Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Language Death vs. Language Murder

Today, The Huffington post linked to an article about language death titled "Researchers Say Many Languages Are Dying" and I feel compelled to give my two cents. As a caveat, I should say that I do not have special training in anthropological linguistics or socio-linguistics, beyond what everyone who does a PhD at a functionalism-biased linguistics department is required to undergo. I will spend the next few days looking into this topic, as it causes passions to flare. I will start with a "gut reaction" post, with the hopes of adding more substance in the coming days.

My two cents = I don't think there is anything inherently "wrong" with the death of a language, just like I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with the death of a certain species or a certain person. I believe it's true that most species of living things that have ever existed are currently extinct. This is probably also true of languages. Extinction is natural.

The HuffPo article quoted professor K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, as saying this: "When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday."

My gut reaction is that this is an overly bold claim and ought to be scaled back. I think calling this a "loss" is probably the wrong way to analyze the change that occurs with language death. But even if it were true, such loss is inevitable, and not necessarily bad. Think of it this way, when a person dies, we "lose" the lifetime of experience and knowledge that she held. This is sad, surely, but also natural and we accept it.

It seems to me that feeling sad or angry over language death conflates the death with murder. It's language murder that ought to be the stopped. Language murder is probably the result of specific policy decisions that governments make regarding education, published materials, and public discourse. Language death is natural. Language murder is intentional and rational.

More later. The HuffPo article is here:


cko said...

Dear Lousy Linguist,
There are parts of me that share your opinion, that language loss is a natural phenomenon, just as loss in the biological realm can be due to natural phenomena. There are other parts of me (let us say, the more passionate anthropological linguist parts) that think that much of the language loss that is currently occurring is due to non-natural forces (which might be likened to what you term "language death"). I won't go any further about my opinions, just that I am sympathetic to both sides.
For now, I challenge you 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?
As an aside, I also ask you to think about whose right it is to let a language die or live. Does Harrison (or any other linguist, for that matter) have the authority to go to a community and tell them the crappy shape their language is in? What if the community members knowingly choose to let their language die?
Your favorite fieldworker

Anonymous said...

except when your language death and decline is directly linked to colonization and US imperialism and white privilege and hierarchy. And its directly killing off your culture and tradition and way of thinking. thats when its not ok? but if I were a white guy, I'd probably care less? It's not natural, language murder is not natural. Yeah, ok, let me go kill someone and stand over their dead body and say "hey, its natural!" *rolls eyes* try again dude. Color-blindness in linguistics is not cool.

Chris said...

Thanks for the reaction to this classic post. I followed it up with a variety of posts over several weeks. Those follow-up posts address most of the issues you evoked with your passionate comment. Here is my set of posts related to language death.

Putting the Linguistics into Kaggle Competitions

In the spirit of Dr. Emily Bender’s NAACL blog post Putting the Linguistics in Computational Linguistics , I want to apply some of her thou...