salon: Ms & vanishing lgs

Lynne Murphy lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Fri Aug 18 11:27:48 UTC 2000

Since Mike Salovesh posted his response to Salon, I'll post mine as well

In other Salon news, I've been reading the issues I missed while
traveling a few weeks ago, and there's one on attitudes toward "Ms.":

And readers responded a few days later with:

Dr M Lynne Murphy
Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

phone +44-(0)1273-678844
fax   +44-(0)1273-671320

My response to McNett's review of _Vanishing Languages_:

Gavin McNett's review of Suzanne Romaine and Daniel Nettle's _Vanishing
Languages_ does little more than reveal McNett's ignorance about and
hostility toward the field of linguistics.  After proclaiming what "the
field of linguistics believes" (as if any field is a monolithic
intelligence), he claims that the authors of the book are "from more
sanguinary, more political fields."  Considering that the most famous
linguist in the world, Noam Chomsky, is also one of America's greatest
political thinkers, this is a strange claim.  Furthermore, the
Linguistic Society of America and other linguistics organizations have
taken on language extinction as a major (political) issue in the past
few years.  But what makes it even stranger is the fact that it's false:
 Romaine is on the faculty of Linguistics and Philology at Oxford.
Nettle is an anthropologist with linguistic interests, who had
previously authored a book on linguistic diversity.

McNett doubts their claims that the loss of linguistic diversity entails
the loss of cultural and cognitive diversity, and it is true that some
of their claims were controversial in the linguistic mainstream of the
20th century.  However, most of the languages that will be lost in the
next century are unwritten languages.  When they go, they're gone. There
will be no written texts or DNA samples through which they can be
recovered.  The fear that we might lose cultural knowledge (say, a South
American grandma's home remedy for skin cancer or a song that puts
Shakespeare's sonnets to shame) is as well-founded as the fear that the
extinction of plantlife might involve the loss of a potential
pharmaceutical.  We don't actually know that any undocumented,
unprotected plants are waiting to solve our problems, just as we don't
know what we'll lose if we lose most of the world's languages.  What we
do know is that the problem has been created by political and economic
imperialism, and those of us who effect and benefit from our own
language's dominance should take some responsibility for mitigating this
loss--whether by providing support for education in indigenous
languages, encouraging bilingualism, or by using current technology to
ensure that the languages are recorded for posterity.

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