Assessing the Value of Dying Languages

Would a universal language be good or bad? Is language diversity a human treasure?

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Does it matter when languages die? This is a question bothering a number of people, from professional linguists to amateur language-lovers and minority activists. As globalization accelerates, so does the debate. While some wring their hands over the specter of a universal language like English, and organizations like UNESCO fight to preserve endangered tongues, others aren't so sure: isn't language evolution, like biological evolution, a natural phenomenon? Is better communication through common language necessarily a bad thing?

Here are some of the best amateur and professional contributions from this highly-charged debate, which has recently ranged from the pages of The New York Times to the blogosphere:

  • Languages Come and Go--Let Them  Sean Paul Kelley, a language enthusiast at The Agonist, reflects on the "global diffusion of English," and takes a passive philosophical approach: "Languages die. Languages change. New languages are thus born out of old ones. It's a story almost as old as human evolution," he writes. "I'm also very ambivalent about preserving languages on the brink of dying. If they die, they die. Certainly, I applaud the work of people who seek to document the literature of said languages, verbal and written, but the life and death of languages is much like the change of the seasons: timeless and irrevocable."
  • Professional Linguist: Frenzy About Dying Languages Misplaced  "The main loss when a language dies," writes linguist and cultural commentator John McWhorter in World Affairs, "is not cultural but aesthetic." He dismisses the notion that "the death of a language means the death of a culture"--languages die when cultures die, not the other way around. Furthermore, he points out that the "aesthetic delight" of, say, the native language of Siberia, is appreciated only by a small segment of humanity." Certainly dying languages should be preserved "as museum pieces," but "would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?" Here's his reasoning:
Coming back to the Tower of Babel, can we say that the benefits of linguistic diversity are more important, in a way that a representative number of humans could agree upon, than the impediment to communication that they entail? Especially when their differentiation from one another is, ultimately, a product of the same kind of accretionary accidents that distinguish a woodchuck from a groundhog?... At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together.
  • Preserving Languages--Human Treasures Just Like Chamber Music  French linguist Claude Hagège thinks the fight to save languages is neither frivolous nor futile: he points to the examples of Irish Gaelic and Hebrew for encouragement, lists actions that have proven effective in keeping languages alive, and notes the importance of "enormously strong collective will" in reviving such an old language as Hebrew.  Writing that "interesting conceptions of reality are embedded in dying or dead languages and their grammar," he makes a strong case for the value of languages to humanity at large:
The cultural, and hence linguistic, diversity of the world is the main factor of its richness. A one language world would be an unbearable world, in which people would be bored to death ...

To try to preserve a language is not a useless endeavor. Languages are much more than communication tools. When one tries to preserve something that existed before, it is far from being at the expense of new developments, nor does it by any means crowd us out of the crucial continuance of life. Would one say that Roman and Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance paintings, sculptures and castles, Venice palaces, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms chamber-music are works that make us stand still? Quite to the contrary, preserving masterpieces inherited from the past enhances our own creativeness. Languages are not technical objects or industrial devices that can be abandoned once used. They are creations of our minds, and preserving them offers us seminal conceptions of the relationships between man and the universe.

  • The Relevance of Languages  Replying to Sean Paul Kelley's earlier post, Skiv Rasmussen points out that while "the life and death of languages," as Kelley writes, may well be "like the change of the seasons," that may not be a "good case" for doing nothing: "Letting some languages die because they don't fit our present framework denies that there may be some future framework in which they are more relevant ... What's pivotal to me," he continues, "is the cultural context of the language." One can understand a culture through its method of communication. He also notes that "at one time, being at least moderately familiar with ancient languages--at least Latin and Greek--as well as more than one modern language, was the mark of an educated person. Books from the turn of the last century often cite aphorisms and quotations in their original languages, the assumption being that even if the reader does not speak that language, they are at least educated enough to recognize the meaning of a famous phrase."

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