Wednesday, July 21, 2010

more on language death

Razib continues his thoughtful discussion of the interplay of linguistic diversity/homogeneity and socio-economic disparity/prosperity.

Money quote:
If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtual circle.” (emphasis in original)

I have a long history of discussing language death on this blog and my position can be summed up by this Q&A I had with myself:

Q: Is language death a separate phenomenon from language change?
A: In terms of linguistic effect, I suspect not

Q: Are there any favorable outcomes of language death?
A: I suspect, yes (Razib proposes one)

Q: How do current rates of language death compare with historical rates?
A: Nearly impossible to tell

Q: What is the role of linguists wrt language death?
A: One might ask: what is the role of mechanics wrt global warming?

1 comment:

Glossy said...

"Q: How do current rates of language death compare with historical rates?
A: Nearly impossible to tell."

I disagree. TV, state-run educational systems and easy travel are the principal causes of minor languages' death in the modern world. All three causes are recent. Languages are dying off at what must be an unprecedented rate now.

Being a language nerd, I mourn homogenization, but that's an emotional, not a logical response. Apart from that I guess one could argue that a multiplicity of high-end languages (i.e. of languages of high culture) works somewhat against herd thinking, that it makes it less likely that any political or cultural cliche would become universal.

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