Saturday, September 22, 2007

Poser Responds!

At 3:47pm yesterday (Sept 21), Bill Poser over at Language Log posted this interesting claim: "The rate of language loss has accelerated as communication and travel have become more rapid and efficient, but the phenomenon is far from new."

14 minutes earlier, at 3:33pm (same day), The Lousy Linguist (uh, me) posted this question: "How do current rates of language death compare with historical rates?"

It's doubtful that Poser was directly answering me (but The Lousy Linguist can dream...), but it does seem to directly answer the question. Unfortunately, no supporting evidence for the claim is offered, and there's the rub. As Crystal is quick to point out, rates of contemporary language death are very difficult to determine (in fact, he refers to the attempts as "well-informed guesswork", p15 of the PDF).

And as I was even quicker to point out "surely it must be even MORE difficult to estimate historical rates".

In the one chapter of Crystal's book that I have so far read, he opts for the position that 50% of the world's languages will be "lost" in the next 100 years. I have no reason not to accept this as fair. But I don't know how this compares with the past (it seems intuitive that this is far faster than historical rates, but honestly, I have only vague intuition to go on here, and no one else seems to have anything better). And, of course (insert broken record here) we have yet to tackle the truly important question of what linguistic effect this loss has.


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