Lost Language Day comments

Luisa Maffi maffi at cogsci.berkeley.edu
Wed May 29 04:03:37 UTC 1996


As our discussion on David Cheezem's "Lost Language Day"
(LLD) idea develops, Michael Gasser, Jonathan Bobaljik, and
Robin Sabino have made some very important points (see postings
from Fri 24 and Sa 25). I would like to add to them and also
provide my own line of thinking in pursuing this idea.

First of all, it is clear that, as Michael points out, when we "go
public" we'll have to expect dealing with a number of common
misconceptions about language(s). The ones he suggested are
major ones:

1) "Languages become extinct ... because they aren't as effective as
other languages." Here the whole popular number about "those
guys only speak a dialect", "it's an unwritten language with no
grammar", etc., comes to the fore. (I can never forget when I
started studying Somali at the University of Rome, and a fellow
student came up to me and asked: "I hear you're studying
African?") We will need to muster simple, clear, and effective
arguments to the contrary--and certainly refer to the wealth of
knowledge, wisdom, artistic expression, etc. all languages of the
world, past and present, embody.

2) "The fewer languages there are, the better the world will be."
Here, of course, we have the (in)famous "Tower of Babel"-type of
argument. Speaking different languages impedes communication,
fosters misunderstanding, breeds conflict and often war--and it was
an original curse to begin with. More likely than not, someone is
going to bring up the former Yugoslavia as a textbook case, as if
language had anything to do with that conflict; and the same
(erroneous) popular perception probably applies to scores of other

The corollary to this common belief, as indicated by Michael, is that
speakers of minority languages switch to majority languages in
order to join the majority. Clearly, what's assumed here is that *in
order* to acquire the majority language you've got to give up your
own--that it's an either/or. The point that is consistently (and
disconcertingly) overlooked is that you don't *need* to give up
your language to acquire another; your brain can perfectly
accommodate two or more--as it's been and still is the case in
scores of societies around the world, where (individual, not just
societal) multilingualism is the rule, not the exception. And to be
multilingual isn't bad for you (another common misconception); in
fact, studies show that it may actually be beneficial. Anyway, that's
how people have been handling intercommunication in areas of
great linguistic diversity for much of human history, without this or
that language necessarily imposing itself on others--as long as each
linguistic community could maintain viable contexts for meaningful
internal communication. The turning point of course is the rise of
situations of power inequality, as with the emergence of
social/political/economic complexity in a given area, leading to
expansionism, attempted domination of other groups, etc. etc. I
don't need to dwell on this here, but the point will need to be made.
It's also basically implied in the corollary that people make
language switch choices *freely*--that they have a true choice and
that they deliberately choose to "merge with the majority", without
any other factors affecting that choice. The kind of situation I have
just described obviously gives the lie to any such assumption. As
Robin well puts it, "choosing between social/political/economic
survival and instantiating [one's] identity in language" isn't a
"choice" people should have to face--it isn't a "choice" to begin
with. We'll have to be clear about this.

3) "This is only really of concern to romantic intellectuals. The
speakers of the endangered languages themselves don't sense the
danger." The same considerations apply here as above. Jonathan
points out that, of course, it's not a matter of "not sensing the
danger", but that such speakers don't want to speak their native
language due to its being "linked to negative socio-politico-
economic status, or seen as an impediment to progress." What we
need to be clear about is what causes such a state of affairs, the
plunging of indigenous languages down to the very bottom of the
social ladder as soon as indigenous groups are coopted into
majority/national societies--that this is as remote as can be from a
"natural" state of affairs. What we also need to be clear about is the
nature and amount of "reinforcement" the perceptions of these
groups receive vis-a-vis their position at the bottom of the ladder. I
don't need to remind us of the incitements to "get civilized" by
entering the majority (and the community of majority language
speakers), of the denigration of which indigenous
languages/cultures are the object, and of the psychological, moral,
and often physical coercion involved in bringing about the switch.
But we will need to remind (or perhaps actually inform) the public
of this--and of the fact, as Robin points out, that lots of indigenous
groups, having managed to acquire a stronger voice, or in their
struggle to acquire one, are now attempting to recover what was
lost of their languages and cultures, or not to lose what's left. *If
given a true choice*--which requires for other things to be equal--
would *linguistic communities* (*individual* choices remain a
different story) naturally choose to abandon their languages and the
cultural traditions their languages support? Or is it mostly because
other things *aren't* equal that these phenomena occur? It's easy
for speakers of majority languages to ignore this, but they
shouldn't be allowed to. (I always fancy proposing thought
experiments in which speakers of a majority language would be
asked to imagine having been conquered by someone else and
being under pressure to abandon *their* language and culture in
favor of the conqueror's.)

Hopefully, an international LLD steering committee should be able
to muster strong arguments against these popular misconceptions,
leaving us in much better shape dealing with the public. Perhaps
another issue we should be keeping in mind is the possibility that
our rallying in favor of linguistic diversity be taken as pertaining to
the (often heated) debates on "multiculturalism" that are currently
occurring in the US and other (mostly Western, in my
understanding, but I may be wrong) societies. Without attempting
here to define the notion of "multiculturalism", I'd just like to
suggest that it is possible this issue will come up, so that we'll be
well advised to be prepared to say how our enterprise relates to a
multiculturalist perspective.

At a theoretical level, though, perhaps the most complex issue we
will be dealing with is the one identified by Jonathan: how do we
(or at least, those of us who believe in the existence of language
universals) reconcile rejection of "extremes of linguistic relativism"
with defense of linguistic diversity (other than, as Jonathan points
out, in terms of the "shrinking of our database"-kind of argument--
an argument that, frankly, always makes me shudder)? Jonathan
mentions how "many of us cite the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax
... or the work on colour terms by Berlin & Kay in an effort to
refute the strongest ... interpretations of Whorf's 'We dissect
nature along lines laid down by our language'."

As Berlin and Kay's close collaborator for the last 10 years on their
World Color Survey, let me say that I have thought of this very
issue a lot: what leads me, a contributor to the scholarship on
language universals, to be concerned with the maintenance of
linguistic diversity? Am I contradicting myself? Let me also say that
the answer I have given myself, upon reflection, to the latter
question is a clear "no". For one thing, trivial as it may sound, I
simply believe that recognizing that human languages universally
share certain features, be it of structure, content, or function, is by
no means incompatible with recognizing that they also differ in
significant ways (and vice versa). It may sound trivial, but
(whether because it sounds *too* trivial, or because it gets lost
sight of in the heat of debates, or whatever) it always seems to be
overlooked. The point is that this is an empirical question: it's not a
matter of scoring the highest points for one view or the other; it's a
matter of empirically understanding *how* languages are similar
and *how* they are different, and *why*.

Here, I think it may be useful to draw a parallel that, in my mind, is
not to be confused with the old organismic metaphor for language:
a parallel between languages and species. Perhaps the clearest
presentation of this parallel that I am aware of is to be found in a
paper David Harmon (Terralingua's Secretary-Treasurer) presented
last year at the Albuquerque Symposium on Language Loss and
Public Policy, titled "Losing species, losing languages:
Connections between biological and linguistic diversity." I won't
go into the details here (maybe Dave can make copies of the paper
available to those who are interested). The simple point I want to
make is that, when biologists are talking about species, recognizing
their amazing diversity in aspects of structure, function, or behavior
in no way prevents them from recognizing the amazing ways in
which they also share fundamental aspects of structure, function,
and behavior (and vice versa). They are aware that, while the
differences may reflect different evolutionary paths, adaptations to
different ecological niches, etc., the similarities more often than not
reflect common evolutionary history . (I say "more often than not"
because natural history also presents plenty of cases of analogy, or
independent emergence of similar traits, that are not the fruit of
common evolutionary history. So one cannot simply assume that
similarity signals only one thing.)

Now it seems to me that pretty much the same could be said of
languages, and for pretty much the same reasons. After all, the
human capacity for language (and culture) emerged as one of the
outcomes of human evolution; and for all of language and culture
having "taken lives of their own", they have not become radically
divorced from their evolutionary roots as tools for human
adaptation. From this perspective, in my mind, instead of confining
ourselves to taking for granted language diversification as the
consequence of human groups drifting apart in space and time, it
becomes possible to ask ourselves questions about diversity as
such: questions about the possible adaptive functions of variation
(biological or otherwise) in humans, and on the possible role of
language and culture as providers of diversity in humans. It
becomes possible to ask whether language/culture diversity and
diversification may share substantive (not merely metaphorical)
characteristics with biological (including human) diversity and
diversification--characteristics that ultimately are those of all life on
earth. If this perspective is correct, then the question of what may
be the foreseeable consequences of the current rapid and drastic
loss of linguistic and cultural diversity around the world becomes a
question that can be asked not only in terms of ethics and social
justice, or of preserving the human heritage from the past. It
becomes a question that can be asked also in the same terms as
questions about loss of biodiversity are asked--that is, as a question
about the future: as being related to the continuing viability of the
human species in all of its variation. And issues of cultural and
linguistic diversity conservation can be formulated in the same
terms as for biodiversity: as a matter of "keeping options alive" (to
borrow the title of a book on biodiversity).

In addition to these parallels, there would be a lot to say also about
the *interconnections* between biological and linguistic/cultural
diversity: on how human languages embody, convey, and
perpetuate stores of knowledge about the environment (among
other stores of knowledge and wisdom, of course), accumulated
over centuries of human-environment interactions; on how the loss
of languages and cultural knowledge can thus have dire negative
consequences on the environment, and conversely, how
environmental depletion can drastically affect linguistic/cultural
communities; and so forth. However, for our present purposes, the
focus on linguistic/cultural diversity per se, its nature and
functions, is perhaps the more central. The Australian linguist Peter
Mu"hlha"usler has perhaps put it most clearly ("The Importance of
Studying Small Languages", in: The Digest of Australian
Languages and Literacy Issues, # 13, May 1995): while "even the
insight that there is a structure to such diversity is quite recent",
"[l]inguists and language planners have begun to speak of linguistic
ecologies. In an ecological perspective it is not the size or number
of languages but the meaningful relationships between them and
their users' cultures that is most important. [...] How such
coexistence is possible is one of the most important questions [...].
The mechanisms that have kept complex linguistic ecologies
functioning are the ones a functioning multilingual and multicultural
society will require."

In this "linguistic ecologies" context, Mu"hlha"usler also relates the
issue of linguistic diversity to Whorf's positions (part of what
Jonathan was asking about): "Whorf's main contention was that
[...] each language provided a different, equally provisional
perception of the world. [...] It is only by combining the insights of
all languages that a comprehensive view of the world can emerge"
(ibid.). Now, I would like to point out, in the first place, that there
still doesn't seem to be a solid consensus as to "what Whorf really
said." Some Neo-Whorfians seem to be saying that Whorf's "real"
question was whether observable cross-linguistic differences
differentially affect the way people think (although, I would
submit, the further question then arises of whether Whorf was
referring to thinking in general or to "habitual" thinking--he himself
used that qualifying adjective). Secondly--and even more so given
that the jury is still out (and may be out forever) on "what Whorf really
said"--perhaps we don't *need* to bring in Whorf if we take a linguistic
ecological perspective, as well as a linguistic evolutionary one (in the
sense I described above). A "language-in-environment" perspective
(including both the natural and the social environments, as well as
the environments represented by coexisting and interacting
languages/cultures themselves), along with a notion of language
and culture as adaptive tools developed by humans, may provide us
with sufficient instruments to understand, and account for, local
differences (as well as global similarities). This is certainly the way
I, for one, see it--and how I would like to think about formulating
our line of thinking re. the Lost Language Day and other issues of
language/culture diversity preservation. I'll be interested to know
what others think.

Luisa Maffi
Inaugural President, Terralingua
Institute of Cognitive Studies
608 Barrows Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720
Phone: (510) 643-1728
Fax: (510) 643-5688
E-mail: maffi at cogsci.berkeley.edu

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