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: