ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

Hartmut Haberland hartmut at RUC.DK
Fri Mar 29 17:00:02 UTC 2002

I found the discussion about Miller's article very interesting on
several counts. Here are a few of my thoughts:

First, I agree that preferences or non-preferences for food are most
likely not 'objective', but based on cultural and even political
attitudes. Why do many people, even staunchly non-vegetarian, object to
eating horse meat? I guess that the line of thinking goes something like
this: you cannot eat an animal that has a (given) name, horses are
usually named, hence, eating horse meat is a kind of minor cannibalism.
But I have tasted sakura-sasimi in Japan, paper thin slices of raw
horsemeat (after some hesitation, I admit), and must say it was a real
treat. (The name in itself is interesting, an euphemism based on sakura
'cherry (blossom)', but probably via sakurairo 'pink'.) I have also
eaten fried jellyfish in Hong Kong and fried mutton testicles in Greece
(even my daughter, 6 years old at that time, liked them) and wouldn't
hesitate calling them delicious.

(I wondered, by the way, why there were no vegetarian voices on the list
in this particular thread of discussion -- there must be people for whom
the idea of eating grub must be as appalling as the idea of eating a Bic
Mac, or vice versa.)

But probably more important is Miller's article itself. I found it
extremely interesting, for several reasons, one of the being his line of
argumentation -- I must admit, I am not so much interesting in whether
he is wrong or what he got wrong (quite some figures, e.g.), but where
he goes wrong.

Last year, one of my Irish friends said to me, "You can never make peace
if you only listen to your friends." He was referring to the Northern
Irish Peace Process, of course, but I think his words have an even
broader significance. "You can never find out what's right and what's
wrong if you only listen to your friends." For this reason, I wouldn't
dismiss Miller's article as a mere nuisance; of course he is irritating,
but so was Socrates. We need people like him to continually check and
counter-check the positions to which most of the subscribers (more or
less, I hasten to add, because I hope that there is a certain productive
disagreement even among the subscribers to ELL) share. Not all of the
questions he raises can be dismissed as irrelevant. Obviously Miller
suffers from monolingual myopia and he lacks a proper understanding what
bi- and multilingualism really is about; a not uncommon phenomenon in
the part of the world he comes from. But when he says,

"This outlook gives short shrift to the interests and choices of people
in tiny languages groups,"

he raises an interesting issue: what comes first, the languages or the
speakers? Now let's not shortcut this issue by saying "you cannot make
this distinction", since you obviously can. I guess Miller is being
ironical when he says about the UNESCO paper,

"it's only a matter of time before their current speakers fall silent"
[i.e. the speakers of languages close to extinction],

since of course nobody is going to fall silent -- people will continue
speaking, just in another language. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that
they will be heard by many, no matter which language they speak.) Where
he goes wrong is his assumption that language change takes place in a
kind of market place (which is a metaphor that makes sense, especially
to those who have read their Bourdieu) where choices are being made
rationally and without external pressure. He appears to assume that
language change (or language switch) is a result of a free decision and
always works to the best interest of those who abandon their former
language. Hence the extinction of threatened languages, in his book, is
the result of linguistic market forces and hence, a sign of progress.
This is pretty far away from reality, as many people know.

But if it were really true what Miller says, viz.

"A thread runs through the preservationist arguments suggesting that we
can benefit from them-that is, we in the developed world have much to
gain if they in the undeveloped world continue communicating in obscure
languages we don't bother to learn ourselves."

we would have to stop and think. Assuming that global cultural and
linguistic diversity is a good thing globally there would still be the
question who benefits from them most. Maybe some of us consider this
question a heresy, but if this is the case, I would be happy to be the
gadfly that keeps asking this question -- out of the conviction that
heresy and, in general, the asking of unpleasant questions is a good
think. Of course, ideally we shouldn't be dependent on people like
Miller to ask these questions for us.

Your turn.

Hartmut Haberland

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