Fading Species and Dying Tongues

Survey Coordinator Brazil survey_coord_brazil at sil.org
Tue May 27 16:21:03 UTC 2003

Hello members,

Berreby sure has some good points.  It is obvious that he hasn't worked in a
community where the language is dying, so he's missed some, too.

I've heard so frequently that languages can be revived after death, just
like Hebrew.  But the languages dying today are nothing like Hebrew, which
was always understood in written form by male Jews.  The languages that have
become extinct recently are deader than Hebrew ever was.

I do believe the world's language gas tank is heading toward empty.  We're
not going to run out of languages, but we're going to have far fewer in the
near future.  Why?  Because the big languages like English, Spanish and
Portuguese are not blossoming into distinct new tongues.  In fact, the
process is being reversed.  They're becoming more homogeneous.  Regional
dialects are becoming extinct just as quickly as small languages.  Berreby
talks about new creoles that have been created in the recent past, but his
examples aren't that recent.  In the last century, hundreds of languages
have died and next to none have been created.

His statement that the human race has all the languages it needs is pretty
hard to dismiss, though.  History does seem to show that we create new
languages when we need them.  What makes things different now is that we
humans live in a very different world than we did 500 years ago.  For better
or for worse, we don't need the same number of languages to communicate with
each other.  So it's going to be an uphill battle to preserve these
languages that nobody really needs anymore.

It was an interesting statement that, "language death does not happen in
privileged communities.  It happens to the disposssessed and the
disempowered, peoples who most need their cultural resources to survive."
It is probably true a lot of the time.  I recently got back from surveying
French creoles in Guiana.  There, Haitian Creole was spoken vigorously,
while the Guianese Creole was dying.  Of the two, the Guianese were
definitely the privileged community.  Although I haven't done any survey, I
suspect we might find similar contrasts throughout the more and less
privileged Caribbean islands.

I guess what Berreby is really trying to say is that we can't look at
languages by themselves.  He's correct in pointing out languages are part of
people and culture.  He says that culture is reinvented by each person to
suit a particular place and time.  What he doesn't seem to realise is that
the world today has a few supercultures that act like bullies toward the
smaller ones.  The little guys' linguistic and cultural reinventions are
taking place at the end of a barrell of a gun.

Stan Anonby

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