From the BBC: Language Ecology by Philippa Law

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Oct 15 14:59:55 UTC 2006

Language Ecology by Philippa Law

Losing languages
Why should we care?

Compared to saving the rainforests, or helping pandas to breed, linguistic
ecology can seem a bit tame. One language is becoming extinct every
fortnight - so what? "Why should we care?" is a common question. Here are
a few reasons.

Identity: Many speakers of minority languages are fiercely proud and
defensive of their language. Language forms an important part of anyone's
identity. Nerys Jenkins in Belfast says, "Telling me not to speak Welsh
would be like telling me not to breathe: I just couldn't do it." To let
someone's language die out is to let part of their identity die too.

Culture: Language is bound up in culture - if a nation loses a language,
it may also lose its links with a tradition of jokes, music and
literature. Elizabeth MacDonald from Arisaig says Scottish Gaelic is
"...our language, the most important part of an ancient culture which has
somehow survived despite many persecutions over the centuries. It is a
culture rich in story, song and poetry, beloved of those familiar with

Knowledge: Languages harbour all kinds of human knowledge - including
useful biological or medical information that we might not find out about
otherwise. In the Micmac language, for example, trees are named after the
sounds they make in the wind. The names change as the sounds change, so,
if an elderly Micmac speaker remembers that a certain kind of tree used to
have one name, but is now called something else, this can reveal the
effects of acid rain on that species. Lose Micmac and you lose that

Understanding language: To find out more about language in general, the
more examples we have of languages the better. As Daniel Nettle and
Suzanne Romaine point out, in their book Vanishing Voices, "To exclude
exotic languages from our study is like expecting botanists to study only
florist shop roses and greenhouse tomatoes and then tell us what the plant
world is like."

The last speaker of Ubykh (spoken near Istanbul) died in 1992; fortunately
not before linguists noticed that the language had an incredible 81
consonants and just three vowels. This kind of observation is vital in
stretching what we know to be possible in language.

The linguist Peter Ladefoged presents another view of endangered
languages. Plenty of speakers of endangered languages don't want
'rescuing' by linguists. Many minorities who are looked down upon,
discriminated against, or persecuted by a dominant group are willing to
give their language up, or make sure their children don't acquire it, in
exchange for a more secure life.

Professor Ladefoged remembers speaking to a speaker of the almost-extinct
Dahalo language in rural Kenya; the man was glad his sons could only speak
the more prestigious Swahili: ''He was proud his sons had been to school
and knew things he did not. Who am I to say he was wrong?''

Further reading:
Vanishing Voices by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine

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