That’s the title of a Wired article by Kendra Mayfield. It seems that the worthy Rosetta Project is creating an archive “that will preserve more than 1,400 of the world’s 7,000 languages on a 3-inch nickel disk.” The texts will be etched on microscopically rather than coded digitally, so that “future generations will need only a 1,000-power microscope to read the microprint.” My response: that’s nice, and I’m sure it will thrill future generations, but how is it keeping languages alive? The only way to do that is to get out there and work with native speakers in the field, helping them find creative ways of recording their language and making it useful to young people so they won’t simply settle for the majority language. The Rosetta archive reminds me of a graveyard full of stones with the death dates waiting to be filled in. [Via the Mermaid.]


  1. I ask this not as a challenge, but out of real desire to hear your thoughts, which I’m sure will go beyond platitudes about diversity, etc.: Why keep alive thousands of languages? How are we poorer if the world’s languages goes from 7,000 to 6,999?

  2. A good question, of course, but I’m not the best person to answer it, because I have a doubtless irrational attachment to diversity in general and linguistic diversity in particular. Sure, it could be argued that even the erstwhile speakers of Ubykh (to pick an example) are better off speaking Turkish rather than their consonant-choked Caucasian language, and it could be (and has been) argued that we’d all be better off speaking the same language. The thought gives me the creeps. To me, each language, like each person, has its own irreplaceable beauty, its quiddity, and I no more want to see everyone speaking English or Esperanto than to have everyone be a clone of myself.

  3. I may be thinking very simplistically. But here is what I think.

    In most linguistically diverse regions, it is very tough ‘to get ahead in life’ (in the conventional sense) if you are not well versed in the majority language (India and Russia immediately come to mind). Survival is the first priority. It is also expensive for poor countries to invest in keeping these languages alive.

    The developed countries, where you can think in terms of self actualization needs, seem to have largely homogeneous cultures.

    So, when it boils down to is this: should the majority $ in a state like Bihar (I know, not the best of examples) go into promoting Sanskrit and Maithili and Bhojpuri and Hindi or just Hindi? There isn’t much of a debate. And these are largely living languages with large number of people speaking them (well, not Sanskrit I guess). There may not be much cultural activities undertaken, but these languages will be there in future too. Think now about the tribal languages which may only have a few hundred people speaking them.

    It may be sad (from a heritage perspective) for these people to see their languages disappear. But that is the direction in which this world of ours is headed. Isn’t it better to at least have a ‘living archive’ of it?

  4. Absolutely — better an archive than nothing. And I agree that large wads of government money shouldn’t be spent (probably squandered, knowing governments) on propping up languages. But I do think there’s room for private initiatives, on the cheap, that would help local languages at least have a fairer shot at survival. It’s inevitable that many of them will disappear, but I hope there’s room for remnants in nooks and crannies.

    (With 40 million and 22 million speakers respectively, according to my sources, Bhojpuri and Maithili probably won’t be disappearing any time soon!)

  5. Kaushik, it’s understandable that one could have the impression that “the developed countries… seem to have largely homogeneous cultures.” Linguistic unity has been part of the ideology of nation-states for a few hundred years now, sometimes promoted by genocide, sometimes by gentler methods,. Proponents of that ideology have done their best to tie it to their other goals, such as prosperity or modernity, whether they had any evidence for the necessity of such a linkage or not.

    In fact, though, much of Europe is nearly as linguistically diverse as Asia or Africa, with hundreds of dialects of German, Italian, French, etc. thriving alongside the official national languages. Many of these dialects are unintelligible to speakers of the national language; some are full-fledged languages in themselves (such as Catalan and Basque). If you consider the EU as a whole then Europe’s linguistic diversity is even clearer. So don’t assume that the English and American model of near monolingualism (especially among people more than one generation removed from immigration) is the only model for a “developed” nation.

  6. Thanks for the feedback Prentiss. I didn’t know that Europe has so many dialects / languages. I was vaguely aware that German accents become remarkably different as you travel from German to Austria …but I did not know that there are hundreds of different dailects.

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