It seems that the “why” makes all the difference

Slates

In “Is language extinction a good thing?” Thomas Hawks reviews some recent writing on language extinction, focusing on differing attitudes to the question of how “bad” it really is when a language goes extinct.

Languages are clearly fluid, dynamic things, and statistically we’re going to lose some along the way. In this age of massive globalization and urbanization, however, we’re losing lots, and quickly. (This and the work of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages was a feature topic in cool podcast from last fall.)

Hawks quotes several folks who argue that language loss is a key part of the “assimilation” process that converted my starving Swiss ancestors into successful dairy farmers in Wisconsin, and thence to high-level investment analysts, and therefore we shouldn’t moan about it so much. While I’ll certainly acknowledge that there is an inevitability to certain amounts of language loss, I’m definitely not as comfortable with it as some of the people Hawks quotes for two key reasons: (a) So much of it was (and is) done against people’s will, and (b) as with biological extinction, there is potentially valuable information and history that is lost.

On the first point, I think that the “why” of the thing is crucial, and doesn’t come up anywhere in Hawks’ piece. (In fairness, Hawks is really just quoting a bunch of people here, so he’s arguably the messenger.) If the kids just aren’t interested in learning grandma’s weird old language, then at some level that’s their choice and we can’t force them to change their minds. My Swiss-German-speaking grandfather married a woman of primarily British descent, (American) English was their shared language, and neither my mother or aunt heard or learned any significant Swiss-German at home. My grandparents had the luxury of choice, and those are the choices they made.

All too often, however, minority groups have been forced to set aside their cultural traditions, language included. Native Americans, for example, were frequently punished severely (including beatings) if they used their native languages while in the boarding schools (which they were often forced to attend). Similarly Cajuns were often whipped for speaking their French in schools in Louisiana. Sadly, I’m sure we could pull together an embarrassingly long list of such cases worldwide, and it seems to be that we should mourn and decry every such loss in the strongest possible terms. To the degree that any given language extinction was aided by such behavior, we dare not be flippant about it’s disappearance, for it speaks ill of us all.

As to the second point, I am continually amazed and frustrated by certain people’s willfully obstinant refusal to recognize the very real value of diversity. This isn’t just some liberal whining about “Can’t we all just get along?”; I’m not arguing that the world is somehow “just a better place” when we have diversity. Diversity is vital in generating innovation and adapting to change (issues of at least a little importance in the world we have made for ourselves). Diversity manifestly enriches our lives (consider, for example, the wonderful diversities in world cuisine and world music, and how much more cooler our days are because of them).

And every language that goes extinct is a great chunk of experience, calved off the glacier of human history to melt away forever. Languages embed both knowledge and world view, and the loss of a language is the potential loss of much of that knowledge. The fact that a group in South America has over 70 words for “wasp” shouldn’t be seen as an oddity, it should be seen as a demonstration of the enormous importance of that insect to those people, and a collective encoding of a great deal of information about wasps. If that language goes extinct, that knowledge of those wasps goes with it.

This doesn’t mean that we should “freeze” languages, or force people to preserve their languages whether they want to or not. But we should be sad when one vanishes, and we should support people who wish to maintain their language in the face of all the pressures to the contrary.

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