Language Death

An article in The New York Times this week describes another language which is endangered, Koro, a language in northeastern India, discovered by recorders for Living Tongues, which seeks to preserve endangered languages (Terralingua is a similar group). According to the John Noble Wilford (who has written a lot of neat articles for the Times), “On average, every two weeks one of the world’s recorded 7,000 languages becomes extinct.” The total number depends a bit on how you count, but the point is very well taken.

[UPDATE: here is a video report from National Geographic about Karo.]

It’s a devastating number when one thinks of cultural implications: languages preserve the unique knowledge of a culture, which is tied to a unique knowledge of the area(s) in which the culture lived. Almost all languages started off as the creations of oral cultures, and knowledge in an oral culture is very hard to come by, and very hard to preserve. Loss also orphans the descendants of the culture; it’s for good reason that, this year, one of the MacArthur “genius” grants was given to “Jessie Little Doe Baird . . . who preserves the Wopanaak language of the Wampanoag Indian tribe of Massachusetts.” We’re not talking here about the well-documented phenomenon of immigrants who seek to teach their children the language of an adopted country rather than preserve their own, but the death of all existing speakers.

One problem with the “genetic” model of historical linguistic development is that the metaphor of a “language family” or “linguistic descent” imposes assumptions upon language change that aren’t true–for instance, that languages develop from one parent and then divide into multiple children (not so–English, for instance, has absorbed much from Romance languages, though it is “Germanic”); another is that the death of a language is necessarily its “end”: it’s not necessarily, since many languages evolve into other languages (think: Latin). This last is true, though, for relatively few languages. Here the genetic model helps: many Native American languages did simply end, or are ending. Latin was a conqueror, not a conquered, and this was at least part of the reason why it lived on to mutate.

It must be said that not everyone thinks that language death is a problem. One article I’ve seen references to by John McWhorter in World Affairs questions this, for instance, on several grounds. “The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic,” he argues–culture is preserved not just in language forms, for instance, but in knowledge which can be translated. He also addresses the colonialist legacy of the minority of conquering languages in the greatest of them, English:

Obviously, the discomfort with English “taking over” is due to associations with imperialism, first on the part of the English and then, of course, the American behemoth. We cannot erase from our minds the unsavory aspects of history. Nor should we erase from our minds the fact that countless languages—such as most of the indigenous languages of North America and Australia—have become extinct not because of something as abstract and gradual as globalization, but because of violence, annexation, and cultural extermination. But we cannot change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other language to replace the growing universality of English. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this particular horse is out of the barn. . . .

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation.

I disagree, and there are several ways to counter this. One is to argue that dying languages can be saved, and to work for not just memorialization but preservation. This happens, but there are precious few examples: language–especially a native, vernacular language–is awfully mutable, and preserving an endangered language relies on innumerable daily decisions by thousands of people. The second is take issue with his dismissal of the argument that linguistic forms carries culture, the argument I’ve gestured towards above: this is also a key point of disagreement that David Crystal would have with him, as in his chapter “Why Should We Care?’ in his book Language Death, in which he talks about ways that languages “express identity” (the titles of some related books on Amazon seem to indicate parallel arguments).

A third is to counter the foundation of his argument about what “globalization” means in the first place–to indicate that, like water, money flows along the path of least resistance, and that language globalization and death are means or by-products of means to let it flow more easily. Money, like politics, is a way in which the world talks to itself. To differentiate so clearly between these two–as McWhorter does, between “globalization” and “violence, annexation, and cultural extermination”–is to argue that a non-governmental, capitalist extermination of culture somehow entails less violence than the means of colonial empires. When, one might ask, have governmental and capitalist expansion not been linked since Columbus? How they are linked has indeed changed. Late capitalism is less directed, and more gradual than was the extermination of the Caribs, and language loss is perhaps just as inevitable: but to argue that economic motivations for a global reach result in less violence–however defined–than imperial desire is, to my mind at least, simply naive.

The slums of Rio
Slums in Rio: they will learn to speak the same language.

One example of how this works linguistically is the escalating migration from rural areas into cities, which has begun to climb exponentially over the past half-century. According to UNESCO, “In 2007, for the first time in the history of mankind, the urban population has surpassed the rural population: more than 3 billion individuals now live in cities or urban habitat.” Because capitalism doesn’t like the inefficiencies of rural life, rural poverty rates become higher than poverty in cities (hence the migration); often, however, the poverty into which many of these migrants trade their lives for remains astounding. Again according to UNESCO, urban poverty rates in some countries top 60%. Pollution, crime, disease, and exploitation all follow.

Linguistically, this migration wreaks havoc on linguistic diversity. This means that rare languages can more prevalent in cities (New York City being one example) than in their areas of origin. As with all immigrant cultures, however, without “unusually tenacious self-isolation . . . or brutal segregation” (which does exist within, for instance, orthodox Jewish communities), within two generations or so of living in a new area a family will speak the dominant language at home.

This is “people coming together”–but is this not violent?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

One thought on “Language Death”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s