When death is unspoken

Endangered Langauges

May 8, 1998

One of the greatest cultural tragedies ever to befall the human race is taking place before our eyes but no one is paying attention. There are members of the British intelligentsia who profess to be concerned about language and who agonise over utter trivialities such as the failure of the nation to use hopefully or to place only "correctly". Here is what they should be worrying about: of the world's 6,000 or so languages, as many as 3,000 are in the process of dying out, and another 2,400 are endangered. The dramatic loss of plant and animal species is something which most of us have been alerted to. The disastrous loss of 90 per cent of the world's languages is something which so far has only gained the attention of specialists. If these languages disappear, whole human cultures may well go with them. If they vanish, we will have lost forever our chance fully to investigate the limits and possibilities of human language systems, and the windows they open into the human mind. Yet little is being done to ensure that parents around the world transmit their native languages to their children.

The contributors to this excellent and thought-provoking volume, including well-known practitioners of linguistics and native speakers of threatened minority languages, outline the causes of language death and the mechanisms by which it takes place. They also discuss the reasons why we should attempt to combat it, and strategies for doing so. Many of their examples of language death come from the Americas: hundreds of languages have been lost there through genocide and assimilation since the arrival of Europeans and European languages. But examples are also drawn from Africa and Australia.

As far as the causes of language death are concerned, one of the most potent factors is certainly what Ralph Grillo, quoted here in a masterly paper by the doyenne of language death studies, Nancy Dorian, has called the "ideology of contempt". We can see this ideology all around us. In modern Britain it mostly takes the form, on the part of people who ought to know better, of contempt for local dialects. But the phenomenon is the same. As Grillo says, "subordinate languages are despised languages". Millions of people around the world are abandoning their languages because they are ashamed of them - and they have been made ashamed of them by people more educated and powerful than themselves. Of course, for most people in the world it is necessary to learn second and third languages of national and international communication. But, given that bi- and trilingualism is a natural, enriching and unburdensome condition, this implies no necessity whatsoever to abandon their first language, if only pride in it can be maintained.

As to why we should fight against language death, indigenous writers in this volume such as Christopher Jocks and Kaia'titahkhe Annette Jacobs argue passionately for the vital importance of North American native languages such as Mohawk for the survival of their cultures. One of the world's most brilliant linguists, Ken Hale, writes persuasively for the preservation of linguistic diversity not only because of its importance to linguistic science, but also because of the value of language to the intellectual life of local communities. Language death also represents a tragic loss of information concerning the fascinatingly different ways in which human beings, through their languages, divide up, categorise and perceive the world. Marianne Mithun, who has been enormously and successfully active in North American indigenous-language preservation programmes, gives just a glimpse of the richness and variety of human conceptual systems by means of examples from Central Pomo, a Californian language with around half a dozen surviving speakers. Who can fail to be fascinated by the semantic coherence perceived by Central Pomo speakers between notions expressed by verbs such as bayol (while humming a song, suddenly put in words), syol (wash down biscuits with coffee), and myol (throw various ingredients together into a pot), where yol means "mix" and ba-, s- and m- are prefixes meaning respectively "orally", "by sucking", and "by heat"?

As far as fighting back is concerned, one obvious strategy is to counter negative attitudes to languages on the part of their speakers by persuading them that they are - as all languages are - rich, adequate linguistic systems that are the result of thousands of years of intellectual and cultural development. Obvious practical steps that have to be taken include resistance to political, cultural and educational repression. Among the many disgraceful actions cited in this book are: the refusal to issue birth certificates for children with Breton names in France up to the 1970s; the current denunciation by some Christian churches in Alaska of Tlingit as being "demonic"; and the active propagation in Guatemala of the idea that the Mayan languages spoken by a majority of the population are "defective".

All is not doom and gloom. Even if parents have switched to English or Spanish or French or other "killer languages" and have therefore ceased to pass on their languages to their children, it is still possible to utilise the knowledge of grandparents and other fluent speakers in immersion programmes such as have been implemented with some degree of success for New Zealand Maori. There is no doubt, however, that one of the most important weapons is the cultivation of linguistic self-esteem. One way in which this can come about is as a byproduct of economic growth, such as has occurred in the Ladin-speaking community in Northern Italy as a result of skiing-based tourism. For language death is a problem that also faces Europe. There are six Sami languages in Northern Scandinavia and three Frisian languages under threat, as well as numerous other languages such as Breton, Occitan, Romansh and Sorbian.

In these islands we have already been careless enough to lose Cornish, Manx, Orkney and Shetland Norn, and the British form of Romany. We should now stop wasting our time worrying about greengrocers' apostrophes and tackle the real linguistic issue of our day, the survival of Welsh and, much more urgently, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Channel Islands Norman French.

Peter Trudgill is professor of English language and linguistics, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Endangered Langauges: Current Issues and Future Prospects

Editor - Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley
ISBN - 0 521 59102 3 and 59712 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00 and £17.95
Pages - 361

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