FW: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Johanna Laakso johanna.laakso at univie.ac.at
Fri May 30 20:03:19 UTC 2003

Dear Uralists,

forwarded, with usual apologies, a thought-provoking link and a discussion
contribution from the LINGUIST list. The New York Times just published an
essay by David Berreby that, in effect, opposes the revitalisation of
endangered languages by "language bullies" who "force children to learn
their grandfathers' language", arguing that the extinction of a biological
species is something fundamentally different from the extinction of a
language. Although understanding some of his good points, I feel that he has
misunderstood something of crucial importance.

Please feel free to follow the link below (NYT Online requires a
registration, free of charge) and the discussion thread on LINGUIST
(http://www.linguistlist.org/, Vol. 14.1538).

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Johanna Laakso
Institut für Finno-Ugristik der Universität Wien
Universitätscampus, Spitalg. 2-4 Hof 7, A-1090 Wien
tel. +43 1 4277 43009 | fax +43 1 4277 9430
johanna.laakso at univie.ac.at | http://mailbox.univie.ac.at/Johanna.Laakso/

[The Link:]

    In the science section of the May 27, 2003 online edition of the New
York Times, there is an essay on endangered languages entitled:

    Fading Species and Dying Tongues: When the Two Part Ways
    by David Berreby

    The URL:

[Comment on LINGUIST by Jess Tauber:]

The author suggests that saving endangered languages is more of a
political issue than a scientific one (as opposed to the issue of
biological species extinction), and that there is no moral difference
between being forced to adopt a new language and being ''forced'' to
keep the old one by ''language bullies'', presumably code here for
preservationalists. Further, apparently only living bodies deserves
protection, not the culture, cumulated knowledge, beliefs, etc. housed
in those bodies- after all, language is in constant flux historically

Given that genetically all multicellular organisms are far more
similar than they are different (despite surface appearances), and
that over paleontological time species themselves are in constant flux
(in terms of species dominance and the particulars of genetic makeup
internally both individually and population-wise) perhaps the same
argumentation could be used to weigh the relative merits of allowing
relatively maladapted minority groups (such as higher primates) to
continue to maintain their genetic individualities at the expense of
much more successful and widespread ones- such as ants, flies, and

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at earthlink.net

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