Survival of the fittest?

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Survival of the fittest?

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sep 16, 2010, 3:31pm

Can I post a contentious question? (No, that's not it.) Should we be concerned about the viability of languages that are disappearing or are threatened by the dominance or triumphant imperialism of one of the major languages, whether Mandarin, English, Spanish or other?

I ask partly because I live in a part of Wales where Welsh remains a living language, supported by communities and by its standing in local education, but where English-speaking incomers like me must be having some effect on its status. This is a complex issue, of course, but has far-reaching cultural ramifications in a wider global context. Should minority or marginal but localised languages be actively supported by the larger community or should they be allowed to go to the wall, to the detriment of our cultural heritage?

sep 17, 2010, 2:12am

If a lauguage is still spoken and is supported by its community then I think that efforts should be made to preserve it but those who speak it need to be bilingual, also speaking one of the dominant languages.

Malta has two official languages and the Maltese people speak Maltese amongst themselves but speak English fluently.

No minority language can survive if its speakers are not able to communicate with the rest of the world. However, I don't think that people should be punished for speaking in their native tongue, as happened in Ireland a century or so ago.

This is a contentious issue here in Australia where it has been found that Aboriginal children learn better at school if they are taught in their own dialect - but there are many dialects and very few, if any, trained teachers who speak the languages.

sep 19, 2010, 5:10pm

I always thought that Payal Sampat's Our planet's languages are dying offered a concise overview of the danger that the non-top-twenty languages are in today.

Predictions are indeed dire: it is believed that about 90% of all languages still spoken today ("roughly 6000" seems like an acceptable compromise for the various estimates out there) will have died out by the year 2100. Only about 600 languages might survive.

Should we be concerned for the loss of language diversity? I say yes, because it's an unprecedented loss of languages. On the other hand, I realise that the forces at work here (oppression, the free market, practicality, etc, etc.) are too strong to counter. Language loss, especially at this scale, is a giant pity, but I don't think there's much to be done about it.

sep 19, 2010, 9:10pm

What are the negative consequences of our losing those languages?

The one that comes to my mind immediately is that we will not have them to study. And, if there is a literature in one of the disappearing languages, we will no longer have a native speaker's interpretation of that literature. Are these considerations substantial?

Are there other negative consequences?


sep 19, 2010, 10:14pm

Depends why they die, I guess. I'm not too upset over the fact that the people around me speak modern English and not Hittite or something :)

sep 20, 2010, 4:09am

But when they did speak Hittite you wouldn't mind.

sep 20, 2010, 3:47pm

>4 Mr.Durick:
Aside from literature (most languages do not even have a written form)
the loss of even a single language entails the loss of a wealth of songs rituals and histories -- an entire culture, so to speak. Effects on cultural identity, education and regional and national politics are profound.

Then there's the dissolution of indigenous cultures' store of knowledge about local plant and animal life -- which, especially in the Amazon area and Black Africa are relatively unmined by biology and medical science.

And of course there's the loss to linguistics. Typological studies reveal the vast diversity that exists in the phenomenon of human language, and the often alien-seeming modes of expression and intricacies of grammar and phonetics. A minority of the world's languages has been studied in enough detail to enrich our understanding of how the mind works in organising thoughts and mental constructs into language. Australian Aboriginal languages, Siberian languages and some Native American languages are often cited to illustrate the often fundamental differences with more familiar languages (European languages, Chinese, Japanese), but there are bound to be more fantastic languages out there.

Losing languages is also a severe impediment to tracing the spread of human populations and large-scale migrations, since accounts of these are based on comparing evidence from archeology, history, genetics and linguistics. Charting the spread of languages is key in understanding historical migration patterns; the settlement of the Americas or the Austronesian homeland question are fine examples. While the interrelations between Indo-European languages are generally well understood, the patterns are generally less clear for any other language family out there. Each undocumented language that dies out before it has a chance to be studied means that the number of clues about linguistic kinship is greatly diminished (imagine reconstructing Indo-European without Sanskrit, or Greek).

There are a number of organisations that attempt to document languages and revive them. The most prolific one that I am aware of is Wycliffe, which study small and endangered languages in order to translate the bible into them. I'm not so sure that Wycliffe are doing an altogether laudable job -- from a linguistic point of view, that is. Nonetheless, even with their limited linguistic focus, they're doing invaluable work in preserving at least some of the diversity of human languages that we don't know about yet.

sep 21, 2010, 10:32am

Efforts to document and translate dying languages are admirable, to be sure, but I don't even consider it a stop-gap measure.
I personally would rather read or listen to something by a person who spoke English non-natively, no matter how imperfectly, than a perfect translation of another's work. In the latter case, no matter how technically proficient the translator, you're at the mercy of their interpretation and lose a lot of nuance. A co-worker who studied Slavic literature was told by a professor that 'reading in translation is like studying the back of a tapestry.'
Still, there don't seem to be any perfect solutions. Perhaps encouraging bilingualism is the best compromise.

okt 6, 2010, 11:10am

Discovery of a hitherto unrecorded language -

okt 9, 2010, 10:02pm

Questions of language have great meaning for me, and not merely as they may exist in obscure peoples. By rights, my native language should be Norwegian, not English, and only the quirk of immigration altered the fact. Norwegian, however, did almost "die".

During the country's centuries-long subjugation by the Danish Crown, Danish became the preferred language of the cities, of the elite. and of literature. Only a concerted effort by a few linguists, and by the Nineteeth Century revival of national pride, prompted the formation of an entirely new language ... based on the myriad of rural dialects.

Today, in a country of barely five million people, Norwegians remain in the slow process of trying to unite the two languages ... Nynorsk and Bokmal. Were my grandparents alive today, and able to return to their farms in Norway, almost no one would understand their speech, though they left Norway just one hundred years ago. To be understood they would have to converse in English!

okt 9, 2010, 10:47pm

^Rood, that's so interesting! Languages are endlessly fascinating.

nov 5, 2010, 5:25pm

Apropos my first post, you might just find this interesting:

It suggests (as if we couldn't guess) that English will eventually become an endangered language; it's only a question of time.

nov 6, 2010, 11:27am

Isn't English made up of lost languages as well as current languages? And English changes all the time - how we speak it now is not the way it was spoken 100 years ago, etc. So even though it is sad that languages are lost, it is what happens as civilizations change and these days with so much easy communication around the world maybe in 200 years people will be speaking the same language everywhere. Do you think?

But for now, if you have a native language and you like it, use it as much as you can.

nov 6, 2010, 6:09pm

>10 Rood: Rood

Do you know of any books written in English that chart the evolution of the Nordic (?) languages, particularly the experience of Norway? You've really sparked my interest with your post.

nov 6, 2010, 10:15pm

I wonder whether a general book on Indo-European linguistics might be useful, such as: Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction by Robert S. P. Beekes. (Touchstones didn't even begin to work).

nov 9, 2010, 3:24pm

Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction by Robert S. P. Beekes was a text used in a beginning historical linguistics course that I took. (I have a MA in Applied Linguistics). The professor had quite a time teaching from this text. It is not very easy reading without prior knowledge of historical linguistics, especially of the different families of languages. Just knowing that there are different linguistic families doesn't help understanding this book. The graphics and diagrams are helpful though.

nov 9, 2010, 10:34pm


I haven't used Beekes, I suggested it as it is a commonly used book on Indo-European. Perhaps, someone cold suggest a more accessible book.

One could look at the Wikipedia article on Germanic Languages (link: ), and then expand out from there. I found the second map showing the distribution of languages and dialects rather hard to see clearly, even when I zoomed in on it.

(Robert Beekes -- I got the author touchstone to work.)

Redigeret: nov 10, 2010, 4:15am

The one book we use at university as our go to introduction to Indo-European linguistics is Fortson Indo-European Language and Culture. I think it is the best book on the subject out there and I use it all the time. (You should see the state of my copy). It has a good section on general Indo-European linguistics and excellent chapters for each branch of Indo-European.

And for anyone interested in the question of the relationship of the Germanic languages I can recommend Old English and its closest relatives (I don't remember the author right now, and I just lend my copy to someone).

nov 10, 2010, 5:24am

Old English and its Closest Relatives:
A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages by Orrin W. Robinson, published by Routledge in 1992.

nov 10, 2010, 3:29pm

I wonder what's wrong with touchstones?


nov 21, 2010, 2:03am

Have just finished 'EMPIRES OF THE WORD' (0-06-093572-3) by Nicolas Ostler which reviews how language influences History. For example, if Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, why did he speak Aramaic? The answer is in this book.
Also, when the Egyptians exchanged diplomatic messages with the Assryian Empire in the second millennium B.C., why did they use the Akkadian language of lower Mesopotamia? This book explains why. It also answers all the questions that you did not know enough about to even form a question. This is a real eye-opener.

nov 21, 2010, 2:11am

I used to be what one might consider a "prescriptive linguist", wanting to preserve languages and their rules, but after a LOT of studying, I've leaned more toward "descriptive linguist". I still refuse to accept "you're" disappearing in favor of "your", but while minority languages are fun to learn, it isn't feasible to preserve them. Language is a living, ever-changing entity. Prescriptive linguists try to fight the natural order of things, and ultimately end up wasting a lot of time and resources. They could easily preserve the songs and histories by talking to the language's speakers, but it's unrealistic to expect the language to stick around just so we have a living museum - not to mention esoteric and condescending. It's better to let these people live their lives and let nature run her course.