ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

Mauro Tosco mauro.tosco at LIBERO.IT
Fri Mar 29 23:47:00 UTC 2002

Hartmut's post is the best I ever read on this list. Thanks!

Just a few comments:
1. we can be definitely sure that more people "out there" (in the "real"
world, not in this list) prefer Bic Mac to grub. We have an objective proof:
if more people wanted grub, McDonald's would be selling grub. Therefore:

2. as long as language preservationists will want to preserve languages AND
grub-eating, we can be sure grub-eaters will keep switching to Bic Mac, and
will keep switching their language to some other language ("the language of
Big Mac"). As I am interested in language diversity, and not so much in
gastronomic diversity, I advocate a radical change of attitude: cultural
change happens and will happen; what we can do is try persuading people that
their language can be used in the "modern" world, the world they want to be
part of, and if they want Bic Mac, also in the world of Big-Macs.

3. I wouldn't want Bourdieu to teach me what "free market" means. Nobody has
ever said that a market decision always works to the best interest of those
who make it. Certainly not Adam Smith and the liberal thinkers. We make bad
decisions everyday - we buy things which don't work or which we discover we
could have bought for a better price. But our decisions are still free - we
can be persuaded to buy unnecessary things, OK. But to be persuaded to do X
is different than to have somebody stick a gun to your head and tell you
what to do. With languages is the same thing: and when people are faced with
the decision to speak their language or get a bullet, the ones who hold the
gun are not called McDonald's, Coca-Cola or Monsanto. They are called with
the names of various governments. Some of them democratic.

4. the remarks at point 3. above are just to remember that we can oppose
neocolonialism, multinational big companies and all the rest. But we must
also remember that the enemy No. 1 of language and cultural diversity is not
the market. It is the nation-state. It is a government which has compulsory
education in its schools in the language it has decided your children must
learn. It is a government which makes a language policy. It has always been
so, and it keeps being so.

Your turn.

Mauro Tosco

Ël di 3/29/02 6:00 PM, Hartmut Haberland, hartmut at ruc.dk a l'ha scrivù:

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,

"it¹s 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 them­that is, we in the developed world have much to gain if
they in the undeveloped world continue communicating in obscure languages we
don¹t 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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