Dying Languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jan 5 11:22:45 UTC 2007

Dying Languages

BY JOHN McWHORTER December 28, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/45847

In the rush of the holiday season you may have missed that a white buffalo
was born at a small zoo in Pennsylvania. Only one in 10 million buffalo is
born white, and local Native Americans gave him a name in the Lenape
language: kenahkihinen, which means "watch over us." They found that in a
book, however. No one has actually spoken Lenape for a very long time. It
was once the language of what is now known as the tristate area, but its
speakers gradually switched to English, as happened to the vast majority
of the hundreds of languages Native Americans once spoke in North America.
The death of languages is typically described in a rueful tone. There are
a number of books treating the death of languages as a crisis equal to
endangered species and global warming. However, I'm not sure it's the
crisis we are taught that it is.

There is a part of me, as a linguist, that does see something sad in the
death of so many languages. It is happening faster than ever: It has been
said that a hundred years from now 90% of the current 6,000 languages will
be gone. Each extinction means that a fascinating way of putting words
together is no longer alive. In, for example, Inuktitut Eskimo, which, by
the way, is not dying, "I should try not to become an alcoholic" is one
word:  Iminngernaveersaartunngortussaavunga. Yet the extinctions cannot be
stopped, for the most part. Trying to teach people to speak their
ancestral languages, for example, will almost never get far beyond the
starting gate. Some years ago, I spent some weeks teaching Native
Americans their ancestral language. To the extent that the exercise helped
give them a feeling of connection to their ancestors, it was time well

However, it was clear that there was no way that they would learn more
than some words and expressions. Languages are hard to learn for adults,
especially ones as different from English as Native American ones. In
Pomo, the verb goes at the end of the sentence. There are sounds it's hard
to make when you're not born to them. For busy people with jobs and
families, how far were they ever going to be able to get mastering a
language whose word for eye is uyqh abe? Yes, there was Hebrew. But that
was because of an unusual combination:  religion, a new nation, and the
superhuman dedication of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who settled in Palestine and
insisted on speaking only Hebrew to all Jews, including his infant son.
But this extended to reducing his wife to tears when he caught her singing
a lullaby to the child in her native Russian. Clearly Ben-Yehuda's was one
of those once-in-a-lifetime personalities. Yet the conventional wisdom is
that we must strive to have as many future Hebrews as possible, since
supposedly one's language determines one's cultural outlook. But a simple
question shows how implausible that notion is. To wit, precisely what
"cultural outlook" does English lend its speakers?

Thinking about the broad heterogeneity of people using this language, it
is obvious that the answer is none, and the academic literature on the
topic yields little but queer little shards of faint support for the
"language is culture" idea. Which brings us back to languages as, simply,
languages. The language revivalists yearn for surprise diversity. What
they miss is that language death is a healthy outcome of diversity. If
people truly come together, then they speak a common language. We can muse
upon a "salad bowl" ideal in which people go home and use their nice
"diverse" language with "their own." But in reality, almost always the
survival of that "diverse" language means that the people are segregated
in some way, which in turn is almost always due to an unequal power
relationship i.e., precisely what "diversity" fans otherwise consider such
a scourge.

Jews in shtetls, for example, spoke Yiddish at home and Russian elsewhere
because they lived under an apartheid system, not because they delighted
in being bilingual. The Amish still speak German only because they live in
isolation from modern life, which few of us would consider an ideal for
indigenous groups to strive for. In the end, the proliferation of
languages is an accident: a single original language morphed into 6,000
when different groups of people emerged. I hope that dying languages can
be recorded and described. I hope that many persist as hobbies, taught in
schools and given space in the press, as Irish, Welsh, and Hawaiian have.
However, the prospect we are taught to dread that one day all the world's
people will speak one language is one I would welcome. Surely easier
communication, while no cure-all, would be a good thing worldwide. There's
a reason the Tower of Babel story is one of havoc rather than creation.

For those still uncomfortable given that this single language would be big
bad English, then notice how that discomfort eases when you imagine the
language being, say, Lenape.

Mr. McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.



N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list