Survival of the fittest?
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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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
It suggests (as if we couldn't guess) that English will eventually become an endangered language; it's only a question of time.
But for now, if you have a native language and you like it, use it as much as you can.
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.
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_languages ), 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.)
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).
Old English and its Closest Relatives:
A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages by Orrin W. Robinson, published by Routledge in 1992.
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.