Friday, September 21, 2007

Language Death and Tough Questions

As promised, I've been following up on the contentious issue of language death, and I'm beginning to formulate a research direction. I'm noticing a clear bias among those who champion the fight against language death: they all assume its bad. Over the last few days I've developed a few foundational questions that I feel are being overlooked. Question #2 is one of these paradigm shifters, so watch out!

My current research questions regarding language death:

  1. Is language death a separate phenomenon from language change?
  2. Is language death good? (or, less caustically: are there any favorable outcomes of language death?)
  3. How do current rates of language death compare with historical rates?
  4. What is the role of linguists wrt language death?

Here’s an attempt at first principles regarding language death

  1. language change is natural
  2. language change is a basic part of how language works
  3. language change is good
  4. language death is natural
  5. ???

I resist taking this further … for now. But I suspect that there is an analogous argument to be made for language death (or, perhaps more likely, that language death is not a separate phenomenon from language change, and analyzing it as separate clouds the important issues that linguists need to study).

In the last two days, I’ve had a brief opportunity to read up on language death, and it appears that David Crystal is one of the world’s leading figures championing the fight against language death. I’ve just read a sample of Crystal’s book Language Death (Cambridge University Press: 2000). There is a PDF of the first 23 pages of the first chapter What Is Language Death freely available via Cambridge Press online. The second chapter appears to begin just a few pages later, so it’s not clear why the PDF was cut short (or, if the chapter really ends as abruptly as the PDF), but it’s not a significant deletion, and the point is quite clear. Language death is rampant, regardless of how or what you count.

My general impression of the Crystal chapter: The mission of the first chapter, as its title implies, is to establish the facts of language death, and it does an admirable job with this task. Unfortunately, this is beside the point for me. I have no reason to debate the FACT of language death; rather I want to debate the alleged PROBLEM of language death. I consider the fact of language death and the problem of language death to be two different things. I look forward to reading Crystal’s second chapter Why Should We Care? and the third chapter Why Do languages Die? These should address my central questions more directly.

Here are what I consider to be the highlights of Crystal’s chapter 1:

  1. Language death is like person death because languages need people to exist
  2. Language death = no one speaks it anymore
  3. Language needs 2 speakers to be “alive”
  4. Speakers are “archives” of language
  5. A dead language with no record = never existed
  6. Ethnologue lists about 6,300 living languages
  7. Difficult estimating rate of language loss
  8. Almost half of Ethnologue languages don’t even have surveys (let alone descriptions)
  9. Difficulties in establishing relationship between dialects
  10. Crystal accepts mutual intelligibility criteria as definition of language (Quechua = 12 diff languages)
  11. Crystal accepts 5k-7k as range of # of languages
  12. Footnote 19 = maybe 31,000-600,000 languages ever existed; 140,000 reasonable “middle road” estimate
  13. A language must have fluent living speakers to be “alive”
  14. How many speakers to be viable -- Unclear
  15. 10,000 – 20k speakers suggests viability in the short term
  16. 96% of world population speaks just 4% of the existing languages
  17. 500 languages have less than 100 speakers
  18. 1500 less than 1000
  19. 3,340 less than 10,000
  20. Therefore, about 4k languages are in danger of death
  21. Difficult to estimate current rate of death (me: surely it must be even MORE difficult to estimate historical rates)
  22. Canadian survey = appears to be a downward trend in aboriginal languages spoken at home
  23. Teen years seems to be when people begin to dis-favor their home language
  24. Experts agree – majority of world languages are in danger in next 100 years
  25. How to determine which languages are “more” endangered than others
Okay, that's where I am now. I hope to review Crystal's chapters 2 & 3 and respond this weekend.

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