Lost Language Day challenges

jonathan david bobaljik jbobalj at husc.harvard.edu
Fri May 24 23:56:12 UTC 1996

Among other things, Michael Gasser (just) wrote:

>3. This is only really of concern to romantic intellectuals.  The
>speakers of the endangered languages themselves don't sense the

It's not necessarily the case that speakers of many endangered languages
"don't sense the danger".  Rather, many  do not want to speak their native
language (or do not want to pass it on to their children), as it may often
be linked to negative soicio-politico-economic status, or seen as an
impediment to progress.  On this, see the brief reply to Hale et al. by
Peter Ladefoged in _Language_ (1992): 68.4, pp 809-811.

To play devil's advocate, or stick-in-the-mud, or whatever, perhaps prior
to embarking on the project of Language Day, those of us interested in the
project should consider not just the common beliefs which speak against
preservation, pointed out by Michael Gasser, but maybe it is worth
developing a (working) consensus as to why people should care, and what it
is we care about.

Many of us cite the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (a la L. Martin and G.
Pullum) or the work on colour terms by Berlin & Kay in an effort to refute
the strongest (though popular) interpretations of Whorf's "We dissect
nature along lines laid down by our native language."  Yet, if we deny
extremes of linguistic relativism, then why should we be concerned about
the loss of language (except for the "scientific" argument about the size
of the data set)?

Much as I think that David Cheezem's idea is fabulous, I think that it's
equally important that we know why we want people to be concerned before we
try to get them concerned.  Particularly since different answers to the
question "why" lead to very different proposals about how to prioritize and

Just my two cents worth...


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