ELL: Wall Street Journal editorial

Claire Bowern bowern at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Sat Mar 30 18:28:25 UTC 2002

Dear all,

> 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:

My original tongue/grub-in-cheek posting was taken much more seriously
than I intended! and I probably should have admitted from the start that
I'm a vegetarian. While it usually won't offend anyone if I refuse a big
mac, refusing a hunk of subcutaneous turtle fat or <insert organic matter
of choice> would have been very rude to the old ladies who saved it
specially for me (ultimately the main reason a lot of us end up eating
weird stuff, right?)

> 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

Richard Trudgen has written an excellent book on this sort of thing in
Australia (particularly concerning Yolngu speakers from Arnhemland, but it
applies equally well to many other parts of the country too); it's called
"Why warriors lie down and die."

Someone made a comment in a recent posting about separating the languages
from the speakers, and asked why we should preserve the languages if the
speakers themselves don't want to speak them. A lot of Aboriginal people
I've talked to have said things along the lines of their parents gave up
their languages and talked English to their children because they thought
it would give them better opportunities to get a job and have a better
life. It didn't work because most of the other factors of disadvantage are
still there - terrible health conditions, terrible nutrition, terrible
educational opportunities, very limited employment opportunities (because
of the above), psychologically often very stressful living conditions
(alcohol abuse, domestic violence, very high youth suicide and the like).
So the opportunities for their kids aren't considerably better, AND
they've lost their language and culture, with nothing much to replace it.

Most of these languages are moribund and nothing is going to make young
kids suddenly start speaking them in the near future. However, there is
nothing to say that sometime in the future such communities won't have an
interest in language revival. (See, for example, Rob Amery's account of
Kaurna language revival.) Surely it's in both linguists' and communities'
best interests to do as thorough job as possible, In the community I was
working in last year, for example, there were about 30 speakers of the
language, all over 55. They were pushing the language documentation and
revival project; with a few exceptions most of the community didn't care
(they had no objection to the project taking place, they just weren't
interested in it).

Now, neither language documentation projects or any language revival
projects have much economic "value", but I believe it's a very big mistake
to measure things like this in purely economic terms. The preservation of
historic buildings, for instance, makes little economic sense; funding for
the arts, the National Portrait Gallery, for example, are an economic
waste of time. If we didn't spend money on things like this we'd be
"better off" ecomonically, but not culturally.

So, if we choose to view these things purely economically and decide that
it isn't "worth it" to preserve in some form the many highly endangered
languages we can still do something about, we'd better be damn sure we're
doing the right thing, and that we're not going to decide in 40 years time
that we really could have afforded it, after all.


Claire Bowern
Department of Linguistics
Harvard University
305 Boylston Hall
Cambridge, MA, 02138

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