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When Languages Die: Science and Sentiment

In his book When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge K. David Harrison illustrates the individual face of language loss, as well as its global scale. He shows that the disappearance of a language is a loss not only for the community of speakers itself but also for our common human knowledge of mathematics, biology, philosophy etc… In the excerpt below Harrison introduces us to language erosion.

Scientists try to avoid being sentimental about what they study. But in working with speakers of disappearing languages, it is hard not to take seriously their own feelings of sadness, regret, even anger at the fate of their language. Svetlana D., one of the last speakers of Tofa, told me in 2001: “The other day my daughter asked me, ‘Mom, why didn’t you teach us Tofa?’…I don’t know why. Such a beautiful, difficult language! Now it is all forgotten.”

Not all last speakers show such emotions: some are resigned to fate; others think of language shift as progress and do not want their children to speak an obscure and politically inferior tongue. A younger member of the Tofa community told me: “It’s useless to try to understand what the old people are saying.” Due to attitudes both inside and outside the community, last speakers often share a sense of isolation and invisibility. Language ceases to be language when it is not used for human conversation.

9780195181920.jpgLanguage loss is an issue that affected communities feel deeply about. Having completed ten years of fieldwork among endangered language communities, I write with a sense of deep empathy for the plight of last speakers and their soon to be lost knowledge. However, the disappearance of languages is both a social and scientific reality.

On the social front, many individuals and communities have mounted energetic efforts to preserve, transmit, reclaim, revive, and revitalize languages, knowing that languages only thrive in communities of speakers. Much has been written about these efforts, for example in a book entitled How to Keep Your Language Alive by Leanne Hinton and in The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. Such projects must be supported and expanded.

…On the scientific front, our knowledge is still quite imperfect as to how and why language death occurs, or how individual decisions made by children ripple through societies to create a tidal wave of change. We also lack a clear understanding of what exactly is being lost– is it unique, irreplaceable knowledge, or merely common sense knowledge uniquely packaged? Could such knowledge ever be adequately captured in books and video recordings in the absence of any speakers? Once vanished, can such knowledge be re-created, will it re-emerge spontaneously after a while, or is it forever unrecoverable?…

While science may also serve the needs of the speech community, this is not scientists’ primary goal. Despite the best of intentions, outsiders cannot ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ languages or reverse the trend. No one but the speakers themselves can preserve languages, since there is no such thing as a living human language without speakers…Often even speakers’ best efforts cannot bring a language back from the brink. What scientists can do is capture an accurate record in the form of recordings and analyses. These may prove useful to future scientists, future societies, children of heritage-language speakers, and, perhaps even new generations of speakers.

Dire predictions call for reduction of the world’s languages by half in the twenty-first century. Others are more optimistic, citing the resilience of some small languages and modest achievements in revitalizing others. No matter what, several thousand languages may already be at a point where no efforts can arrest the downward trend. If that is the case, then in the interest of science and humanity we must document what we can while we still can.

Recent Comments

  1. Scott Belyea

    I share many of the sentiments expressed. And yet …

    If a language is at the point where there are (to be arbitrary) fewer than 100 speakers, perhaps it should just be admitted that it’s over. I’m not sure what the benefit is of efforts to document what we can at that point.

    Mind you, this is not to suggest that preservation/encouragement efforts for languages with considerably larger communities are not worthwhile. It’s just that it seems to me that this is where efforts should be concentrated.

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