Fading Species and Dying Tongues

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue May 27 13:45:58 UTC 2003

Members please note: I don't agree with this person, but since this
article appeared in the "Science" section of the NYTimes, I thought I'd
pass it along.  (HS)

New York Times,  May 27, 2003
Fading Species and Dying Tongues: When the Two Part Ways

For the past decade, scholars and political activists have been working to
get the rest of us worried about the future of the world's 6,000 or so
spoken languages. One tool is an analogy: languages with fewer and fewer
speakers, they argue, are like species heading for extinction. A paper
published on May 15 in Nature gives the comparison a statistical basis.
The analysis, by Prof. William J. Sutherland of the University of East
Anglia, notes that when standard measures of species risk are applied to
language communities, human tongues come out even more endangered than the

The metaphor of "endangered languages" is both easy to grasp and appealing
to the sense of fair play: fluent speakers of languages like Kasabe, Ona
and Eyak are dying off, while their children and grandchildren
increasingly speak languages like English, Chinese, Spanish or Swahili.
Language preservationists have been using this analogy for years. The
often-quoted question posed by Dr. Michael Krauss, an emeritus professor
of linguistics at the University of Alaska, for instance, is: "Should we
mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh less than the loss of the panda or the
California condor?" It is no surprise that linguists and activists promote
maintaining spoken languages. Just as the Poultry and Egg Council wants us
to eat eggs, linguists want languages to study. I wonder, though, where
science ends and politics begins.

How, really, are the panda and Ubykh equivalent? The panda, once gone, is
gone forever. If the information and political will are present, Ubykh can
be revived 500 years from now. Hebrew, after all, was brought back from
ancient texts into daily use after 2,000 years. Ubykh, a language of
Turkey, is a human creation. The panda is not; it is our neighbor, not our
invention. Talk of endangerment and extinction suggests languages as a
finite resource, like gas in a tank heading toward empty. Preservationists
have predicted that only half the world's currently spoken languages will
be around in a century.

It would be a terrible thing to run out of languages. But there is no
danger of that, because the reserve of language, unlike the gas tank, is
refueled every day, as ordinary people engage in the creative and
ingenious act of talking. Old words, constructions and pronunciations drop
away, new ones are taken up, and, relentlessly, the language changes.
Every day, English, Spanish, Russian and French, along with almost all
other living languages are being altered by speakers to suit changing
times. In 2000, for example, another Nature paper revealed that even the
Queen of England now pronounces her English less aristocratically than she
used to. As Professor Sutherland noted in his paper, languages are in
"continual flux." That probably explains why a recently settled island can
be as rich in languages as a long-inhabited continent. That flux never
stops. Even this morning, languages are being altered by their speakers to
suit changing times and places.

In an era when languages continue to change with time, can't we expect the
big languages, like Latin before them, to blossom into families of related
but distinct new tongues? Already, more than 100 new languages have been
created out of the vast mixings of peoples and cultures of the last four
centuries. For example, on the preservationist Web site terralingua.org,
one can find the organization's statement of purpose in Tok Pisin, a
language of Papua New Guinea. Tok Pisin did not exist 150 years ago. Like
Haitian Creole, it is a new language, born of the last few centuries of
human history.

So maybe the human race has all the languages it needs, and deserves. When
we need a new one, we invent it. Language evolution is taking place every
day; why interfere with it? Preservationists call this an argument for
accepting injustice. James Crawford, a thoughtful writer about language
and a preservationist, notes that "language death does not happen in
privileged communities."

"It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered, peoples who most
need their cultural resources to survive," he continues. This is certainly
true; many of the dying languages were systematically attacked by
missionaries and governments in cruel, despicable ways. The game they lost
was rigged. Abuses continue to be committed in the name of education,
modernization and national identity, so the preservationists do good work
in noting and protesting such practices.

It is important, though, to be clear about what or rather, who deserves
protection. The right to remain safe and whole belongs to human beings,
not to abstractions created to describe what human beings did yesterday.
The difference between a living creature with blood in its veins and a
general notion should be obvious: your auburn-haired neighbor, nicknamed
Red, has rights. The concept of "red" does not.

But don't people need their "cultural resources"? Sure, but because
culture is reinvented by each person to suit a particular place and time,
members of a culture will argue with one another about what those
resources are. When we describe culture as an organism, we do not see the
individuals inside it. So if the study of languages is a scientific
enterprise, the effort to preserve them is not. It is a political
question: which voices represent the communities whose languages are

Hearing how his ancestors were punished for speaking their own language at
school, a young speaker might be persuaded by an elder to learn the
ancestral tongue. That is a reason to preserve that language in the
archives. Suppose, though, that the tales of days long gone do not
resonate with this hypothetical child. Is it science's job to help the
elder preserve his sense of importance at the expense of the younger?
Language bullies who try to shame a child into learning his grandfather's
language are not morally different from the language bullies who tried to
shame the grandfather into learning English. The elucidation of language
in all its complexity is an enthralling scientific enterprise. But "saving
endangered languages" is not a part of it.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list