Dying Languages

By the time the 21st century runs out, half of all human languages will be extinct, victims of cultural and political forces, the spread of technology, and assimilation in general.

“What is lost when a language is lost is another world,” says Stephen Anderson, of Yale University.

I think there are multiple parallels to globalism and media consolidation here (e.g. the number of owners of TV outlets has decreased by 40% since 1995). Nature teaches us that biodiversity is necessary and good. Whether you’re talking about insect populations, languages, media outlets, or operating systems, there is greater systemic health when there is more diversity. And yet I can’t imagine a way to reduce the rate of language death — it’s simply an aspect of human history I think we will have to accept. And then one day we’ll all wake up speaking fluent TimeWarnerComcast-ese with a Microsoft accent. But at least we’ll all be speaking the same language.

Music: George Handy :: The Bloos

11 Replies to “Dying Languages”

  1. I think linguistic drift will continue to provide us new languages as they arise out of slang of other languages, or are simply made up (as is the case of Klingon, which has native speakers now) for whatever purpose. Again, cultural Darwinist that I am, it seems to me that if a language doesn’t serve the needs of the people who speak it, it deserves extinction. In this case I’d moderate that and say preserve whatever literature is in it and the information to decode it and translate it. But again, a language is an artifact of human utility. I do not think this is a great tragedy unless the history and literature of the *culture* is also lost.

    Now that WOULD be tragic.

    Languages go out of use all the time, it is the natural order of things, but it is a comfort that dead languages as Ancient Egyptian and Latin still inform us because the literature, history, and culture they were used for has been translated, and people still learn these languages because there is more to translate or because they question translations. Again, so long as the meaning is not lost and the grammar and vocabulary are written down in succeeding languages, I don’t see it as a big deal.


  2. Interesting points, Jim. I would respond by saying that ALL languages have attached cultures, and that many of those cultures are verbally based, not written. A culture – especially a verbabl culture – is too abstract an entity to live on after the language and its speakers are dead.I don’t see how the culture can live on or be presved even in a museum.

  3. The point is that living cultures change. They don’t live on in museums, they are preserved so they can inform younger cultures so that all that a dead culture achieved is not lost when the culture ends. As I said in the email I sent when I replied to the comment above, I think it is fundamentally wrong to force someone to change their culture, and I think it is fundamentally *more* wrong to force them to cling to their old culture when they want to change. To force people back to a perceived better, simpler time is the very heart of conservatism and why, IMHO, conservatism is at best misguided and at worst elitist.


  4. Jim Strickland commits the same error in thinking about the disappearance of languages as people who say we should not worry about extinctions of plants and animals because “species go extinct all the time.”

    The question is not whether human cultures come and go, but the RATE at which this process takes place. In the case of species, human activities have significantly accelerated the rate of extinction far beyond the historical background average.

    Likewise, the impact of globalization is eliminating cultures and their associated languages at an accelerating rate that far exceeds the historical rate. Languages encode information that could be very useful to us, but the high rate of loss means that such information is disappearing faster than our ability to evaluate the richness and utility of a given culture’s understanding of the world.

    I am not arguing for forcing people to retain their culture against their will. I would point out, however, that in many parts of the world, there are vigorous attempts by members of these beseiged cultures to preserve vanishing languages and cultural practices, suggesting that given a real choice, people may make much more sophisticated choices about how they want to be integrated into the global economy–that people wawnt more than an either/or choice.

  5. I would certainly not argue that humans are not displacing species at a faster than normal rate, although I might be tempted to say that it is again natural since the idea that humans are outside the natural order of things is a conceit born out of specific religious beliefs.

    But we’re talking about culture here. I’m not certain that it’s possible to deliberately destroy cultures without killing *all* the people. The British Empire tried very hard to do so with the Indian, Irish and Scottish cultures, and the Americans tried their hands at it dealing with the Native Americans, but neither group was particularly successful, because they were unwilling to commit genocide. The Americans and British began by enforcing their own religion on the people, as well as their own language, their own system of laws, and so forth and so on. You don’t force people to change their culture without a lot of *force*, and no matter how much force you apply, no matter how much killing of the natives you do, you cannot force them to *like* something, and you can’t totally exterminate a culture if people insist on maintaining it. India retained its culture, the Irish and Scottish retained theirs, and of course quite a few Native American cultures are still around.

    The Romans understood that all this is counterproductive. The Romans didn’t care so much whether people kept their native cultures or not, but a great many drifted toward Roman culture because it gave them things they wanted – fresh water, sewer systems, better methods of agriculture, all of which the Romans were more than willing to help them with. As a result, Roman culture became the root culture of most of Western Europe, and their influence is still felt today.

    My point, made through an admittedly circuitous route, is that destroying cultures intentionally is difficult if not impossible, but people will readily abandon them if they feel there is a better way offered to them, and this is their right as human beings.


  6. Addendum to my previous post. “I would also argue that globalization is neither bad nor new. It is simply change. If we the human race all speak one language and have functionally one culture (as if we could all agree that much), why is that bad? IMHO Diversity is valuable only because it means a great many options are tried in parallel, but ideally there is globalization to recombine all those options and filter for the ones that work. I think this fear of globalization that people seem to have is unfounded – people live in too many different places and have too many different needs for one culture to ever overwhelm all the others completely. Witness the United States. One country, but dozens if not hundreds of cultures and subcultures. One dominant language, because it’s convenient for commerce, but many others are spoken. This is what I think the future looks like. And it looks pretty darn good to me.


  7. Another adendum. The Romans DID destroy one culture that I can think of. The city of Carthage was a thriving culture. The Romans came, defeated their armies, killed or enslaved *all* the Carthaginians, razed the city to the ground, and sewed salt in the field. As a result we know very little about Carthage, and I don’t think it has contributed anything to modern cultures. THIS is the magnitude of destruction it takes to really destroy a culture against the will of the people. You have to utterly destroy the people that make it up.


  8. rereading Scot’s original post, where he says,

    “Nature teaches us that biodiversity is necessary and good. Whether you’re talking about insect populations, languages, media outlets, or operating systems, there is greater systemic health when there is more diversity.”

    I think that while this applies to biological systems and other systems which evolve similarly to biological systems and face predators, it probably doesn’t apply as well to cultures, and I would argue that it doesn’t apply at all to languages, since they don’t have predators and diseases.

    -Jim (Okay, okay, I’ll let other people post now. :)

  9. Diversity of languages, paired with species diversity as a value, has a slippery slope of danger before it which is almost never mentioned. The national socialist program, as outlined by Walther Schoenichen planned for endangered languages and species to be conserved on reservations set up for both of these together. It followed from the anti-cosmopolitan approach of that regime, and constituted their plan for the administration of the planet. Now our leading scholars propose the nearly identical policies, and say that only fascism and racism could object to it. Today’s pro-diversity advocates are actually trying to enact the national socialist plan for the world. The radical pro-diversity types, who want to save not only disadvantaged minorities, but rare species and languages too, should demonstrate how their tendencies fundamentally diverge from those of the nazi regime, as described in Proctor’s ‘nazi war on cancer’, regarding: Schoenichen…

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