ENDANGERED LANGUAGES.

P. Kerim Friedman has a good post deconstructing a NY Times article by David Berreby that attacks the whole concept of trying to preserve languages. My favorite sentence: “He fails to grasp that the process of language death only seems natural if you accept the power inequalities that cause it in the first place.” Well said, Kerim! (Karen Chung tried to get a discussion of the article going on LINGUISTList, but it didn’t get very far.)

Comments

  1. Anatoly says:

    “It is an intelligent, well written article that is ultimately fundamentally flawed and highly conservative.”
    Wow! Is that the order of increasing damnation or what? As if the author were saying: “Not only is it fundamentally flawed, but also, more horribly, it is highly conservative! Well, that really settles the issue then.”
    Then there is this:
    “He attempts to address that concern by claiming that languages, like Ubykh “can be revived 500 years from now” – just as Hebrew was. But that is simply wrong. First of all, the Hebrew spoken now is not the same as that spoken 500 years ago, and secondly, the people speaking Hebrew now live in a very different world with very different social and political implications to speaking Hebrew.”
    And these two points are different in a case of a language that never died — like, oh, say, English — how, exactly?

  2. “And these two points are different in a case of a language that never died — like, oh, say, English — how, exactly?”
    Lets take the case of Hebrew. First lets explore what basis can we say it has been revived? It was basically re-invented by a single individual based on his research into the lexical and grammatical changes that Arabic had undergone over those 500 years. During the interveaning years it was used only in the restricted religious domain, while Yiddish or Ladino were the languages of daily communication. On what grounds then can we say that Hebrew was “revived”, it seems better to say it was “inspired by”…
    Now, lets take the question of similarity to English. First of all, the existence of a long line of literary works streatching through time, including Shakespeare, that are still appreciated today does point to a certain continuity of language. Although we might have difficulty speaking to Shakespeare (were we to meet him) and we need footnotes for some of the words, we can still appreciate Shakespeare in its original form. Not only have Hebrew speakers of eastern European origin been severed from their Yiddish past, but they cannot appreciate the Arabic literature from Shakespeare’s era.
    But this is really just a diversionary intellectual exercise which takes us away from the real issue: preserving languages isn’t about preserving the languages as much as it is about the political and cultural rights of speakers of those langauges. If you revive a language it is because of the contemporary political needs of those speakers (Zionism in this case) and not about the language per se. So, if we aruge that we don’t need to preserve a language because it can be revived we are arguing in bad faith – ignoring the contemporary political needs of those speakers. That is why I specifically said the article was “conservative”. I see conservativism as a strategy to ignore the impact of power relations on our daily lives.

  3. Anatoly says:

    My point, first and foremost, was that both points cited against the possibility of “reviving” a language actually apply in the case of a living language as well — and therefore, both these points are fallacious.
    Having re-asserted that (and I don’t believe that this contention of mine has been challenged), let me reply to your points re: the revival of Hebrew.
    Lets take the case of Hebrew. First lets explore what basis can we say it has been revived? It was basically re-invented by a single individual based on his research into the lexical and grammatical changes that Arabic had undergone over those 500 years.
    This is a highly inaccurate assertion. There is simply no truth to saying that the language was “re-invented by a single individual”. Hebrew has been increasingly used as a literary language throughout the 19th century (a translation of “Romeo and Juliet” into Hebrew, published in 1876, is a personal favourite of mine), and by the end of the 19th century there were quite a few people attempting to use it as a spoken language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was merely the most persistent and enthusiastic among them. He came up with many words for modern objects and notions that Hebrew lacked, he compiled an important dictionary, and he raised the first modern child with Hebrew as his first language. But he did not “reform” the language in any real way. Moreover, the Arabic language and its evolution during the preceding 500 years had at best a marginal direct effect on the process of revival of Hebrew.
    On what grounds then can we say that Hebrew was “revived”, it seems better to say it was “inspired by”…
    On the grounds of obvious continuity of grammar, vocabulary, phonetics etc.
    Now, lets take the question of similarity to English. First of all, the existence of a long line of literary works streatching through time, including Shakespeare, that are still appreciated today does point to a certain continuity of language.
    There have been literary works written in Hebrew throughout all the centuries in which it was dead as a daily spoken language.
    Although we might have difficulty speaking to Shakespeare (were we to meet him) and we need footnotes for some of the words, we can still appreciate Shakespeare in its original form. Not only have Hebrew speakers of eastern European origin been severed from their Yiddish past, but they cannot appreciate the Arabic literature from Shakespeare’s era.
    This is a very bizarre comparison. Why would Hebrew speakers of any origin be required to be able to read Arabic literature of any era in order to judge the status of the Hebrew language? That’s as absurd as requiring modern English speakers to be able to read German literature of Shakespeare’s era, in order to conclude that English never died!
    In fact, speakers of modern Hebrew are able to read literary works written in medieval Hebrew, or even Biblical Hebrew (with some difficulties, but still, it comes much easier to them than reading Chaucer, not to mention Beowulf, comes to speakers of modern English) — so if that’s the measure of continuity, Hebrew preserves continuity with the past much more successfully than English.

  4. The paragraph in Mr Berreby’s article that most annoyed me was: “So maybe the human race has all the languages it needs, and deserves. When we need a new one, we invent it. Language evolution is taking place every day; why interfere with it?” When does biological or linguistic evolution excuse language eradication? And how do you usually get people to stop speaking their language? I think it’s usually a lengthy and violent process.

  5. Anatoly says:

    When does biological or linguistic evolution excuse language eradication?
    Evolution doesn’t excuse eradication, it involves eradication — in language as well as in biology. Berreby’s point, I think, is that interfering with eradication most assuredly means interfering with this “natural” “process” of “evolution”.
    And how do you usually get people to stop speaking their language? I think it’s usually a lengthy and violent process.
    It used to be. Nowadays it mostly isn’t. Just as getting people to stop wearing their local costumes, or weaving their baskets in their traditional ways, or telling their local folktales to their children used to be a lengthy and violent process — and mostly isn’t nowadays. You’ll note, however, that there doesn’t seem to be as much global concern over disappearance of specific local cultural customs and traditions as there is over disapperance of local languages.

  6. I seem to be somewhat misinformed about the history of Hebrew. I made the claim about Arabic literature because I was under the impression that there was no medieval Hebrew literature to speak of. I stand corrected. I also thought that there were far more Arabic borrowings than you claim. My impression was that it was something akin to the large number of words borrowed from romance languages into English during the renaissance – except even more dramatic because of the great period of time that the language had not been used in daily life.
    I stand by my claim that it isn’t really relevant to the important issues.
    “You’ll note, however, that there doesn’t seem to be as much global concern over disappearance of specific local cultural customs and traditions as there is over disapperance of local languages.”
    It is possible to keep one’s language at the same time as one gives up an agricultural life for an urban one. I would not argue that people be forced to maintain an agricultural existance (with all the associated customs), but I think that the process of rural development is disruptive enough without loosing one’s language as well.

  7. A few borrowings from Arabic, more calquing, but not all that much overall influence on the language.
    Still, I would not recomend death and resurrection as a reasonable course for an endangered language. Hardly a safe course of action.

  8. Anatoly– I’m not sure. The Nuristani in Afghanistan and the Kurds and other linguistic minorities in Turkey may have a thing to say about official language policies. Also, I think it’d be pretty hard to suppress a culture without also suppressing its language and vice versa. There’s a difference between learning a national language in your country (and becoming bilingual) and being told you cannot speak your language or post public texts in the same. Take a look at the French policy until quite recently in Brittany and the French Basque country. Also, though language endangerment usually looks rather benign to speakers of dominant languages, the endangered speakers usually see things differently. –jfb

  9. Anatoly says:

    Kerim,
    It is possible to keep one’s language at the same time as one gives up an agricultural life for an urban one.
    Yes, but that’s not the point, is it? It is also possible (well, it often is possible) to forego urbanisation altogether, yet people by and large embrace the urban way of life.
    So, we seem to live in an age when many people find it to their benefit to forget their cultural heritage and be absorbed in urban life (even when they aren’t forced to do that), and many people find it to their benefit to forego their local language or dialect, to allow or even encourage their children to adopt a different, more popular, language (even when they aren’t forced to do that). The cases are similar, yet we mostly hear only one of them described in terms of a cultural tragedy.

  10. Anatoly,
    I don’t think it is a matter of dictating to people what they should desire – but enabling them to have the power to make choices over their own lives. If you deprive someone of their own language you deprive them of certain choices.
    Moreover, there are serious efforts to provide regional autonomy to indigenous people in several parts of the world. Canada and New Zealand have been fairly successful, while Taiwan is struggling to implement such policies. In Latin America it is often a violent life and death struggle.
    I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t think these issues are serious – but the point is not to paternalistically dictate culture to people; rather it is to provide them with the resources to make their own choices. That’s what democracy is all about – isn’t it?
    - kerim

  11. Here is a follow-up post I made to my site, with letters that have been published in the Times since the article ran.
    http://kerim.oxus.net/nucleus/index.php?itemid=1344

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