Fading Species and Dying Tongues

Lachman Khubchandani sindhdoc at vsnl.net
Fri Jun 20 04:36:54 UTC 2003

David Berreby (NY TIMES 27 May) raises an important issue : "Languages,
being in continual flux, are refueled everyday". A note attached below :
'Language endangerment and organic plurality' presented at a recent UNESCO
meeting, argues the case on similar lines. Comments welcome.

International Expert Meeting on UNESCO Programme:
Safeguarding of the Endangered Languages
Paris, March 2003

Role  of  New  Information  and  Communication  Technologies

Lachman M. Khubchandani
Centre for Communication Studies
Sindhu Documentation Centre, Pune

With a rapid penetration of mass media and information technology in all
walks of life, a new linguistic order is emerging on the global scene.  It
drastically affects the role of languages whether perceived as 'big' or
'small', 'strong' or 'weak', 'developed' or 'developing' languages alike.
By and large, new technologies can be instrumental in creating new avenues
for the speakers of both 'majority' languages as well as of  'minority'
languages of living in a plural world.
One significant casuality of this development has been  monolingualism in
specific regions. The monopoly of one language dictating the concerns of a
speech group or of a nation is on the way out, or atleast it gets
considerably diluted. Multi-channels and multilingual inputs in mass media
on a massive scale lead us to consider afresh the conceptual basis of
information society. Heterogeneous media threaten the autonomous
functioning of different languages. Multi-channels provide individuals in a
community a greater access to  diversified language-choice  and  its  content.
         Current debates over language endangerment acquire a greater
salience under the premise that language is a 'ripened' 'standard' entity,
a crystallized being insulated within 'well-defined' enclosures. No doubt,
economic and commercial factors of globalization tilt the balance in favor
of stable 'ripened' languages, dominating the physical space, such as
English on the electronic media (particularly in international forums and
regional confederations like the European Union), being perceived as the
killer language. (Fishman 1998, Khubchandani 1998). But at the same time,
human interactions conducted through demographically and economically
'weaker' languages can assert their utility in less glamorous, but vital,
domains known as the communitarian space (predominantly in oral
interactions). Interactive technologies in the cyber space can also be
utilized as a force for diversity, ushering in a new era of living together.
In a classical paradigm of power, a continuum of linguistic heterogeneity
in a region is marked by dominant 'stable' languages at one end of the
spectrum and marginalized languages generally belonging to oral traditions
at the other end; languages cultivated by literate societies, supported by
modern technology, show a general tendency to encroach upon the space
hitherto occupied by oral societies where language functions remain fluid
in a fuzzy reality. The reduction in functions of many minority languages
and their subordinate/complementary roles in society is viewed in this
light with great concern. These are taken as indicators of language
extinction. "By some counts, only 600 of the 6000 or so languages in the
world are 'safe' from the threat of extinction. By some reckonings, the
world will, by the end of the twenty-first century, be dominated by a small
number of major languages" (Crystal 2000).
During past one decade there has been an increase in the tempo of many
agencies, governmental and non-governmental, in creating awareness in the
society in general and particularly among the policy makers, for supporting
various conservation activities to safeguard the endangered languages. In
this sequence, efforts initiated through the UNESCO are of the special
significance, generating many studies which can be identified as
'conservation linguistics'.
At the same time, one cannot ignore that "a living language, with its
openness, undergoes perpetual change along with usage, just as reality
changes." One can point out to the Indian communication ethos,
characterized by organic 'grassroots' plurality where language functions
remain fluid and language boundaries, by and large, serve as markers to
construct the fussy reality (Khubchandani 1997).
         Viewed in the light of the two extremes  the universal and the
particular  the  theory of Language Development  questions the
'well-defined' enclosures of  being conceived  around  normative entities
(such as obsession with concretized 'standard' languages in technological
societies). These concerns direct our attention to the creative role of
tentativeness, transaction and fluidity characterizing speech and to the
issues of self-organization of speech as an ongoing process of becoming.
         Historical developments in redrawing the binds and bounds of
language make it evident that a particular code need to be looked into the
Wittgensteinian mould of 'transientness' which jellies as a space-and
time-bound reality in cross-cultural settings; such as High Hindi and High
Urdu crystallized from the malleable Khariboli base, as an expression of
conflicting political and cultural identities; similarly Serbian/Croatian
in erstwhile Yugoslav Confederate, and Bahasa Indonesia/Bahasa Malaysia in
South-east Asia (emerging from a common base Malay) as expressions of
'sovereign' identities. These strategies available to plural societies can
be of immense help in adjusting 'living' languages relevant to new tasks.
There are instances where language traditions are visualized differensly so
as to meet with the demands of identity in changing times.

Professor of Linguistics
Consultant, C-DAC
   Centre for Development of Advanced Computing
Director, Centre for Communication Studies
270 Sindh Society, Ganesh Khind
Pune 411007 INDIA

Ph: 091-20-5885315,5890188

e-mail: sindhdoc at vsnl.net
          sindhuvidya-ip at eth.net
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