I'm thinking of perhaps less dramatic differences, and yet still significant. For example, some languages emphasize passive construction, which assuredly influences interactions with fellow members of the community; I have heard reference to languages which do not take the subject-predicate description as the default in understanding personal interaction with the world (perhaps emphasizing the dyad, or something else, I have not read as deeply in this as I'd like).

In any case, as limited as my German is, I certainly express and think of things differently when reading or hearing a description auf Deutsch than in English, not to mention the pleasure and insights gained from the various forms of English. Different metaphors, emphasis, connotations ... these are all different ways of thinking.

Redigeret: feb 17, 2015, 1:37pm

>8 jjwilson61:
Through the language glass: why the world looks different in other languages by Guy Deutscher does some debunking of some of that debunking. For various reasons unconnected with its quality I only read about half of it, but it seemed pretty good, not a crackpot screed.

feb 17, 2015, 1:44pm

This may be more cultural than language-oriented, but language does come into play. One of the "big idea" books (maybe one by Malcolm Gladwell? I should keep better notes) has a chapter about the fact that a Western consultant was able to help a Korean airline improve its safety record by requiring all the pilots to speak English while on the job. The reason was that cultural inhibitions were keeping more junior pilots from expressing concerns to more senior pilots -- to the point where a co-pilot had trouble telling his captain that they were running out of fuel. In English, however, they were able to put the cultural differences aside because the equivalent terms either didn't exist or weren't used widely in English. I found it fascinating. I'm not saying I believe every bit of this to be proven and causal, but I can certainly see how it could be true.

feb 17, 2015, 2:19pm

>10 Crypto-Willobie:

Deutscher's book has been on my wishlist for awhile. I'm happy to see you found it useful.

feb 17, 2015, 2:35pm

I think my own position on this is perhaps closest to that expressed in the last paragraph of post >5 prosfilaes::
Really a language can only truly be preserved by people speaking it and using it — preferably as a first language. What does upset me is when public (I mean taxpayers') money is spent to preserve a language for political reasons. I live in the Highland Region of Scotland and a great deal of money is being spent to promote Gaelic. As evidenced by this roadsign:-
A total waste of money as most inhabitants of these destinations would not recognise the Gaelic name and also the duplication of English/Gaelic is very confusing which is the last thing needed on a roadsign.
That said I can see the relevance of Latin, Classical Greek/New Testament Greek but I don't think this is what the OP was about.

feb 17, 2015, 4:08pm

"What is lost when a language is lost?"

>13 PossMan: "Really a language can only truly be preserved by people speaking it and using it — preferably as a first language."

I agree absolutely. But not with the next few sentences. But I suppose - great deal of taxpayers' money, the education system, the established church, and the might of the British state, among other factors, having been exerted to change the language of the Highlands from Gaelic to English - it's not terribly surprising that one of the things that's lost by some people is a sympathy for the native forms of the local placenames. And their sympathy with what goes with the placenames?

In any case, I'd be very surprised if there is a campaign to spend taxpayers' money going out replacing monolingual English signs with bilingual signs. More likely that when signs are replaced, for example after roadworks, the policy is that signs are bilingual. Certainly that is how it works in Wales.

Gaelic/English signs in areas that never spoke Gaelic is another matter. But hey, they never spoke English either, but Lallans, Doric etc.

feb 17, 2015, 9:51pm

As an Australian I think that it is up to the various Aboriginal groups to preserve their own languages if they feel that it is important to their culture but the most pressing need for these people is to learn English - the mainstream language of the country.

It is impossible to get work if one doesn't speak the language of the country where one lives, and even more importantly, people need to be able to read the language of the country to understand safety warnings and instructions.

I was very interested in a documentary about the sinking of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship. Most of the crew were from Europe and didn't understand the order to close off the hatches (not sure what they are called) which the canons were fired through. When the ship heeled suddenly the crew didn't understand the command to close the hatches, the water flooded in and the ship sank.

Redigeret: feb 17, 2015, 10:54pm

I loved Spoken here.

A few thoughts:

1. Too many societies, too many groups have been easily bilingual to make arguments weighing the value of preserving a language against the necessity of learning another language. If Aboriginal Australians aren't learning English, it is not the fault of their desire to continue to speak another language.

2. I'm skeptical reasons why languages should be preserved. There's surely a lot too them--and a lot of neuromania too. Either way, something misses the mark. Compare, if you will arguments that species need to be preserved because they capture unique ways of living in nature, or that they should be preserved because superdrugs can be made from them. Maybe languages, like species, have a sort of intrinsic, aesthetic value that can't be boiled down to an argument from use?

feb 17, 2015, 11:16pm

I am not sure how, if at all, the culture-language connection is worth honoring. The last century had Hitler moving into the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia based on the fact that there was a large number of German speakers there. There is trouble in Ukraine with Putin favoring the Russian speakers there. My grandparents moved to the United States speaking Polish, but not from any country recognized as Poland. All of this is tied up with nationalism, and the nations are not holding together very well these days. There is scarcely anywhere on the Earth where English is not used, and often by a group of people none of whom have English as their first language. English is clearly de facto the current lingua franca, broader geographically than Latin once was.

If humans invented language in order to communicate, then why not just archive the failing languages and let them go extinct? The purists can wallow in the archives, tell us what, if anything we are missing and we can get on with trying to get on with each other. Probably, for the time being, primarily in English.

feb 17, 2015, 11:21pm

"Imagine there's no languages
I wonder if you can"

feb 18, 2015, 2:28am

There's also the case of languages being forcibly suppressed by political authorities, whether that be the British in colonial times (including their attempts to suppress the Gaelic in Ireland) or the Khartoum government trying to suppress various indigenous languages in favour of Arabic. The fact that they took the trouble to attempt to do so suggests that they at least perceived the importance of local languages, which they saw as a threat to their dominance. In Tanzania, on the other hand, the less-forcible attempts to make Kiswahili a national language without necessarily suppressing local languages appear to have borne fruit.

>9 elenchus:

I agree that there is a sense in which language is connected with culture and thought patterns. A number of African languages have a subtly different use of tenses compared to most European languages, with a very weak future tense and a tense of "being" which can be past, present or future depending on context. These seem to me to reflect ways of thinking and relating.

>8 jjwilson61:

I know nothing about Inuit, but the Dinka of South Sudan do have dozens of different names for subtly differing colours and patterns on cattle which most of us wouldn't be able to distinguish.

feb 18, 2015, 10:04am

>16 timspalding:

Compare, if you will arguments that species need to be preserved because they capture unique ways of living in nature, or that they should be preserved because superdrugs can be made from them. Maybe languages, like species, have a sort of intrinsic, aesthetic value that can't be boiled down to an argument from use?

I agree languages have an intrinsic value, but not sure that's a strong argument to preserve them. It's a strong argument to value them, and so I do.

But the argument from biological evolution is interesting. I'd say the key point is the potential for adaptation, rather than any given species' unique adaptation. So for me, having multiple languages is better than having one or a few, just as having multiple species is better, in the sense there's a greater potential to adapt to new circumstances. That's a very loose analogy I'm making, and it's a general argument rather than one in defense of preserving any specific language over any specific threat to it.

feb 18, 2015, 12:44pm

>13 PossMan: Really a language can only truly be preserved by people speaking it and using it — preferably as a first language.

Yes, in many places, including things like road signs. If the people of a democratically elected state want to preserve or promote the native language of their area, it definitely does help to make it visible in the public sphere. It definitely is political, but language choice very frequently is, and I have no objection to a people saying "we speak Gaelic here" through such means, even if that's as much aspirational as reality.

>15 pinkozcat: As an Australian I think that it is up to the various Aboriginal groups to preserve their own languages if they feel that it is important to their culture but the most pressing need for these people is to learn English - the mainstream language of the country.

I seriously doubt there's any significant number of Aboriginal people in Australia who don't speak English; languages are dying because children don't see the point in learning the minority language, not the majority language. And given that within the last 50 years, the Australian government actively tried to destroy these languages and cultures by kidnapping their children, I think the attitude that it's up to the various Aboriginal groups alone to preserve their languages is a bit unethical.

Redigeret: feb 23, 2015, 12:32pm

{Bill Bryson} in his wonderful Mother Tongue makes the alternative point that the survival of dying languages, like Irish Gaelic, would have deprived us of such literary gems as those of {Yeats}, {Wilde}, {Joyce}, {Shaw} and {Swift} and many others, who wrote not in their "Mother Tongue", but English

feb 23, 2015, 1:12pm

>13 PossMan: >21 prosfilaes: If you are going to have bilingual road signs the authors of such signs really must be bilingual or else nonsense like this is a likely outcome -

There is some hope for struggling languages as shown by this writer's experience.
It does need positive effort from the educational system. I don't know Ireland well but I have only heard Gaelic spoken in the far South-west. It is pleasing that in Wexford - not a Gaelic speaking area - before every performance at the Opera Festival the audience rises and, with the help of sur-titles, sings the Irish national anthem rousingly in the Gaelic.

feb 23, 2015, 1:48pm

>23 John_Vaughan: They likely would have written similar things in their tongues. And so many Irish have been deprived of the works of writers like Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, which they are forced to read in translation. Again, as an English speaker, I feel it rich to demand something of Irish speakers that I will never be asked for myself. Would it really mean nothing for us to give up English for Chinese or Russian? Would it have meant nothing for the Wolverines to become the росома́хи?

feb 23, 2015, 2:35pm

>24 abbottthomas:: Very amused by your first link. I can't really speak for Ireland or Wales but my point in >13 PossMan:: was that only a very small minority of people in this area around Inverness have any knowledge of Gaelic. Most inhabitants of the towns mentioned on the road sign would be able to tell you the Gaelic name if asked. If you went to Beauly and asked the way to A' Mhanachainn I wouldn't be surprised if you had to ask a lot of people before one said "Fool — you're here in the middle of it!!". My point is that these signs are driven by a political agenda but paid for by all of us. I know that some local "community" councils said, when 'consulted', that they didn't want them but were ignored anyway.

feb 23, 2015, 2:49pm

Just adding to my post above (>26 PossMan:: ) here is a link to the troubles at Inverness's Gaelic School which have been ongoing more or less ever since it opened a few years ago.
As you can see the school has had problems finding a head teacher and a recent fill-in (Annika Jansson) for the position was Swedish and wasn't in any way fluent. One can only conclude that there are no local Gaelic speaker capable of teaching at this level (it's a Primary School) or no local teachers are interested in Gaelic.

There's a short clip from the article here:-
The school was left divided when a major row broke out two years ago when Swedish-born Annika Jansson, who had been acting head and did not speak Gaelic, went for the job. But she failed to win promotion, despite being the only candidate for the position. It followed a vociferous campaign by Comann nam Parant Inbhir Nis, a Gaelic parent organisation, that a Gaelic speaking teacher should be given the role.

feb 23, 2015, 4:11pm

>24 abbottthomas: The bike sign is a classic.

There's a fair amount of that sort of thing going on. Another classic, from 2008, is reported on the BBC, where the Welsh text on a roadsign translates into English as "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work that needs translating". I kept that as my home page for several months.

Most mistakes are due to sloppiness, equivalent to feeding text through Google Translate and saying "job done". There are thriving groups collecting 'Scymraeg' (scum + Cymraeg (Welsh)) or 'Sgymraeg' on sites like Flickr, with examples from blue plaques to British Rail, and Morrisons to motorway signs.

Some of the fruits of their labours has been published as Sgymraeg : y gorau o gyfieithu gwael (Sgymraeg : the best of bad translating) by Meleri Wyn James. There has been more than enough material for a second volume, Mwy o Sgymraeg (More Sgymraeg).

Unfortunately it's not all in the past. Tesco has just opened a shop in Aberystwyth, with a cash machine outside. Unfortunately, while the English sign said "Free cash withdrawals", the Welsh offered "Codiad am ddim" (Free erection).

feb 24, 2015, 3:13am

>26 PossMan: "X is driven by a political agenda but paid for by all of us" can have X replaced by just about anything. That's the point of a government that it's "paid for by all of us", and the nature of anything with more then a handful of people is that it's full of politics. Democracy gives you at least a voice in it.

feb 24, 2015, 7:06am

>29 prosfilaes:: I agree. My taxes pay for education and also for medical services, libraries, roads, subsidies for 'green' energy and a host of other things. Some (perhaps many) of these things will be disliked by some (perhaps many) people. As you say that's the nature of government. However I believe that most people in this area would prefer the money to have been spent on repairing potholes in the roads than on signs which serve absolutely no purpose that they didn't fulfil when in just English. I haven't any figures but I think in Inverness itself there may be more Polish speakers than Gaelic.