How a Language Dies.

Again via Far Outliers, another quote from Don Kulick’s A Death in the Rainforest (see this post):

The first casualty of the villagers’ increased acquisition of Tok Pisin was their competence in other local languages. Before the arrival of Tok Pisin, Gapuners were a highly multilingual people. No one in the surrounding villages bothered to learn their little language—a situation that suited Gapuners just fine since it meant that they could employ Tayap as a secret code that nobody else understood.

To communicate with people from other villages, men and women in Gapun learned the local vernacular languages that those people spoke. During my first long stay in the village in the 1980s, I listened to old people who had grown up before the Second World War confidently speaking two other local languages that were unrelated to Tayap or to each other, and I also heard those old people responding to one or two other languages, which they clearly understood even if they couldn’t speak them.

In the generation born after the war, when Tok Pisin “came up big,” competence in other village vernaculars plummeted. People no longer needed to learn local languages because, at that point, it was easier to communicate in Tok Pisin. Women lagged behind men, and they continued to learn other vernacular languages for another generation, largely because women in the area generally still did not speak Tok Pisin as easily as men did. By the 1970s, though, even Gapun women’s active competence in other vernaculars was eclipsed by Tok Pisin.

Once women started speaking Tok Pisin, they started directing it at their young children. This in itself didn’t necessarily mean very much. Unlike middle-class parents in places like northern Europe and the United States, adults in Gapun don’t spend a lot of time talking to small children. They don’t use language to try to teach their kids anything since they don’t believe that toddlers learn by being taught. And to try to converse with a baby is nonsensical since a baby can’t hold up its end of the conversation and talk back.

But when children, especially girls, start to get pressed into service to help mothers care for a new baby, mothers begin to give the kids orders. And those orders—to fetch firewood, to hand the baby whatever it is crying for, to climb up a tree to get betel nut—increasingly got formulated in Tok Pisin. Women started doing to their small children what men had been doing to boys and young men (and their wives) for decades—ordering them about in Tok Pisin. And indeed, the men who ordered their sons, nephews, and wives around in Tok Pisin learned the language themselves in situations where they had been ordered around in Tok Pisin by white overseers.

[…]

This, then, is how a language dies: in Gapun, Tok Pisin was incorporated into the villagers’ linguistic repertoire first at the expense of other village vernaculars, and, ultimately, at the expense of their own vernacular. There has been a steady reduction in the number of languages that villagers command, to the point where their impressive multilingualism has in the course of four generations been reduced to monolingualism. A people who used to command many languages now increasingly command only one. And that one is not their ancestral language, Tayap. It is, instead, Tok Pisin.

That’s one of the best explanations I’ve seen of how language death happens (beyond the trivial “the last speaker died”), and it makes the inevitability (given the right circumstances) depressingly clear. I realize there are plenty of people who are indifferent to language death — or even welcome it as a step toward that glorious future when we will all speak one language, share the same sociopolitical system, and use the same detergents, and the lion will lie down with the lamb — but I am not one of them.

(And yes, I know the Bible does not say that, it says “the leopard will lie down with the kid” and “the wolf and the lamb shall graze together.” I am not quoting the Bible.)

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Women started doing to their small children what men had been doing to boys and young men (and their wives) for decades—ordering them about in Tok Pisin.

    Indeed: the tipping point is when the intruding language becomes the normal way that parents communicate with their own children. There’s really no way back from that.

    Minority languages seem to be able to survive in quite a stable state despite never being used in education or in technical contexts, just as long as the speakers continue to use it among themselves by default both in the home and when socialising within their own group.

    There are more Kusaal speakers now than ever before in the whole history of mankind, though the language has really never been used in education, and nobody has ever discussed motor maintenance or intravenous infusion in Kusaal. It doubtless helps that language is strongly associated in that zone with ethnic identity*, with language names almost all being based on ethnonyms: this is far from universally the case, even in West Africa. And also, of course, that there have probably always been a great many more Kusaal speakers than Tayap speakers.

    *This cuts both ways: not only do different ethnic groups speaking what a linguist would regard as the same language get awarded different languages, but Toende and Agolle Kusaasi regard the language of both groups as simply “Kusaal”, even though Burkinabe Toende speakers without much previous exposure to the Agolle dialect self-report quite low levels of comprehension of it.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    “The lion will lie down with the lamb” is a non-Scriptural prophecy of a dystopian meteorological future in which the weather in March is not unpredictable or variable at all but the same every day of the month and the same as every day in the same month the previous year.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s all very well for the wolf and the lamb to graze together – but if they don’t speak a common language, fatal misunderstandings may ensue.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    If a lion could speak, the lamb would not understand him.

  6. There is a nice bit with the lion and the lamb in Will Vinton’s Claymation The Adventures of Mark Twain, right before the the intermission of The Diary of Adam and Eve segment. As death comes into world (engineered by Eve so that vultures will have “decayed flesh” to eat), the relationship between the animated lion and lamb changes very rapidly. Unfortunately, I cannot find a free video link to it.

    I have also long been fond of The Peaceable Kingdom painted by Edward Hicks. There are many, many versions of the work—varying in different degrees. It was presumably popular, especially in the Quaker community, to display a version. Hicks’s Wikipedia page even shows a portrait of Hicks painting a copy of The Peaceable Kingdom (painted, in turn, by his cousin Thomas Hicks). The Peaceable Kingdom was an important work of both religious and political significance, showing the equitable Treaty of Shackamaxon between William Penn’s Quakers and Tamanend’s Lenni Lenape as part of the idealized peaceful tableaux.

  7. We;l, someone interviewed a biologist who lived with wolves, in the style of (very popular in Russia) Never Cry Wolf by Mowat. He hunted with them too.

    part 1, part 2

    (Google translate looks comrehensible: 1, 2)

  8. Never Cry Wolf was made into a movie that came out back in the mid-1980s. I remember thinking back then that it was rather well done. I haven’t watched it since.

    Farley Mowat was someone who sometimes pushed his descriptions in a certain direction. But mostly it was to make the end result more interesting. I would go along with him for some way.

  9. Rodger C says:

    One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.

    W. H. Auden used to quote that as “One law for the Ox and the Ass is Oppression,” which, um, doesn’t mean the same thing.

  10. “It’s all very well for the wolf and the lamb to graze together – but if they don’t speak a common language, fatal misunderstandings may ensue.”

    When I first started learning Hindi, I was amused to to see that the word for “wolf” appears to be derived from the word for “sheep”. Also saddened at the scarcity of etymological dictionaries in Hindi with which to check that.

  11. The movie version of Never Cry Wolf is quite good. It has some very memorable scenes, and it’s certainly the only film I know in which playing the bassoon is important to the plot. I haven’t seen Never Cry Wolf in a very long time, but one of the science teachers at my high school was a huge fan.

  12. John Cowan says:

    the word for “wolf” appears to be derived from the word for “sheep”

    Wikt just says s.v. bheṛiyā, “Cf. bheṛ“. I am profoundly ignorant of Hindi, but it seems plausible that this might be a compound ‘sheep-eater, -hunter, -killer’ or the like. There is another word bŕk, transparently < Skt vṛka; what the semantic or register distinction may be, I don’t know.

  13. John Emerson says:

    Mowat wrote several interesting books, including “People of the Deer” about inland Eskimos on Hudson B and “The Siberians” about — guess who.

    As I remember, he was refused entry to the. US, presumably because he was overly friendly to the Russians.

  14. I remember liking both the book Never Cry Wolf and the movie based on it quite a lot. (I have no idea how well the wolf biology/ecology reported in the book holds up.)

    I did recently become aware that he wrote a book called The Farfarers which claims that Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland were settled by “Albans” (his name for the pre-Celtic Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles) early in the 1st millennium AD, something for which I believe there is basically zero archeological evidence.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Well, there were Irish monks in Iceland before the Norse migration there. They left: and who shall blame them?

    Not sure that a few monks count as “settlement”, though.

  16. Yes, it is the second time (I do not remember the first) I wanted to mention those monks (in leather boats I think?). The point is here (and before) is that Iceland was known and accessible and accessed.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    The Faroes and Iceland were known and accessible, and we should ask what made colonization of the western islands so attractive just then, Political oppression following the unification of Norway is often cited, but I don’t think that’s enough. For one thing, unification didn’t really take hold for another 200 years. For another, oppression of the highway robber chieftains along the coast should make trade in Arctic goods easier and better paid back home. I think the reason might be increased demand and better prices for luxury goods with the relative peace and proseperity of the Carolingian Empire, and a subsequent exhaustion of the resources in Northern Norway.

  18. @Peter Erwin: If you take literally the early Irish accounts of the voyages of, e.g., Saint Brendan the navigator, then it certainly seems like the Irish explorers made it to the New World. In fact, there are descriptions that suggest they reached both the Maritime Provinces of Canada and the Caribbean islands. I have no strong opinion on the truth or falsity of these claims, but they do correspond to the simplest reading of the recorded annals.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    Me: For another, oppression of the highway robber chieftains along the coast should make trade in Arctic goods easier and better paid back home.

    But, OTOH, if we instead see the earls of Møre and Hålogaland (later at Lade) as installed by the Danish king to guarantee safe trade along the coast, the Hårfagri kingdom might actually be the robber chieftaincy that made travel so dangerous and expensive that some decided to branch out their operation to the distant islands in the west.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Peter Erwin: I did recently become aware that he wrote a book called The Farfarers which claims that Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland were settled by “Albans” (his name for the pre-Celtic Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles) early in the 1st millennium AD, something for which I believe there is basically zero archeological evidence.

    I learned about this book quite a few years ago when it came out, and bought a copy as a gift for an anthropologist friend living far from Canada. This was before I read the whole thing and learned that it was based much more on imagination than factual evidence. But since archeology in that region is not hugely developed, and global warming is leading to unsuspected findings, there may be some actual traces that haven’t been found yet. Meanwhile, the book (as far as I remember) is structured as alternating novel-like parts with evidence-based parts, so there is something in it for different tastes to enjoy.

  21. January First-of-May says:

    were settled by “Albans” (his name for the pre-Celtic Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles) early in the 1st millennium AD

    Surely the early 1st millennium AD (i.e. the time of the Roman Empire) is too late for any “pre-Celtic Neolithic inhabitants” in the British isles?

    Unless he’s trying to imply that they went across the sea as refugees from the advancing Celts. Прогнал он бедных пиктов к скалистым берегам.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    It’s far too late for “Neolithic”, but it’s not too late for “pre-Celtic”: there’s evidence for a non-Celtic (and quite possibly non-IE) language in parts of Ireland well after Roman times.

    (Of course “Neolithic” may just mean “direct descendants of the Neolithic population of the British Isles”. It wasn’t yet known that those were almost completely replaced by Bell Beaker people in the Bronze Age.)

  23. Trond Engen says:

    And it wasn’t understood that the Picts probably were Bryths too.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve given up trying to form an opinion on what the Pictish language was. The inscriptions are just too bizarre and too short. I’d rather try to connect North Picene with the pre-Roman coins of Sicily…

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    The inscriptions are just too bizarre and too short.

    They mostly relate to deep-fried Mars Bars.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    That, finally, explains the triple letters.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    too bizarre and too short.

    This is a good argument for continuity to the modern era.

    No, sorry, thought you described the people, not the inscriptions.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pittenweem!

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