[lg policy] Are dying languages worth saving?

Jeremy Graves jayrkirk42 at YAHOO.COM
Fri Apr 15 16:09:39 UTC 2011

Along with everyone else, I want to say thanks for posting this article.

I'm always torn when it comes to this one - I want to do everything possible to 
preserve dying languages, but as a historical linguist, I recognize that 
language change is inevitable, and that change may well include death. Still, 
doctors swear to preserve life even though death is a natural part of it; 
perhaps linguists should do the same?

From: Ayaz Ahmed <ayazmardan at gmail.com>
To: lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
Sent: Fri, April 15, 2011 5:16:36 AM
Subject: [lg policy] Are dying languages worth saving?

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 

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 

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
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