Long!)Re: review of _vanishing lgs_

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Fri Aug 18 09:33:16 UTC 2000

Thanks to Lynne Murphy for writing:

> There's a review of Nettle & Romaine's _Vanishing Languages_ in today's
> Salon:
> http://www.salon.com/books/review/2000/08/17/nettles_romaine/index.html

I have just sent a response to Salon.  I've added both the review and my
response below my signature line.

-- mike salovesh                    <salovesh at niu.edu>

P.S.: Duplication of the Salon review here is for the purpose of
scholarly discussion.  I believe it constitutes 'fair use' of the
copyrighted material, as provided for in Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

=========  Gavin McNett's review in Salon: ===========

"Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages"

The number of living languages is shrinking fast -- but does that

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Gavin McNett

Aug. 17, 2000 | There's a reference in "Vanishing Voices" to a magazine
ad that promises instruction in "most of the world's languages" -- a
total of 76. That might seem pretty impressive, except that even the
lowest estimates put the number of languages in the world at roughly
5,000. That doesn't include dialects or regional variations; it
represents the number of bona fide languages spoken in the world, each
as complex and distinct as English, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi.

If that seems hard to imagine, it's because the great majority are local
tongues such as Rotokas, Sim'algax and Kurux, used by only a handful of
people. (There are, for example, fewer than 500 native speakers of
Kurux.) These languages are, "Vanishing Voices" explains, disappearing
from the world at an astounding rate -- as many as half might become
extinct in the next century.

A worldwide trend toward language extinction, according to the authors,
has been going on ever since Europeans conquered the Americas and began
to spread out across Africa, the Pacific and Australia. The trend has
been accelerating in recent decades thanks to the global economic
juggernaut -- through the leveling of regional distinctions and the
ongoing displacement of indigenous populations, and (not least) through
the rise of English as the lingua franca of business and commerce. The
field of linguistics believes that the shrinking number of languages is
a bad thing, but aside from the fact that it means fewer languages to
study, and thus less for linguists to do, there is no consensus as to
why it's bad -- or what should be done about it.

But Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine are not linguists; they're from
somewhat more sanguinary, more activist fields (anthropology and
English, respectively). And they've taken up language extinction as
their cause, claiming that indigenous languages have vital cultural
knowledge encoded within them that's being lost to the world forever.

"Vanishing Voices" is well-written and engaging, and it makes you feel
that something unique and irreplaceable is being lost whenever a
language dwindles into oblivion. The book has photos of the last
speakers of several languages, including Briton Ned Maddrell, who took
the ancient language Manx to his grave in 1974, and Red Thundercloud,
the last speaker of Catawba Sioux, who died in 1996.

As a book on the science of language, however, "Vanishing Voices" is a
bit wacky. The point the authors try the hardest to make is that
indigenous languages are somehow associated with biodiversity, and that
their extinction is a symptom of the global ecological crisis. Which
might be true if you squint at it the right way: Languages, along with
flora, fauna and indigenous peoples, are dying out -- and it's no great
secret that geocapitalism is the culprit. But is there a genuine,
necessary connection between biodiversity and linguistic diversity? The
authors never establish one, but they repeat the idea a number of times,
coyly and at odd moments, as though they weren't entirely convinced of
it themselves.

Even if you believe, as Noam Chomsky does, that the ability to learn and
use language is innate, it's quite a different thing to say that
languages themselves can be "ecological." It's like saying that since
sex is innate and natural, so are strip joints and S/M clubs: The basic
impulses behind them might be present in all of us, but the forms in
which they're expressed depend on all sorts of complex cultural forces.
Yet much of the book is tied together by this slender premise.
Eventually, Nettle and Romaine's discussion of language tapers off
altogether, into a narrative of indigenous peoples' struggle against the
forces of globalization, which is important and makes for absorbing
reading but isn't what the book purports to be about.

But Nettle and Romaine make a pretty good argument that it's easier in
some languages than others to conceive of certain useful relationships
among things, thanks to classifier systems that organize words into
categories (like gender in French and German or the Japanese system of
using different words to count differently shaped objects). In the dying
Australian language Dyirbal, for instance, there are four categories for
nouns, which reveal subtle shared similarities among the words, as well
as cultural judgments about the objects to which they refer. "If some
members of a set differ in some important way from the others," the
authors note, "they are put into another group. Thus, while fish belong
to Class I bayi words, the stone fish and gar fish, which are harmful
and therefore potentially dangerous, are in the balan class." There is
thus no mistaking, for a Dyirbal speaker, that the stonefish is
dangerous. "The rationale for the categorization," the authors continue,
"tells us something about how Dyirbal people conceive of their social
world and interact with it."

Other examples follow, including that of a complex calendar system used
by Balinese farmers to synchronize irrigation. But here's the hook: The
claim that language operates in this fashion goes against the grain of
mainstream linguistics, which holds as an article of faith that all
languages are basically equivalent in terms of conveying meaning -- that
none is better or more efficient than any other. Linguists today have to
reiterate this point a lot: Early language researchers once tramped
across strange terrain and called the local tongues barbarous and

Nettle and Romaine, instead, make a good showing at demonstrating that
there are questions of better and worse regarding language: A language,
or a language group, can and often will be superior to all others in its
own natural and social environment. But there's still a long way to go
to prove that the noun classes in Dyirbal, for example, make any
difference in its speakers' consciousness -- in the way they think about
fish or anything else. And if linguistics is right that all languages
are equivalent, then even after reading "Vanishing Voices" you're still
left with a difficult, even untenable question: If most of the world's
languages are dying, so what?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

About the writer
Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

=======  Response by Mike Salovesh, submitted to Salon ========

Gavin McNett's review of "Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the
World's Languages" fliply opines that "the field of linguistics believes
that the shrinking number of languages is a bad thing, but aside from
the fact that it means fewer languages to study, and thus less for
linguists to do, there is no consensus as to why it's bad . . . "

A serious misconception underlies that statement.  Linguistics is aimed
at understanding the nature of language in general.  Many major
contributions in linguistic science have been the work of linguists who
spoke and analyzed only one language.  Conversely, there are many people
who handle several languages equally well without knowing anything about
linguistics.  (Students of linguistics call those people "polyglots",
not linguists.) If everyone on earth suddenly started to speak English
and all other languages were to disappear, there would still be more
work to be done in linguistics than there are linguists to do it.

McNett sets up a straw man as a target in place of  Daniel Nettle and
Suzanne Romaine, the authors of "Vanishing Voices".  He takes the point
of the book to be that linguistic diversity is equivalent to
biodiversity, and that geocapitalism is to blame for diminshing both. By
saying that the authors are "from somewhat more sanguinary, more
activist fields (anthropology and English . . .)" [than linguistics],
and in other side shots at the idea of activism, McNett implies that
this whole work can be ignored as some kind of activist fantasy.  He
even tells us that as "a book on the science of language, however,
'Vanishing Voices' is a bit wacky."

McNett makes it seem wackier still by pointing to snippets of cultural
facts that might be lost if the languages in which they are embedded are
lost.  There is something curiously interesting in the fact that
speakers of Dyirbal, an endangered Australian language, have four
classes of nouns, and that the words for  nearly all fish fall into a
single class.  Two kinds of fish, however, are harmful, and the words
for those species fall into another class of nouns.  That  is hardly
earthshaking.  If (or is it when?) Dyirbal disappears, it would still be
useful to  know the dangers of  the stone fish and gar fish found in the
territory where Dyirbal speakers used to live.  That vital knowledge
could be transmitted in any other language.  (After all, "Vanishing
Voices", McNett, and I have all passed on that knowledge using English
words exclusively.)

Suppose that the conceptual separation of gar fish and stone fish from
all other fish through the noun classes of Dyirbal were all the world
would lose if the language were to disappear.   McNett would then be
quite right in suggesting that the loss would be no big deal.

If McNett had more than the thinnest acquaintance with linguistics and
with what linguists do, he might have understood the much more important
questions about what we lose when a language disappears.

Linguistics begins with description of actual speech events.  In the
long run, what linguistics tells us about how language works and what
language is depends on knowing just what  range of behavior is possible
in real speech.  Linguists aren't free to manipulate or invent ideas and
logics any way they choose: they limit themselves to describing and
analyzing what real people actually say in some real language.

When the world loses a specific language which never was spoken by any
large number of people, the loss might put a philosopher in mind of the
Talmudic dictum that "who kills a man destroys an entire universe". A
dedicated believer in majority rule might not care at all.  A linguist,
however, is much more likely to think of John Donne and say "any
language's death diminishes me".

By definition, every language is unique.  Part of that uniqueness is
found in unique combinations of sounds, unique ways of arranging those
sounds into meaningful utterances, and unique ways of slicing the
reality of the world around us into significant categories.  Those
unique properties are what we lose when a language disappears.  Once a
language is lost, its uniqueness can't be duplicated or reconstructed by
any exercise of the imagination.

McNett ends his review by asking "If most of the world's languages are
dying, so what?"  The most important answer is that each loss makes it
that much more difficult to understand the nature of language in
general. When we lose a language, we lose a valuable and unique handle
on the limits and the extensions of what we can know about language.
That's why linguists agree that losing any language is a bad thing.

--  Mike Salovesh

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