[lg policy] Are dying languages worth saving?

Dave Sayers dave.sayers at CANTAB.NET
Fri Apr 15 13:40:46 UTC 2011

This article - and from the sound of it Ostler et al. - seems to gloss 
over something quite important. Cornish and Manx are mentioned, and 
'continuity' interestingly deployed as a rhetorical recourse to a living 
ethnolinguistic heritage. However both these languages died out quite 
some time ago - Cornish in the 17th century, Manx in the 20th - before 
undergoing what Leanne Hinton refers to in /The green book of language 
revitalization in practice/ as 'reconstruction'; manually putting back 
together a language and reincarnating it through education. This is to 
(re)invent a form of linguistic heritage as much as, if not more than, 
protecting a historically continuous cultural resource. That distinction 
is often elided in both academic and media discussion.

(Usual academic caveat: my points above are not intended as an 
evaluation or judgement on the relative worth of such efforts.)

Also, the 400 figure for Cornish is optimistic and over-simplistic to 
say the least - but that's another story...


Dr. Dave Sayers
Honorary Research Fellow
College of Arts & Humanities
and Language Research Centre
Swansea University
dave.sayers at cantab.net

On 19:59, Ayaz Ahmed wrote:
> 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 risk.
> 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 anymore."
> 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 effect."
> 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 talking."
> http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11304255
> -- 
> 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
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