Endangered languages' last words

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Oct 4 10:01:22 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, October 1, 2006

Last Words


The subject of disappearing languages has been in the news for some time
the standard prediction is that roughly half of the 6,000 languages
currently spoken are, as Unesco puts it, doomed but it has recently been
given new impetus in the United States by the fear expressed by some
conservative commentators that English is being added to the list. Will
American English survive the immigrant flood of Spanish-speaking migrants,
recent columns in the weekly Human Events have asked. Their answer is,
tragically, no. But would it really be a tragedy if English vanished?

Of course, the idea that English is a vanishing language seems a little
implausible (its the second-most-spoken language in the world), but then
it was only a few years ago that the U.S. dominated world basketball, and
look what has happened there. Furthermore, theres a long history on this
continent of immigrant languages killing off the indigenous ones. Scholars
believe that there used to be as many as 300 Native American languages.
Now there are fewer than 200. What happened? Well, one thing that happened
was that missionaries and the federal government did their best to get the
Indians to stop talking in what J.D.C. Atkins, a 19th-century commissioner
of Indian affairs, called their barbarous dialect and to start talking in
civilized languages like English. And another was that even when they
couldnt kill off the language, they were often quite effective at killing
off the people who spoke it. Hence English flourished, and languages like
Tlingit, for example, didnt.

Things are obviously better today. Not only are almost no English speakers
being murdered by linguistically evangelizing Mexicans; no Spanish
speakers are complaining about how barbarous English is. In fact, few
people today think that any languages are either barbarous or civilized.
No language, as the linguist John Edwards has written, can be described as
better or worse than another on purely linguistic grounds; all languages
are always sufficient for the needs of their speakers. Which is why the
effort to get people to stop speaking in their own tongues (taking them
away to special boarding schools, punishing them when they didnt speak
English) and to start speaking in yours looked then, and still looks now,
like an essentially arbitrary use of power. Theirs is just as good as
yours: why should they give it up?

So the good news is that progress has been made; no one any longer thinks
that one language is better than another. But the bad news is that many
languages are dying anyway. In fact, for various social and economic
reasons, they are dying faster than ever. Many of the Native American
languages that still exist are spoken by a very few old people, and while
no one is trying to force them to stop speaking whatever it is they speak,
no one is having much success in persuading their children and
grandchildren to continue speaking it. So where the tragic figure of
19th-century language loss was a child discouraged from speaking her own
language and made to speak English instead, the tragic figure of
21st-century language loss is an elder allowed, and even encouraged, to
speak her own language but with no one around to speak it to. The
19th-century problem was about people who couldnt use their languages; the
problem now is about the languages themselves tragically, theyre

But why would it be a tragedy if English disappeared? Why is it a tragedy
if Tlingit disappears? Although we can all agree its a bad thing to try to
get people to stop using their language, its hard to see why its a bad
thing if their language disappears. Why? Because the very thing that made
it a mistake for the missionaries to try to stop people from speaking
Native American languages (its not as if English was better) makes it a
mistake to care whether people continue to speak Native American languages
(its not as if English is worse). We can see the point clearly by
pretending for a second that English really is starting to vanish. Suppose
our children start speaking a little Spanish, our grandchildren become
bilingual and our great-grandchildren speak only Spanish. Since we cant
speak Spanish, we cant talk to them. But if thats a problem, it wont last
for long, and once it is solved, there will be no problem left. Just as
the language we speak does everything we need it to do, the language they
speak will do everything they need it to do. No doubt its unfortunate that
our descendants wont be able to read Shakespeare in the original. But,
truth to tell, were not doing much of that ourselves anyway. Its not as if
were native speakers of Elizabethan English. Thats why theres a market for
No Fear Shakespeare: the Bard on one page; a translation into modern
English the kind of English people actually speak today on the other. And,
of course, instead of Shakespeare and Joyce, our descendants will be able
to read Cervantes and Borges the classics of their literature if not of

Which is the whole point. Our language is the one we speak, not the one
our ancestors spoke. My great-grandparents could read only Yiddish. Am I
supposed to feel a stronger connection to Abramovichs Kliatche (Mare), a
book I never heard of until I looked up Yiddish classics on the Web two
minutes ago, than, say, to Vanity Fair, a book my ancestors wouldnt have
understood one word of? And are my descendants supposed to feel they are
losing their cultural heritage just because the old books they are reading
are not the same as the old books I read? Obviously not. Their cultural
heritage will be the books they read; their language will be the one they
speak. A language will have been lost, but like the old joke about the
great train robbery (no loss of train), no one will have lost his
language. And no one will have lost his literature or his cultural
heritage or what our English supremacists say they most want to retain,
their American identity. You can read No Fear Cervantes in Spanish; you
can sing The Star-Spangled Banner in Spanish; you can invade Iraq in
Spanish; you can even lose the finals of the World Basketball Championship
in Spanish. Although this year (Spain 70, Greece 47), it didnt happen.

Walter Benn Michaels teaches English at the University of Illinois,
Chicago. His new book, The Trouble With Diversity, will be published this


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