[lg policy] Are dying languages worth saving?

Ayaz Ahmed ayazmardan at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 15 09:16:36 UTC 2011

 Language death and spending on revitalization of a dying language is
debated by experts, self-proclaimed experts and people who speak a language
with their arguments and beliefs. Here is a BBC news article which focus on
such discussion..
Are dying languages worth saving?

Why should endangered languages be saved? Delegates at the Trinity College
Carmarthen conference explain - using nine different languages

Language experts are gathering at a university in the UK to discuss saving
the world's endangered languages. But is it worth keeping alive dialects
that are sometimes only spoken by a handful of people, asks Tom de Castella?

"Language is the dress of thought," Samuel Johnson once said.

About 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. But the
Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of
those are spoken by only a handful of people. And every year the world loses
around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade
- a sad prospect for some.

This week a conference in Carmarthen, west Wales, organised by the
foundation, is being attended by about 100 academics. They are discussing
indigenous languages in Ireland, China, Australia and Spain.

"Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about
being human," says Nicholas Ostler, the foundation's chairman.

"And when languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets
lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays
we want access to everything but we don't want to be thought of as no more
than people on the other side of the world."

Apart from English, the United Kingdom has a number of other languages. Mr
Ostler estimates that half a million people speak Welsh, a few thousand
Scots are fluent in Gaelic, about 400 people speak Cornish, while the number
of Manx speakers - the language of the Isle of Man - is perhaps as small as
100. But is there any point in learning the really minor languages?

Last speaker dies

"I do think it's a good thing for a child on the Isle of Man to learn Manx.
I value continuity in a community."

In Europe, Mr Ostler's view seems to command official support. There is a
European Charter for Regional Languages, which every European Union member
has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme,
designed to protect the most threatened native tongues. At the end of last
year the project received 2.7m euros to identify those languages most at

But for some this is not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of
how language works. The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is
"irrational" to try to preserve all the world's languages.

Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of
the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died.

While it may seem sad that the language expired, says Mr Malik, cultural
change is driving the process.

"In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense
because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form
should exist forever is ridiculous." And when governments try to prop
languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move
forwards, he says.

If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them -
it shouldn't be backed by government subsidy, he argues.

"To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be
preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don't see why it's in the
public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that
matter." In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. "If
a language is one that people don't participate in, it's not a language

Wicked words

The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that
languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. "Language is the only
absolutely true democracy. It's not what professors of linguistics or
academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the
playground start using 'wicked' to mean terrific then that has a big

The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the
nation's regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and
Basque is also popular.

And Mr Howard says politicians make a "category mistake" when they try to
interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he
says is doomed to fail. "Offering Gaelic to children of people who don't
speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It's very romantic to
try and save a language but nonsense."

But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. "Some people
take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking
English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish
the fastest growing."

There are competing forces at work that decide whether smaller languages
survive, Howard argues. On the one hand globalisation will mean that many
languages disappear. But some communities will always live apart, separated
by sea, distance or other barriers and will therefore keep their own
language. With modern communications and popular culture "you find that if
enough people want to speak a language they can".

In short, there is no need for handwringing.

"Language is not a plant that rises and falls, lives and decays. It's a tool
that's perfectly adapted by the people using it. Get on with living and


Ayaz Ahmad
Lecturer in English,
Department of English,
Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan.
Ph.D. Research Scholar,
Area Study Centre (Russia, China & Central Asia),
University of Peshawar.
Cell Phone: +92-334-8432207
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/lgpolicy-list/attachments/20110415/bb3db2d0/attachment.html>
-------------- next part --------------
This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list