[lg policy] Why save a language?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Jan 13 22:08:13 UTC 2015

Why Save a Language?

DEC. 5, 2014
  Credit Olimpia Zagnoli
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“TELL me, why should we care?” he asks.

It’s a question I can expect whenever I do a lecture about the looming
extinction of most of the world’s 6,000 languages, a great many of which
are spoken by small groups of indigenous people. For some reason the
question is almost always posed by a man seated in a row somewhere near the

Asked to elaborate, he says that if indigenous people want to give up their
ancestral language to join the modern world, why should we consider it a
tragedy? Languages have always died as time has passed. What’s so special
about a language?

The answer I’m supposed to give is that each language, in the way it
applies words to things and in the way its grammar works, is a unique
window on the world. In Russian there’s no word just for blue; you have to
specify whether you mean dark or light blue. In Chinese, you don’t say *next
week* and *last week* but *the week below* and *the week above*. If a
language dies, a fascinating way of thinking dies along with it.

I used to say something like that, but lately I have changed my answer.

Certainly, experiments do show that a language can have a fascinating
effect on how its speakers think. Russian speakers are on average 124
milliseconds faster than English speakers at identifying when dark blue
shades into light blue. A French person is a tad more likely than an
Anglophone to imagine a table as having a high voice if it were a cartoon
character, because the word is marked as feminine in his language.

This is cool stuff. But the question is whether such infinitesimal
differences, perceptible only in a laboratory, qualify as worldviews —
cultural standpoints or ways of thinking that we consider important. I
think the answer is no.

Furthermore, extrapolating cognitive implications from language differences
is a delicate business. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, you can express *If
you had seen my sister, you’d have known she was pregnant* with the same
sentence you would use to express the more basic *If you see my sister, you
know she’s pregnant*. One psychologist argued some decades ago that this
meant that Chinese makes a person less sensitive to such distinctions,
which, let’s face it, is discomfitingly close to saying Chinese people
aren’t as quick on the uptake as the rest of us. The truth is more mundane:
Hypotheticality and counterfactuality are established more by context in
Chinese than in English.

If we can’t consider this aspect of Mandarin a cognitive facet of being
Chinese, then we can’t, in fairness, associate the “cool” features of other
languages with the worldviews of their speakers. Surely worldviews aren’t
only those ways of perceiving things that we consider admirable or charming.

But if a language is not a worldview, what do we tell the guy in the
lecture hall? Should we care that in 100 years only about 600 of the
current 6,000 languages may be still spoken?

The answer is still yes, but for other reasons.

First, a central aspect of any culture’s existence as a coherent entity is
the fact of its having its own language, regardless of what the language
happens to be like. Certainly, a culture can thrive without its own
language: No one would tell today’s American Indians that if they no longer
spoke their ancestral language it would render them non-Indian. Likewise,
being Jewish does not require speaking Hebrew or Yiddish.
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Yet because language is so central to being human, to have a language used
only with certain other people is a powerful tool for connection and a
sense of community. Few would deny, for example, that American Jews who
still speak Yiddish in the home are a tighter-knit community, less
assimilated into Anglophone American life and less at odds with questions
about Jewish identity, than Jews who speak only English.

Second, languages are scientifically interesting even if they don’t index
cultural traits. They offer variety equivalent to the diversity of the
world’s fauna and flora.

For example, whether or not it says anything about how its speakers think,
the fact that there is a language in New Guinea that uses the same word for
*eat*, *drink *and *smoke *is remarkable in itself. Another New Guinea
language is Yeli Dnye, which not only has 90 sounds to English’s 44, but
also has 11 different ways to say “on” depending on whether something is
horizontal, vertical, on a point, scattered, attached and more. And there
is Berik, where you have to change the verb to indicate what time of day
something happened. As with any other feature of the natural world, such
variety tests and expands our sense of the possible, of what is “normal.”

These are the arguments I have ready for the “Why should we care?” fellow
these days. We should foster efforts to keep as many languages spoken as
possible, and to at least document what the rest of them are like.

Cultures, to be sure, show how we are different. Languages, however, are
variations on a worldwide, cross-cultural perception of this thing called

Surely, that is something to care about.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and music history at
Columbia University. His latest book is “The Language Hoax: Why the World
Looks the Same in Any Language.”

New York Times, Dec. 7, 2014.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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