Saturday, September 22, 2007

cko's challenge

In her comment on my first post below, cko challenged me (rightly so) to “think about the language used in this discussion of language extinction. Where does it come from? What do these analogies contribute to this discussion and what do they potentially hide?” And it was the analysis of language death as cultural “loss” that got me thinking about this issue. But the real danger is missing any potential VALUE that language death may provide language evolution. This is a side of the issue wholly ignored, as far as I can tell. And it’s precisely because of those framing metaphors like “death” and “loss” that linguists have overlooked the study of favorable outcomes. We have an academic duty to view the whole picture of language death, even if that picture contradicts our political perspective.

There is an obvious correlate to contemporary debates over global warming. Again, cko comment is instructive: “much of the language loss that is currently occurring is due to non-natural forces”. This may or may not be true. That’s the point. We just don’t know how the current rate of language loss compares to historical rates. We don’t know because 1) estimating current rates is difficult and 2) estimating historical rates is nearly impossible. Yet conventional wisdom holds that contemporary language death rates MUST be unnaturally driven. We evil humans are KILLING languages!!!! O my god!


Bob Carpenter said...

I guess it's my week to post about long-standing philosophical disputes. The topic again is how we define "natural".

If beavers destroy an ecosystem by damming a river, is that unnatural? What if humans do it using even better tools than teeth, paws and logs?

It seems to me that the problem is trying to define a notion of "natural" that excludes humans. We evolved just like every other species.

One might argue we have more responsibility because of our bigger brains, but that hardly makes human action "unnatural", even if we're unethical, selfish, or just downright self-destructive to our planet.

Chris said...

Bob, you make a good point. Human behavior is what it is; no more unnatural than a beaver's or a predator's instincts.

This begs my earlier question: what exactly is the "problem" of language death?