Language Death - Is it Really a Cultural Catastrophe?

MICHAEL TURNER discusses whether we need to be making a conscious effort to keep languages alive.


Drab.

Dismal.

Dreary.


Is this how you'd see the world if we all spoke the same language?


According to scholars such as Duchêne and Heller, this may be the case. They state that “each language represents a unique worldview” and language death means losing key cultural knowledge about the world (2007, p. 2). You may have heard of famous linguist, David Crystal, who defines language death as a concept used when there are no longer any speakers of a language (2000, p. 11).

Journalists, Mark Abley (2008) and Tom Colls (2009) also agree with the aforementioned stance by asserting that when languages become extinct, their associated cultures are lost too. Abley (2008) even goes as far as to say that language death is a “cultural disaster”, indicating a monolingual planet Earth would certainly not be culturally rich or a place he would want to live.


On the other hand, you may side with Linguistics Professor, John McWhorter who proposes that this ideology is “fragile” as it’s not necessarily true that a cultural worldview is totally obliterated when the language associated with it dies (2009, p. 65). McWhorter states in a later publication that the reason for this is because “linguistic traits don’t magically shape culture”, but he does say they can reflect an existing culture (2014, p. 12).


Also, I quite liked Professor Salikoko Mufwene’s analysis, as he propounds that language and culture being totally intertwined is a weak concept: “language and culture are not welded like two sides of a coin. One can change without engaging the other in the process” (2008, p. 247). This shows how there’s already disagreement between what’s actually lost when the last speaker of a language dies.


The Ethnologue (2021), a website dedicated to a panoply of the world’s languages, states that there are currently 3,018 endangered languages. That's a whopping 42% of current existing languages! Nettle & Romaine explain in their book “Vanishing Voices” that this “endangered” label basically means that the language in question is no longer naturally transmitted from parent to child in a home setting (2000, p. 8). If we’re to believe what Duchêne & Heller argue, then this means we may be losing the unique worldview of thousands of languages and once languages are gone, they’re very likely gone forever.


That's it.


The Passing of Languages to the Next Generation


When parents fail to teach children their language, the contribute to the metaphorical language murder. Mufwene (2002, p. 175) describes this as speakers murdering their own language as they have been active in deciding not to use it – a pernicious thought, but one that makes complete sense. I’m sure there are people reading this who have actively decided to abandon their mother tongue and if so, you are a key part of this debate! However, as Mufwene (2002, p. 175) fairly notes, there is sometimes great socio-economic pressure on speakers. Thomason also highlights that parents and their children may feel a need to speak a more mainstream language to better equip them for a financial future i.e. employment (2015, p. 85).


Does it matter if we allow endangered languages to die?


Writer, Kenan Malik made great impact in his 2000 article as he contends, we simply need to “Let Them Die”; any attempt to save them is “irrational” and “pointless”. Malik (2000) even said that speaking a globally dominant language (like English) is just a ticket to modernity and allows the world to overcome social barriers of interaction. Upon reflection, this does seem like a big pro… and it would certainly remove those awkward holiday situations where you can’t converse with the guests at the next table as neither has a suitable lingua franca…

Marie Smith Jones (pictured above) was the last speaker of the Southern Alaskan language, Eyak (Abley, 2008).

“The voices of the last speakers of many languages are now fading away, never to be heard again” (Harrison, 2007, p. vii).


When Marie died in 2008, she took with her Eyak lexemes (words) such as the noun ‘ał’ which McWhorter translates as an evergreen branch (2009, p. 62). Its final sound makes use of whistling past the sides of the tongue when pronounced, cleverly mimicking wind passing through a branch. Undoubtedly, I find it hard to believe anyone who says that this isn’t a fascinating fact, but hey: I’m a linguist, so perhaps my bias is showing?!


I can see why Joe Bloggs in the cushy UK may have a laissez faire approach to Eyak dying, but who knows what the future holds? Crystal (2000, p. 28) notes often people in favour of language death and having a monolingual world assume that it will be their language which is spoken. In a far distant time such as 3021 though, English may be in the same boat as endangered languages like Mangareva or Pukapuka (languages spoken on Pacific islands) (Ethnologue, 2021).


“Really?!” you ask. Yes, it’s quite possible that English may, not in your lifetime admittedly but still, end up on the brink of extinction.


Quite shocking, isn't it?


The Future of Languages is in Our Hands


Charities such as The Foundation for Endangered Languages do care about current language death though and have the very arduous task of trying to revitalise the world’s dying languages. Their website (2021) explains this is done through: promoting the languages in all contexts, the spread of information and crucially, documenting the language.

Velupillai, another Linguistics researcher, explains that documenting means creating recordings and making notes of speakers to amass large amounts of data (2012, p. 47). She states that this can act as a base of revitalisation and help in keeping endangered languages alive (2012, p. 48). Unsurprisingly though, this process takes money, time and effort. In doing so, are researchers simply falling into the danger zone of what Malik (2000) calls a “backward-looking vision” of romanticising languages? A vision where we aren’t clasping tightly with our sweaty palms the “ticket to modernity”.


Therefore, the question remains…


Do we continue to allow speakers to strangle, bludgeon and poison endangered languages, or do we revitalise, nurture and learn from them for the benefit of the world’s diverse culture? After all, to each of us, language should be “the most valuable single possession” (Hockett, 1958, p. 1).


The future of the world’s languages lies in OUR hands!!!




Written by Michael Turner





References


Abley, M. (2009, January 29). ‘It’s like bombing the Louvre’. The Guardian. Retrieved from

https://languagedebates.wordpress.com/category/endangered-languages/


Colls, T. (2009, October 19). The death of a language? BBC. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8311000/8311069.stm

Ethnologue. Retrieved May 4, 2021, from https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages-endangered


Harrison, D. K. (2007). When languages die: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge. New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press.


Hockett, C. F. (1958). A course in modern linguistics. New York, NY, United States of America: Macmillan.


Malik, K. (2000, November 20). Let them die. Prospect Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/letthemdie


McWhorter, J. H. (2009). The cosmopolitan tongue: The universality of English. World Affairs, 172(2), 61-68.


McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The language hoax: Why the world looks the same in any language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.


Mufwene, S. S. (2002). Colonisation, Globalisation, and the Future of Languages in the Twenty-first Century. International Journal of Multicultural Studies, 4(2), 162-193.


Mufwene, S. S. (2008). Language evolution: Contact, competition and change. London, United Kingdom: Continuum.


Nettle, D., & Romaine, S. (2000). Vanishing voices: The extinction of the world’s languages. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.


Thomason, S. G. (2015). Endangered languages: An introduction. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


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