Yes, of course I’m going to talk about Jack Hitt’s article in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine. But long-time readers who remember my frequent railing at the idiocies perpetrated by the Times may be surprised at my response: I basically liked it. In this I part company from my fellow linguabloggers, Mark Liberman and Semantic Compositions, both of whom had serious bones to pick with it. It’s not that I disagree with them about the facts, it’s just that I have different standards for a long Magazine piece than I do for a news article. The latter, if it is about language, should get the facts right, just as a story about biology or politics should, and the Times seems to find that almost impossible. But since I know that to be true, I don’t expect any linguistic accuracy here, and the focus is not on the language (pace Mark Liberman, who seems personally offended that no account is taken of whatever peculiarities of morphology or syntax might be exhibited by Kawesqar, the language in question) but on the human meaning of language loss, which Hitt (in my opinion) gives a moving account of. He’s a good and thoughtful writer, and that is more important in this venue than knowing one’s fricatives from one’s stops. (I suspect I have an advantage here in being so long away from the academy that I’m better aware of what the average reader expects and needs from a mass publication; sure, I’d prefer a higher base of linguistic understanding in both the reading public and the ink-stained wretches, but I’d like world peace too.)
On the other hand, there is one head-slappingly stupid remark that has not been pointed out by the aforesaid carpers, so I’ll do the honors myself. Hitt says:
A handful of linguists dismiss salvage efforts like Terralingua’s as futile exercises. They say languages just die, as spoken Latin did, and then are reborn as French, Spanish and Italian. No big deal.
This is one of my pet peeves, and one that should be clear to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds, even with no linguistic training: Latin did not die. It grew, it developed, it gradually split into French, Spanish, Italian, and the other Romance languages, and it is still with us under those guises. It is dead in the sense that your four-year-old self is dead: that self was very different from you today, you probably don’t remember much about it, you wouldn’t understand much it said if you were somehow to encounter it… but in another and more important sense, it lives on in you. “Dead” is a metaphor here, and a dangerous one, tempting a writer into a stupid statement like this (which I guarantee was thought up by Hitt, not any “handful of linguists”). Kawesqar isn’t going to be “reborn,” it’s just going to die. It’s like telling someone about to be shot that your four-year-old self is still alive in you. It’s not going to reassure him. We really should reserve the term “dead” for languages that have gone from the earth without issue, like Sumerian and Ubykh, not for those that have simply changed into new forms, like Latin and Old English.
Addendum. Claire made a comment in this thread that she didn’t take seriously but I thought was actually a promising idea, and Mark Liberman agrees with me. Why shouldn’t companies sponsor dictionaries?
Further addendum. On the topic of not expecting much from non-linguists, see John McWhorter’s discussion at Language Log.