Languages and Ecosystems.

This Living on Earth story makes a point that’s been made here before but that needs to be repeated because it’s often neglected by those who think the death of languages is no big deal (why can’t they just speak English?):

But [Jonathan] Loh, who’s also a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, says that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face.

“Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well,” he says.

And that’s no coincidence. Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. “The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior,” he says.

So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. “Then children stop learning the language, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge,” Loh says.

There are plenty of linguists who are studying and trying to preserve native languages, but Loh wants to see them work with biologists to make sure that valuable ecological history isn’t missed. “Linguists often don’t have the knowledge of natural history that’s necessary in order to be able to record an endangered language because so much of the lexicon is tied up with names of species or types of ecosystems,” he says.

He argues that “if we can recognize that culture and nature are inextricably interlinked, then working on a biocultural diversity as a whole, as a subject, would be a more fruitful way of looking at conservation.”

As is so often the case, specialists need to talk to each other across the boundaries of their specialties.

Comments

  1. those who think the death of languages is no big deal (why can’t they just speak English?)

    I’ve commented on this topic here before. I don’t think the death of languages is no big deal (I worked myself in “language maintenance” from 1970 to 1973), and I have never been happy to see the English language, whose great literature I love, reduced to a lingua franca all over the globe. This is no “triumph” of the English language.

    But I do insist that people, including linguists, have reasons for their concern commensurate with their efforts, and those reasons must go beyond sentimentality and the occasional job opportunity.

    What Loh says is all valid, except that linguistic diversity, unlike biological diversity, cannot even in principle be maintained “from the outside”. Ultimately the only people who can prevent the loss of a language are its speakers, and most of them, frankly, don’t care what language they speak. The fact is that for most people (just about everybody except grammarians and linguists, professional and non-professional) language is totally transparent. People see the world through language, but they do not see language, especially their own. Signs that a language is being lost, by definition, come too late. Therefore language death is as inevitable as human death – and of course the latter is the cause of the former.

    specialists need to talk to each other across the boundaries of their specialties

    A good field linguist will become informed about the natural history of the area in which (s)he works. If (s)he is lucky enough to spend more than a summer or so in the community, speakers themselves will bring up what they know. But even though, as Colin Painter used to say, linguistics leads you everywhere, few people can follow all the leads. Usually it is up to the botanists and so on to interpret the lexica that linguists produce.

  2. This is no “triumph” of the English language.

    You’re in good company. I’ve quoted this before, but I can’t resist doing so again:

    Málin eru höfuðeinkenni þjóðanna – ‘Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too, or become different peoples. But that never happens except as the result of oppression and distress.’

    These are the words of a little-known Icelander of the early nineteenth century, Sjéra Tomas Saemundsson, He had, of course, primarily in mind the part played by the cultivated Icelandic language, in spite of poverty, lack of power, and insignificant numbers, in keeping the Icelanders in being in desperate times. But the words might as well apply to the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language for its own sake (not as an aspirant for the ruinous honour of becoming the lingua franca of the world), and who by it and with it maintain their identity.

    —J.R.R. Tolkien, “English and Welsh”

    language is totally transparent

    I think you have to add to “grammarians and linguists” a further list of exceptions: poets, playwrights, and fiction writers. “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words” (Ursula K. LeGuin). What is more, every child is a poet, a singer, a dancer, a playwright, a painter, a sculptor, an architect. To my seven-year-old grandson, language is anything but transparent, and easily half his questions (there are many) are about words and phrases.

    linguistics leads you everywhere

    Indeed, every piece of knowledge is at the center of knowledge, for it leads by plain or devious connections to all the rest.

  3. What Loh says is all valid, except that linguistic diversity, unlike biological diversity, cannot even in principle be maintained “from the outside”.

    Not maintained, but it can certainly be encouraged (or discouraged) from the outside. Whether mere local or national governments can provide enough encouragement to counterbalance the homogenizing powers of globalization is another question, of course.

  4. Ultimately the only people who can prevent the loss of a language are its speakers, and most of them, frankly, don’t care what language they speak.

    What people care about is not decided in a vaccuum, people care about what brings the good and averts the bad. The good can be money, it can be social status, it can be the rapt attention of linguistic researchers into biological terminology, it can be lots of things. (I think I said the rest on the thread about the Veddas, so I won’t repeat myself. But linguists of all people have an important role to play in people’s perceptions about the status of their language/dialect.)

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    What’s the evidence that this alleged loss of irreplaceable knowledge happens via language shift, considered in isolation? If the speakers of X are driven off their ancestral land, die of disease, all move to the city to pursue greater economic opportunities, etc etc (all of which could be associated with language loss), sure. But assume a situation in which the X community is still living in the same ecological niche on the same territory, still farming the same crops and/or hunting/gathering the same animals/fruits/nuts/whatever without any dramatic change in technique or technology, but language shift is underway and the younger generation no longer speaks X but instead speaks Portuguese or Tok Pisin or whatever the dominant local vernacular is. Are we to assume that the older generation is incapable of transmitting all it knows about how to farm/hunt/gather/otherwise-survive-in-this-ecological-niche to the younger generation across a language barrier? Really? Because X had the lexical resources to distinguish between frog species A and frog species B and Tok Pisin (or whatever) previously lacked them, the younger generation will not be able to understand the difference, because they couldn’t possibly adopt loanwords or otherwise innovate lexical distinctions relevant to their situation in a language other than their ancestal one? What’s the case study where that’s happened? Doesn’t that totally sound like dubious first-world romanticization of the Noble Savage?

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    Shorter version: This seems just a specialized applicable of “X has a word for Y which English lacks, therefore something something gooey and mystical about the inherent somethingness of X” even though it is inevitably the case that if a sufficient quorum of Anglophones eventually wants to talk about Y, a way will be found to do so.

  7. Are we to assume that the older generation is incapable of transmitting all it knows about how to farm/hunt/gather/otherwise-survive-in-this-ecological-niche to the younger generation across a language barrier?

    I see your point for knowledge that is still in practical use. But there is also passive knowledge preserved in songs, epics, ritual etc which can get lost with language shift.

  8. Yeah, that sort of knowledge is highly marginal in today’s world and can easily get lost. I have seen more than one account of some bit of natural-world information that just happened to be picked up from an elderly informant and turned out to lead to some useful discovery. It is a great mistake to think that the universe of commonly known information equals the universe of all information worth knowing. (See “who needs books? it’s all online!”).

  9. I think you have to add to “grammarians and linguists” a further list of exceptions: poets, playwrights, and fiction writers.

    The question is, to what extent they avoid woo. Of all the literary types who have taken an interest in language as such, the most notable is surely Laura Riding (1901-1991), with whose work I have spent a great deal of time, trying to figure out what she was getting at. After she abandoned poetry in 1941 as “forever compromised between creed and craft” she and her husband, Schuyler B. Jackson, wrote a 598-page tome, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words (1997). The goal of the book is stated as “to look at language from the inside, as of one substance with human identity, possessed in a state of natural familiarity with it.” I do not know what that means. But if ever anyone could have arrived at some sort of approach to “language itself”, coming at it from a literary point of view, it would have been Laura Riding (W. H. Auden called her “the only philosophical poet”). But I can only say, in the end, one solid semester of linguistics might have helped her get wherever she wanted to go. I won’t even talk about Ezra Pound.

    Of course Tolkien is above reproach and could speak clearly about language, but then he knew linguistics.

    “X has a word for Y which English lacks, therefore something something gooey and mystical about the inherent somethingness of X”

    That is spot on, in my opinion. There is quantum woo and language woo, but language woo is much more accessible.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Whether mere local or national governments can provide enough encouragement to counterbalance the homogenizing powers of globalization is another question, of course.

    Globalization alone is certainly capable of producing a global Sprachbund, but would not at all necessarily lead to language death if all else were equal.

    Are we to assume that the older generation is incapable of transmitting all it knows about how to farm/hunt/gather/otherwise-survive-in-this-ecological-niche to the younger generation across a language barrier? Really?

    There is research on how herding reindeer in Russian works. Apparently it works, but it’s rather hard. Unfortunately that’s all I remember.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    Well, the question is how much more likely is it that that one stray bit of information that everyone except grandpa has forgotten is going to survive him if there hasn’t been language shift in the community? Heck if the language isn’t endangered maybe there aren’t going to be any well-meaning outsiders motivated to elicit information from grandpa that his own grandchildren aren’t interested in hearing about. As to passive knowledge embodied in songs etc., well, maybe. But absent literacy and a manuscript tradition how confident are we that orally transmitted texts are going to be stable over time and reliably preserve the embedded knowledge that’s “passive” in the sense of not actually consciously understood by those who are singing the song and thus unusually vulnerable to reinterpretation in eggcorn/mondegreenish fashion?

  12. The question is, to what extent they avoid woo.

    I wasn’t presenting writers as examples of people who know more linguistics than the average, but as people for whom language is not simply instrumental (or if so, it is a completely different kind of instrument). In any case, it’s the body of work that counts, not the woo surrounding it: plenty of painters and sculptors have talked complete rubbish about their own work and other people’s, but that didn’t necessarily mean their art was no good, and the same is true of writers. Woo comes from the ego; art comes from the total personality.

  13. The potential problem with the “we need endangered languages, because they contain valuable biological/ecological knowledge” argument is, I think, twofold:
    1. It implies that if you manage to extract all the local ecological knowledge that the language has, it then becomes less valuable and less worth saving;
    2. Some of that local “ecological” knowledge may end up being wrong; you still have to do real scientific research (outside the linguistic sphere) to determine this.

    (I remember someone making this “local languages contain valuable biological knowledge” argument in an article linked to from Language Log a few years back, and one of the examples he gave was a Siberian language that referred to snakes as something like “fish that swim in the grass”. Which is really quite lovely from a poetic point of view, but biologically nonsense.)

  14. how confident are we that orally transmitted texts are going to be stable over time and reliably preserve the embedded knowledge that’s “passive” in the sense of not actually consciously understood by those who are singing the song and thus unusually vulnerable to reinterpretation in eggcorn/mondegreenish fashion

    By passive, I didn’t mean “not consciously understood”, I meant “not used in a practical way such that language shift would involve translating this knowledge to continue economic life in this ecological niche”.

    What level of confidence do we need to treat linguistic diversity as important?

  15. 1. It implies that if you manage to extract all the local ecological knowledge that the language has, it then becomes less valuable and less worth saving

    It doesn’t imply anything of the sort. It’s not a comprehensive answer to the question “Why are languages worth saving?” but one arrow in the quiver, aimed at those who are apparently constitutionally incapable of seeing the inherent value in languages.

    2. Some of that local “ecological” knowledge may end up being wrong; you still have to do real scientific research (outside the linguistic sphere) to determine this.

    So what? That’s true of every attempt to find knowledge. You might as well say “Most experiments don’t turn up anything useful, so why do experiments?” Or for that matter “Most writing is crappy, so why write?”

  16. This thread chimes with a few random thoughts I’ve had recently.

    At the Language Log thread on Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish, ch. 2, I made the claim that the expectation that minority ethnic languages should find outlet to the wider world only through Chinese betrayed “a peculiar cultural arrogance of the Chinese in believing that their own grand culture is superior to and can contain and subsume the ‘lesser’ cultures of the minority groups”.

    I was challenged by Eidolon on this rather sweeping statement and was forced to consider whether what I said made sense.

    In fact, language death is creeping up on a number of languages in China, one of which is Mongolian, a language in which Hatters know I have a strong interest. Mongolian in Inner Mongolia is under threat — I suspect that it’s near the tipping point where it will be largely displaced by Chinese within a generation. What will remain is a nation of “Mongols” who cannot speak their ancestral language. These will be people who are aware of their cultural heritage (horse-riding, wrestling, living in yurts/gers, food and beverage preferences, traditional clothing, superstitions, etc.) but cannot speak the language that originally embodied their culture. They will be something like the Irish, who have their own culture but can mostly speak only English.

    Interestingly, many everyday concepts of Mongolian life can be and are expressed in Chinese. For instance, there are set Chinese names for Mongolian foodstuffs (the various types of dairy products, meat dishes, etc.), and this situation also applies to other aspects of Mongolian life. Where the words are not translated they may be borrowed, as in the case of ovoo (‘cairn’).

    This suggests that it’s perfectly possible to maintain a culture even while switching languages. That is, the idea that a culture can only be expressed through the language that birthed it is a charming kind of essentialism (quite Sapirian), but you have to wonder whether it is true.

    In this case, my accusation that the Chinese are arrogant in believing that their culture and language can ‘subsume the “lesser” cultures of the minority groups’ is off the mark. In Inner Mongolia, the absorption of Mongolian culture is not due to arrogance; it’s due to the adoption of many aspects of the Mongolian lifestyle (e.g., love of alcohol, love of drinking Mongolian milk tea, love of Mongolian foodstuffs, use of Mongolian musical instruments) by Han immigrants to Inner Mongolia. In fact, the absorption of Mongolian culture and the development of Chinese vocabulary to describe that culture probably goes back even further, to the Qing dynasty, when the Mongols were an important component of the Manchu banners and the cultures came together in what some have described as the “cosmopolitan Qing”.

    So while the loss of the Mongolian language in China is something that I would deeply lament, it’s possible to make the case that it doesn’t matter.

    Moreover, maintaining the language doesn’t imply maintaining the culture. The traditional lifestyle of Mongols, whether in Inner Mongolia or Mongolia, tends to be heavily eroded when they move to cities. They speak the language, but they lose the culture. So again, preserving the language isn’t that important. Perhaps we place an exaggerated emphasis on the importance of maintaining languages.

  17. Tibetans as Irishmen.

    For that matter, what when the language is kept in a modified form but the culture changes? Is that necessarily either better or worse? The Russian Revolution left almost no mark on Russian, except for modifications to the T-V rules (but not the T-V concept itself) and some vocabulary, much of it evanescent.

    So if it’s all right to lose the language if we keep the culture, and it’s all right to lose the culture if we keep the language, is it all right to lose both of them, so that the Yookoohoos become exactly like any other Americans or Han or what have you?

  18. So again, preserving the language isn’t that important. Perhaps we place an exaggerated emphasis on the importance of maintaining languages.

    Again, this assumes the only possible value of a language is practical/economic. Sometimes I despair of the modern world.

  19. This suggests that it’s perfectly possible to maintain a culture even while switching languages.

    Sure, it’s possible — inevitable even — to have cultural continuities. And it’s impossible to “maintain” culture because things change inevitably. But language and linguistic artifacts are like a library preserving some of the diversity of a culture, and linguistic shift is an evolutionary bottleneck in which a lot of that diversity is lost.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Ken Miner: A good field linguist will become informed about the natural history of the area in which (s)he works. … . Usually it is up to the botanists and so on to interpret the lexica that linguists produce.

    Collaboration would be the best thing, if at all possible. Some years ago I was asked to help a graduate student in ethnobotany write down the words he had gathered in a language closely related to one I knew (on the Canadian West Coast). I found the project very interesting and later he and I presented a paper consisting mostly of an annotated list of animal names in languages of the same family (animals including insects, mollusks, etc). Among other sources of data we consulted a dictionary of one of those languages. Time and again, the author of the dictionary had provided scientific names for the relevant species, but my scientific partner wrote comments such as “subspecies X is not known to occur North of the 36th parallel”. Earlier in my research I had read a monograph or thesis by an anthropologist who had studied a people speaking the language I was learning in situ. Among a list of words he had collected was one glossed as “Taraxacum officinale” (better known as ‘dandelion’). By the time I read the work I had already learned the word as meaning ‘flower’. The author had done fieldwork in early spring, when dandelion (a European import!) was the only flower in bloom.

  21. Turkish, mentioned on another thread recently, is a fine example: by switching from Ottoman Turkish to “purified” Turkish, a great deal of high Ottoman culture was cut off and buried forever, but the Turks (which in Ottoman times meant “the yokels”) remain the Turks.

  22. Globalization alone is certainly capable of producing a global Sprachbund, but would not at all necessarily lead to language death if all else were equal.

    True. I don’t mean that globalization itself, mere interconnectedness, necessarily poses a direct threat to languages. But the effects of globalization do. Even a group/state/etc. that is willing to invest in preserving its traditional language(s) may find itself outcompeted by big business from overseas that wants workers who speak the regional lingua franca — and ideally nothing else, to prevent spontaneous outbreaks of solidarity, workers having conversations supervisors can’t understand, etc.

    (Of course “globalization” as such isn’t a necessary or sufficient condition for this sort of situation to arise — any sort of power differential will do. But allowing capital to flow freely around the world does tend to create new and exacerbate existing power differentials.)

  23. Even a group/state/etc. that is willing to invest in preserving its traditional language(s) may find itself outcompeted by big business from overseas that wants workers who speak the regional lingua franca — and ideally nothing else, to prevent spontaneous outbreaks of solidarity, workers having conversations supervisors can’t understand, etc.

    Can you give some examples of places where efforts to preserve languages has reduced fluency in a regional lingua franca that big biz wants? Where it has led to being outcompeted? Where big biz has made decisions based on worker multilingualism, because ideally workers should be monolingual in a regional lingua franca? Where has any of this happened?

  24. Sorry if I’m misinterpreting you, fisheyed, but it sounds like you think I’m arguing against language preservation, multilingualism etc. on the grounds that it keeps communities in poverty or what have you. That’s the exact opposite of what I think. I entered the thread just wanting to observe that speakers don’t adopt or abandon a language in a vacuum, exactly the point you made one comment below that. As far as I can tell we both agree that language diversity is valuable; I’ve just also argued that “an influx of foreign wealth and power” is one thing that can alter the social context in a way that ultimately leads to language diversity being harmed.

  25. So again, preserving the language isn’t that important. Perhaps we place an exaggerated emphasis on the importance of maintaining languages.

    Again, this assumes the only possible value of a language is practical/economic. Sometimes I despair of the modern world.

    Hmmm. We each seem to have been on the other side of the fence when we discussed Gothic… 🙂

    Actually, I’m not advocating the death of languages; merely expressing doubts about the idea that languages must be preserved at all costs. People who give up their language do so for various reasons, but the need to communicate and gain social and economic advantage is surely an important one. In the ideal world, people would rather retain their own culture and stay within their small linguistic group. In the real world, many would rather leave that narrow society and its limited prospects behind and go out into a broader world.

    There is nothing intrinsically valuable about preserving societies in the equivalent of “linguistic museums”.

  26. Turkish, mentioned on another thread recently, is a fine example: by switching from Ottoman Turkish to “purified” Turkish, a great deal of high Ottoman culture was cut off and buried forever, but the Turks (which in Ottoman times meant “the yokels”) remain the Turks.

    Is this supposed to be an argument for the “language doesn’t matter” side? If so, it presupposes that culture doesn’t matter either, the only thing that matters is that people go on drinking Turkish coffee.

    In the real world, many would rather leave that narrow society and its limited prospects behind and go out into a broader world.

    That’s because the real world (one of an infinite number of possible worlds) forces them into a terrible choice. In the real world, all sorts of bad things happen. I’m against war, too—talk about impractical!

  27. I hate to be forced into quoting Horkheimer and Adorno, but:

    To grasp existing things as such, not merely to note their abstract spatial-temporal relationships, by which they can then be seized, but, on the contrary, to think of them as surface, as mediated conceptual moments which are only fulfilled by revealing their social, historical, and human meaning — this whole aspiration of knowledge is abandoned. Knowledge does not consist in mere perception, classification, and calculation but precisely in the determining negation of whatever is directly at hand. Instead of such negation, mathematical formalism, whose medium, number, is the most abstract form of the immediate, arrests thought at mere immediacy. The actual is validated, knowledge confines itself to repeating it, thought makes itself mere tautology. The more completely the machinery of thought subjugates existence, the more blindly it is satisfied with reproducing it. Enlightenment thereby regresses to the mythology it has never been able to escape. For mythology had reflected in its forms the essence of the existing order—cyclical motion, fate, domination of the world as truth—and had renounced hope.

  28. Sorry if I’m misinterpreting you, fisheyed, but it sounds like you think I’m arguing

    Regardless, I am still curious as to where these examples are coming from:

    Even a group/state/etc. that is willing to invest in preserving its traditional language(s) may find itself outcompeted by big business from overseas that wants workers who speak the regional lingua franca — and ideally nothing else, to prevent spontaneous outbreaks of solidarity, workers having conversations supervisors can’t understand, etc.

    I’m sure you are not making this up out of whole cloth, so where is it that got outcompeted out of a refusal to know the regional lingua franca, where big biz prefers monolinguality etc etc?

  29. J. W. Brewer says:

    Hey, no one forced hat to do anything. If he’s going to quote Horkheimer and Adorno, we’re going to hold him fully accountable for his own actions and do not accept the excuse that he was acting under duress or any such “it’s a fair cop but society is to blame” rhetoric. (OK, maybe “but he was provoked” can be treated as some degree of mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing.)

  30. In the real world, many would rather leave that narrow society and its limited prospects behind

    In the real world, people leave their narrow societies, move to New Jersey and try to recreate their narrow societies in the smallest detail.

  31. J. W. Brewer says:

    “In the ideal world, people would rather retain their own culture and stay within their small linguistic group.” Really? Why? The vast majority of those commenting on this thread live in a world where it is routine for people to choose to live as adults hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they were born, to choose to pursue a different occupation than that held by their ancestors for the last umpteen generations, and to marry someone of their own choosing (possibly from a markedly different ethnocultural background than their own) rather than acquiesce in their parents’ or tribal elders’ selection of a mate for them. Is this just because we are hapless victims of deracinating global capitalism, and we would ideally all like to live in static traditional societies untainted by dangerous Western notions about individual autonomy and social mobility? (Yes, I know it’s dangerous to blithely treat modern Western notions of individual autonomy and blah blah blah as universal norms regardless of social context, but it’s also dangerous to treat them as non-universal.”).

  32. So retaining culture and preferring to stay within my linguistic group equates to a static traditional society without social mobility in which someone else picks my spouse?

    Yet somehow when an Englishman retains his culture and prefers to stay within his linguistic group, it’s just tee hee how the world works, and no one accuses him of preferring someone else pick his wife. Somehow he gets to have a different profession than his grandfather, to pick his wife et al, without having to sacrifice his culture or language because his government ruled so., and that is OK. But if other people have such notions, why, it’s practically demanding to live in the Stone Age.

  33. J. W. Brewer says:

    You can do all that while staying within your ancestral language group if your language group is of a particular size and scale (and internal cultural pluralism, diversity of economic niches etc.) not typically found among languages said to be endangered. But why do you say “his” culture, as if he chose it rather than having it imposed upon him when he was a child with no choice in the matter? Why is he obligated to identify with what was forced upon rather than be free to seek liberation from it?

  34. Oh, come on. We’re not all monads struggling to escape from the horrible, horrible bonds of family and community.

  35. Hey, no one forced hat to do anything. If he’s going to quote Horkheimer and Adorno, we’re going to hold him fully accountable for his own actions and do not accept the excuse that he was acting under duress or any such “it’s a fair cop but society is to blame” rhetoric.

    I was merely the agent of the laws of history, which required that quote at that moment!

  36. J. W. Brewer says:

    ‘History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ Some might have the same attitude toward the culture into which they were born. There is perhaps something to be said for the Amish approach of encouraging their (bilingual) teenagers to explore the allure of the wider world for a few years before making a more adult decision as to whether to commit to the community and its distinctive culture or not. Most do come back after considering their options, but some don’t and those who do have self-selected for compatibility with it. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Amish have a better long-term track record than I believe any other group (including indigenous ones) in the U.S. of retaining their own language (for 300+ years now after emigrating into a majority-Anglophone part of the world) for intra-community use while also being fully able to engage with outsiders in English. (NB that you need to generate a pretty high average number of babies per mother for your society to remain demographically stable if you encourage this kind of consider-your-other-options approach.)

  37. Is this supposed to be an argument for the “language doesn’t matter” side?

    Hey, you otta know by now that I don’t argue. I just tell people what I think or what I know, as the case may be.

    We’re not all monads

    Maybe you aren’t, d00d, but I am not only a monad, I am windowless! (Or nearly so.)

  38. I’m sure you are not making this up out of whole cloth, so where is it that got outcompeted out of a refusal to know the regional lingua franca, where big biz prefers monolinguality etc etc?

    Again, I wasn’t talking about any particular place (or people) that had gotten outcompeted out of a refusal to know the lingua franca. I was referring to the way people adopt new languages and abandoning traditional ones when they perceive an advantage in doing this. All I meant by the “outcompete” thing was that if the pull of economic opportunity is strong enough, it can outweigh efforts by local political leadership, “elders” etc. to encourage use of the traditional language.

    As for the monolingual business thing, to be clear, I don’t think that businesses are rejecting potential employees or factory sites for multilingualism, although I can see why you got that impression (see below). What I meant was this: people running a factory usually try to control what goes on inside that factory as tightly as possible, and this can include banning the use of non-approved languages. When this happens it obviously limits the opportunities for workers at those factories to use those languages in daily life.

    (The “ideally nothing else” and so on was just snark, extrapolated from what I’ve seen in the low-status jobs I’ve held in my own life, so feel free to disregard it if you like. To be crystal clear, I’m not aware of any cases where this preference was held strongly enough by employers to actually make mere knowledge of other languages a negative for potential employees.)

    In conclusion, all I’m saying is that an influx of foreign wealth and capital can change the social context in a range of different ways that tend to benefit big languages and harm small ones. I’m not saying that globalization must inevitably lead to small language death, or that communities are better off abandoning their old languages because multilingualism is impossible or harmful, or anything like that.

  39. It is highly likely that recent (grandparents or great-grandparents) ancestors of everyone here used to be farmers.

    So all of us have lost our traditional lifestyle and culture even if we still speak the same language as our grandparents (alas, some of us don’t).

  40. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: It is perhaps unsurprising that the Amish have a better long-term track record than I believe any other group (including indigenous ones) in the U.S. of retaining their own language (for 300+ years now after emigrating into a majority-Anglophone part of the world) for intra-community use while also being fully able to engage with outsiders in English.

    The situation of the Amish (and similar groups such as the Mennonites and Hutterites) can be compared to that of other European immigrants, not to that of indigenous groups. The Amish, etc were immigrants who coupled relatively minor religious differences from the Protestant Christian majority with experience agricultural practices inherited from Europe, which enabled them to maintain a successful economy. Linguistically speaking, their own languages (Germanic dialects) were not totally dissimilar from English, and of course these immigrants did not look different from others from the same European areas. Indigenous groups in North America were decimated by wars and diseases and their territories were usually sharply reduced even when the people themselves were not exiled from them. Hunting cultures need large territories: turning these territories over to crop raising made traditional survival methods impossible and traditional knowledge and spirituality irrelevant. In many cases the children were taken away at a young age to be raised in special boarding schools, where their languages were banished, so that when these children returned home many of them had forgotten the languages and were unable to speak with their elders. Considerable differences between these languages and English made it very difficult for them to relearn how to speak. All this was in addition to the social segregation and outright racism still existing in many places.

  41. So retaining culture and preferring to stay within my linguistic group equates to a static traditional society without social mobility in which someone else picks my spouse?

    Not exactly, but endangered languages, almost by definition, tend not to offer that many possibilities if you stay within the group. Of course, this applies only to monolingualism. In bilingual societies you can probably enjoy the best of both worlds.

  42. Yes, I know it’s dangerous to blithely treat modern Western notions of individual autonomy and blah blah blah as universal norms regardless of social context, but it’s also dangerous to treat them as non-universal.

    The end bit there is (to me) a very interesting formulation. Would you mind expanding upon it?

    I mean, I think this points to one of the great practical weaknesses of the language preservationist argument (which, to be clear, I heartily support): the difficulty of making understood the important differences between on the one hand Western concepts (to simplify) and what might appear to be (even to non-Westerners) their reasonably close-enough analogues in other cultures. [Not to imply that there aren’t endangered Western languages, but they aren’t the typical case.] What can seem even to an intelligent observer on first sight to be superficial differences often appear to a more practiced eye as the telltale fingerprints of more fundamental incompatibilities, learned the hard way over long years of experience with both cultures (glottospheres?). Because by definition it’s hard to convey subtleties that only become visible on grand aggregate scales, we’re left to fall back on more quantifiable differences. In the case of endangered languages this often means essentially vocabulary, and those tangible, experienceable bits of world that they anchor back to. And while the latter are clearly important, I think it’s also fair to say that they aren’t usually core to what is missed when a language community is lost.

    So I wonder what precisely you mean here. If by the danger of assuming non-universality is meant: the danger of missing many species-level identities between concepts that cross-culturally seem as far apart as chihuahuas and dobermann pincers, then of course absolutely, there is a real danger in often splitting what should be lumped. But what do we do when asked, say, to compare (grossly simplifying) East Asian and Western attitudes towards self-realization? We don’t want to imply that everything Western audiences understand to define the term is absent in East Asia, but we (at least I) don’t want either to let slide by the deception that “self-realization” is ever in practice or in theory a culturally non-specific concept, delinked from its local history in the West.

    The problem about endangered languages is the same, at least in terms of concept structure: I don’t want to argue that translation is not possible, that Mongolian culture can’t survive relinguification into Chinese, or that Turks who have lost all direct access to even their very recent written past are no longer Turks. Of course they are. But! If there is not some important way in which these communities are at the same time also no longer what they were, then the argument for language preservation is, I think, fatally weakened in a practical sense before any court of public opinion. I won’t say the claims of sentiment alone aren’t strong enough to make the difference, sometimes, but in the long run I doubt it they’ll hold their own against a universalism skeptical that life lived in English or Chinese is *really* different than life lived in Tibetan or Irish.

    And yet, Terence: who wants to give up “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”?

  43. Your example of “self-realization” is interesting. The Wikipedia article claims that “Self-realization is an expression used in psychology, spirituality, and Eastern religions.” Despite this, there is not a single corresponding Wikipedia article on “self-realization” in any Eastern language.

    The page on “self-realization” is subject to a proposed merge with Self-actualization, but that concept that is specifically Western and historically bound to specific individuals. Ironically, corresponding pages “Self-actualization” in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean all use a calque (自我實現, 自己実現, 자아실현).

    China has the traditional concepts of 修身 and 修養, which appear to be conventionally rendered as “self-cultivation” in English, although Chinese sites suggest “cultivate one’s moral character” for the former and “form one’s mind” for the latter. Both Wikipedia and the Internet in general do a fairly scrappy job of covering this concept and its history, whether in Eastern languages or in English.

  44. 修養 looks like the source or cognate of Mongolian expression biyee zasakh as in saying “Биеэ засаад гэрээ зас, гэрээ засаад төрөө зас” (literally ‘correct yourself and then correct your household, after correcting your household, correct your state’)

    the verb zasakh (to correct, repair, amend, refresh, rectify, etc) used throughout is from the same root as Great Yasa of Genghis Khan.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yassa

  45. correct yourself and then correct your household, after correcting your household, correct your state -- Биеэ засаад гэрээ зас, гэрээ засаад төрөө зас

    Yes, it appears to be straight out of Confucius: 身修而后家齐,家齐而后国治。

  46. gwenllian says:

    But I do insist that people, including linguists, have reasons for their concern commensurate with their efforts, and those reasons must go beyond sentimentality and the occasional job opportunity.

    This seems like a good place to bring up a study mentioned in the article from this old thread, which links language loss to suicide rates. My first thought was that that just doesn’t sound very likely, but I know very little about studies and almost nothing about indigenous British Columbians, so I think it’s best to ask those who do for their opinion. This should be the study.

    Ultimately the only people who can prevent the loss of a language are its speakers, and most of them, frankly, don’t care what language they speak.

    I admit I don’t know enough about the world’s peoples to know if this is true. Certainly, much of the world’s population lives in abject poverty, war zones, or in other terrible conditions, and it’s easy to see why language might not be a priority. Still, whether they’re globally in the minority on this or not, millions and millions of people do care.

    These people who care and their (usually) sentimental reasons are to me enough to believe languages should be saved wherever possible, even without taking other reasons into account. Unfortunately I’ve come to believe that it’s mostly not possible, i.e. that in the modern world the decline of most minority languages just can’t be stopped, even if the majority of the group cares. So, should efforts still be made to slow it down? How long should those efforts continue? Should there be some sort of cut off point?

    But the words might as well apply to the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language for its own sake (not as an aspirant for the ruinous honour of becoming the lingua franca of the world), and who by it and with it maintain their identity.

    Only a shrinking minority of Welsh people maintain a Welsh identity strongly tied to the language – the majority of those who speak Welsh as an L1 and a minority of those who don’t. The language is not very relevant to the Welsh identity of most Welsh people.

    I wonder how much of the popular myth of Welsh having survived against all odds, all due to the Welsh having an exceptionally strong affection for it, is Tolkien’s doing.

  47. Turks who have lost all direct access to even their very recent written past are no longer Turks

    Not what I meant. The Turks have remained Turks because the Ottomans who used to be their elite have vanished with their language, which they themselves heaved overboard.

    the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language

    Well, you’ll note that Tolkien speaks in the present perfect: he’s talking about the past up through his present (1955 or so), not necessarily about the future.

  48. These people who care and their (usually) sentimental reasons are to me enough to believe languages should be saved wherever possible

    For me, it’s not even a question of sentimentality but rights and access. There was an article in the news recently about a teacher who was suspended for using a tribal language to teach her students. Children in primary school learn much better in their own L1, children have the right to education, and yet, someone who is trying to help the children learn is being punished for not using the dominant language. I don’t know how long Toda will survive, but someone speaking Toda today deserves the same rights as anyone else to education, govt services, news programmes etc.

    There are a number of articles on how Naxalites (Maoist guerrillas) were able to recruit by having knowledge of tribal languages that the Indian govt agencies did not, and how the Naxalites created educational materials in science and so on in tribal languages, including recording tribal knowledge systems about plants and medicines. This wasn’t sentimentality, it was a practical way of recruiting by connecting with and providing services to tribals.

    I could go on with examples, but I find that people in abject poverty care about language because language means access. Not that sentimentality doesn’t count. My own life is so much happier now that the internet makes it possible for me to access my own language any hour of the day or night, in text or video, song or speech.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Биеэ засаад гэрээ зас, гэрээ засаад төрөө зас

    Yes, it appears to be straight out of Confucius: 身修而后家齐,家齐而后国治。

    Its form, however, is identical to that of the only Kazakh proverb I know:

    Пiскен асқа жеушi көп,
    Бiткен iске сыншы көп.

    When the meal is ready, there’ll be plenty of eaters.
    When the work is finished, there’ll be plenty of critics.

    Or is that, too, out of Confucius?

    (Original and translation out of Dybo & Starostin (2008) defending the Altaic and the Sino-Caucasian hypotheses against recent criticism. The “finished work” has got to be An Etymological Dictionary of Altaic Languages with its reconstruction of Proto-Altaic.)

  50. сыншы is actually more “expert, authority” than critic – you can call a literary or theater critic сыншы, but the emphasis is not on the criticizing, but the expertise.

  51. Well, you’ll note that Tolkien speaks in the present perfect: he’s talking about the past up through his present (1955 or so), not necessarily about the future.

    Of course, but a thouroughly Anglophone Welsh identity is not a new thing, and it was not new in the 1950s either. It was already the identity of the majority of Welsh people, even though the language unsurprisingly continued (and continues) to be a disproportionately big part of the Welsh image and brand in the UK.

    But what I find interesting is how common it is for Welsh to be described as almost miraculously surviving through the power of love and steadfast cultivation. It didn’t survive against all odds, it survived in places where the odds were in its favor. How much the language might have been loved didn’t really have much to do with it.

    I don’t know how long Toda will survive, but someone speaking Toda today deserves the same rights as anyone else to education, govt services, news programmes etc.

    I agree. But the rights arguments is more of an answer to whether services should be provided in minority languages than to the question of language preservation. Sure, services should be provided in Toda as much as possible. But should an effort be made to motivate Toda speakers to transmit their language to their children? How strong an effort? What about efforts to teach the language to those in whose families it has been lost?

    There’s also the issue of perfect bilingualism. Does the rights argument apply when all the speakers of a minority language speak the majority language to an L1 standard? What about the situations like that of Irish, where the majority language is the dominant language even for the remaining native speakers of the minority one? There’s no real, practical issue of access there.

    There are a number of articles on how Naxalites (Maoist guerrillas) were able to recruit by having knowledge of tribal languages that the Indian govt agencies did not, and how the Naxalites created educational materials in science and so on in tribal languages, including recording tribal knowledge systems about plants and medicines. This wasn’t sentimentality, it was a practical way of recruiting by connecting with and providing services to tribals.

    Thanks, that was an interesting read.

  52. [Welsh] survived in places where the odds were in its favor

    Isn’t that tautological? Do you conclude that the odds were in its favor because it survived, or are you saying that in 1800 (or whatever date you prefer) it was possible at least in principle to foresee where (geographically and sociolinguistically) Welsh would survive and where it would not?

    Sure, services should be provided in Toda as much as possible. But should an effort be made to motivate Toda speakers to transmit their language to their children?

    Whether or not that is a distinction without a difference depends on whether you think Tómas Sæmundsson was right, or more right than wrong, in saying that language death “never happens except as the result of oppression and distress”. In other words, if it were not a disadvantage to speak Toda (as opposed to speaking Toda and nothing else), would we not expect individual bilingualism, as in much of West Africa, rather than language death?

  53. To clarify the above distinction:

    There is nowhere in the world today where it is a disadvantage to speak English. Whether being monolingual in English is a disadvantage depends heavily on where you are: not at all in the U.S., only a little bit in the Netherlands, very much so in rural Central Anatolia. By the same token, it is no disadvantage to speak Spanish in New York City or France, but is a disadvantage in some other parts of the U.S.; being monolingual in Spanish is definitely a disadvantage anywhere in the U.S. except in a few Spanish-speaking areas.

  54. Isn’t that tautological? Do you conclude that the odds were in its favor because it survived, or are you saying that in 1800 (or whatever date you prefer) it was possible at least in principle to foresee where (geographically and sociolinguistically) Welsh would survive and where it would not?

    It survived in areas where there wasn’t as big of an influx of outsiders during and in the aftermath of the country’s industrialization.

    Whether or not that is a distinction without a difference depends on whether you think Tómas Sæmundsson was right, or more right than wrong, in saying that language death “never happens except as the result of oppression and distress”.

    I’d say he was absolutely wrong. Not only can languages decline for other reasons, they can actually decline faster once oppression and distress lessen or end.

    In other words, if it were not a disadvantage to speak Toda (as opposed to speaking Toda and nothing else), would we not expect individual bilingualism, as in much of West Africa, rather than language death?

    In the beginning, yes. But in a modern world, with below replacement birth rates and no taboos against intermarriage between the minority and majority group, a minority language will decline (as a natural spoken language), even if it’s actually an advantage to speak it.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    language loss and *youth* suicide rates.

    The article referred to is based on a variety of written documents, whether by government or researchers such as sociologists, with apparently no interaction with individuals affected, so it is rather dry and academic.

    There is a link in so far as language loss breaks or at least impairs the possibility of communication between generations, cutting the young from their elders. In one case I know, most elders used English with the children, except when these elders were frustrated that their own command of English was inadequate to express what they wanted to say and they would fall back into the local language, spoken in angry outbursts. The children then associated the language with insults directed at them. In other families the bilingual parents were able conduct all interactions in English, but (once speaking the language came to be viewed as an asset) sometimes admonished the children to “Speak your language!” when they themselves (often former pupils at “residential schools”) had never provided or fostered the needed input. In these and similar cases the young people are basically adrift, held responsible for situations completely outside their control (and often misunderstood by the older generations). In a culture where learning proper social behaviour, including public speaking, is an important part of a young person’s (especially a young man’s) education, ignorance of the traditional language is a source of considerable social maladjustment if not outright disgrace. Added to the other sources of problems in many native communities (especially those of former hunter-gatherers), language loss can indeed be strongly linked to the high rates of youth suicide.

  56. Unless its speakers form an overwhelming majority of the population of a big enough area that few outsiders would want to move to. Of course, areas that attract few outsiders are often places where the locals don’t want to stick around either.

  57. Thanks, marie-lucie! I was hoping you’d see it!

  58. J. W. Brewer says:

    Language loss is often caused by something bad (or at least a dramatic shift in circumstances traumatic enough to have lots of negative side effects even if it ends up positive on net) happening to the community that spoke the language, so language loss will probably often co-occur with various negative things happening to the same people, but in a way that makes it hard to sort out whether language loss is an independent causal factor or just another consequence of a different underlying problem. But to take one obvious counterexample to the “oppression and distress” thesis, the loss of Yiddish fluency among younger generations of Ashkenazic-Americans coincided in time with considerable economic and social advancement by that community, the dramatic reduction in social prejudice against them, etc. (Also increasing exogamy, but I think that generally followed the loss of Yiddish so is not itself a causal factor.)

  59. J. W. Brewer says:

    (Obviously the decline of Yiddish in other parts of the world involved other circumstances — there is sort of a global question about whether we should worry about the decline of language X among population Y as long as there are other X speakers elsewhere in the world where at present the language seems to be doing ok; should we worry about Mongolian in PRC-ruled Inner Mongolia as long as its still healthy across the border, for example?)

  60. David Marjanović says:

    сыншы is actually more “expert, authority” than critic – you can call a literary or theater critic сыншы, but the emphasis is not on the criticizing, but the expertise.

    Interesting; so is it more like “suddenly there’ll be lots of self-proclaimed experts/Monday-morning quarterbacks”?

    I’d say he was absolutely wrong. Not only can languages decline for other reasons, they can actually decline faster once oppression and distress lessen or end.

    Do you mean like religion and communism? In some communist countries, professing a religion was a fairly safe act of resistance, but had nothing else to offer, so people left the churches when communism ended. After the Pirahã, the Czechs and the East Germans are now the most godless peoples on Earth.

  61. Trond Engen says:

    They are like opposite Poles.

  62. Polar opposites.

  63. Trond Engen says:

    Yeah, I know. I was hoping that Poles would work too.

  64. Poles work hard!

    From the Zompist “How to Know If You’re Polish” culture test: “You know that Americans tell jokes about the Poles, and this is unfair, since you just love America and Americans.”

  65. Trond Engen says:

    Poles work hard!

    Well, somebody have to balance the Czechs.

  66. Yeah, I know. I was hoping that Poles would work too.

    i wasn’t correcting you, just adding a variation!

  67. Khasanov’s “Origins and specifics of the Kazakh cultural philosophy” says сынши (сказители-скептики)

    Sceptic bards?

  68. (Oops, here’s the link: http://www.zompist.com/poland.html )

  69. But the rights arguments is more of an answer to whether services should be provided in minority languages than to the question of language preservation. Sure, services should be provided in Toda as much as possible. But should an effort be made to motivate Toda speakers to transmit their language to their children? How strong an effort? What about efforts to teach the language to those in whose families it has been lost?

    But providing services in minority languages IS language preservation. The more of modern life that can be conducted in a language, the more viable it is.

    There are so many unfair things that the govt does that pressures language shift, the govt should be fixing itself to make things easier on the existing Toda communities, and taking Toda rights seriously. Teaching Toda is an excellent idea, but supporting existing speakers seems to me more urgent and potentially effective.

    Does the rights argument apply when all the speakers of a minority language speak the majority language to an L1 standard?

    I think it can. This is a big question in Singapore, where most Tamils are English-literate. There has been some organizing around the removal of Tamil signage in Changi airport, which has signage in English, Chinese and Malay, i.e. the languages of the other major communities in SIngapore. Few people need signage in Tamil to navigate, but having Tamil signage is a signifier that Tamils have an equal place in Singapore, despite the open racism Tamils experience.

    I always take the Tamil option when it is available (for example, the gallery pamphlets at the Asian Civ Museum, though I don’t think they have Tamil tours). Mostly for curiosity and pleasure, but it also helps to keep that option available to the (probably non-citizen) working class person who really isn’t comfortable in English.

  70. Do you mean like religion and communism? In some communist countries, professing a religion was a fairly safe act of resistance, but had nothing else to offer, so people left the churches when communism ended. After the Pirahã, the Czechs and the East Germans are now the most godless peoples on Earth.

    It’s the contrast between the Czech Republic and Slovakia that always gets me.

    I was mostly thinking of the increased likelihood of working and living among, socializing with, or marrying members of the majority group, but a minority language losing its status as a symbol of defiance once there’s nothing to defy anymore is another good point.

    The more of modern life that can be conducted in a language, the more viable it is.

    Agreed.

    But providing services in minority languages IS language preservation.

    Not necessarily. It can be done purely to improve access, without any intention of language preservation. And done like that, on its own, it’s not enough for successful language preservation.

  71. John,

    Puns and poles apart, it’s a small world. The author of the Polish culture test, Paweł Stachura (bio pending) is my colleague from work.

  72. Not necessarily. It can be done purely to improve access, without any intention of language preservation. And done like that, on its own, it’s not enough for successful language preservation.

    I should have said providing primary education, govt services is a means of language preservation — which it is, regardless of anybody’s intention. It won’t be sufficient by itself, but it’s necessary.

    Some percentage of tribals, especially the nomadic tribals, have always been multilingual, to facilitate trade in honey and other products. But if every private and public institution is biased towards another language, the pressures are toward language shift and not a healthy multilingualism.

    (once speaking the language came to be viewed as an asset)

    Interesting! How and when did this change happen?

  73. Interesting; so is it more like “suddenly there’ll be lots of self-proclaimed experts/Monday-morning quarterbacks”?
    Yes, that’s how I would read it.

    Khasanov’s “Origins and specifics of the Kazakh cultural philosophy” says сынши (сказители-скептики)
    Sceptic bards?

    Going by my go-to online dictionary of Kazakh, which has “знаток (боевых и других качеств людей, скаковых качеств коней); ценитель; критик” and by the entry in the Kazakh Wikipedia, the main traditional use of the word seems to have been for experts / connoisseurs of sports, and people who assessed cattle, especially horses, by their look. I don’t know enough about Kazakh philosophical traditionsin order to say whether “sceptic” would be a fitting translation in that context.

  74. (Oops, here’s the link: http://www.zompist.com/poland.html )

    Something’s gone wrong here:

    You know how basketball, volleyball, and soccer are played. If you’re male, you can argue intricate points about their rules. You have no idea how basketball and American football are played; you don’t want to know.

    I’m guessing the second occurrence should be “baseball.”

  75. сынши apparently comes from verb сынау (test, check, try, criticize) – cognate of Turkish sınamak (test, try, examine, prove,put to the proof)

    so the meaning of ‘critic, sceptic’ is implied.

    not just expert/connoisseur, but one who is ready to put the object in question to vigorous checks and tests before he deems it worthy.

  76. baseball

    I think you are right; the Venedic version (from Ill Bethisad) reads: “If you are a man, you probably know how soccer is played, even though you always call it ‘plica piedała’, or “football” in an international context, but a lost match won’t spoil your day. You are vaguely familiar with basketball and volleyball as well, but you don’t know the details and don’t want to know them. You know American football and baseball only by their names. You are proud when your countryman wins a medal at the World Games. If you are a woman, you don’t care about sports at all.” In IB’s America, however, American football is still called rugby locally (as was the case in Canada almost within living memory), though it is not the same as English rugby.

    ObHat: In IB, American Brithenig, like the British variety, has the normal modern rules for T/V. American English has become T-only. There is a Sprachbund around uvular /r/ that also affects other languages spoken there.

  77. @ SFReader: I think the idea of “probing, testing, experiencing” is primary here, while “criticizing” is a derived meaning. But I’m no expert in Kazkh etymology.;-)

  78. I’m guessing the second occurrence should be “baseball.”

    Absolutely. By the way, we don’t know anything about cricket or rugby either.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    I think the only mainland Europeans who know anything about Rugby are the French. Cricket?

    *crickets*

  80. (once speaking the language came to be viewed as an asset)

    Marie-Lucie, please tell us more!

  81. I think the only mainland Europeans who know anything about Rugby are the French.

    The Italians are involved in the Six Nations, but generally make a poor showing, I understand the sport is very minoritarian there. And interest in rugby is very regional in France, too.

  82. David Marjanović says:

    In France, Paris isn’t “regional”. :-þ

  83. Touché, but still the list of French champions since 1971 is very strongly southern. In my personal experience very few of the French people I met knew anything about rugby, you must have come across an interesting crowd!

  84. David Marjanović says:

    …Young scientists at the natural history museum. <_<

  85. marie-lucie says:

    fisheyed: (once speaking the language came to be viewed as an asset)

    At a time when the majority of adults were native speakers of the local language and their elders were basically monolingual, even limited English proficiency was considered an achievement while the local language was considered “easy” and therefore not prized. After a couple of generations, when elderly monolinguals had disappeared and young people were now largely monolingual in increasingly standard English, the likelihood of language death coincided with a resurgence of pride in the culture and in the language as an integral part of it. All over North America there are now programs in schools, universities and community centres for teaching the local languages and training local people as linguists and language teachers. How successful those programs will be remains to be seen, but in the meantime they are having a strong psychological effect.

  86. Re learning a local language rather than heading abroad, “On Learning Cree (and Not Learning Cree)” is a dispiriting but interesting read.

    When I lived in Laos, I explained to various people (sometimes in English, and sometimes in Lao) that I would not return to Canada unless I were to learn an indigenous language there (be it Cree, Ojibwe, or otherwise). There were various reactions. The Lao understood clearly the distinction between “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” (both as applied to peoples and languages) –these concepts had currency in their own political circumstances. However, they were extremely unwilling to regard white people as “non-indigenous” in far-away places such as Australia and Canada. I can remember explaining it also in parallel to the significance of a foreigner learning Lao if he lived in Laos, and Chinese if he lived in China; I would say very simple things (partly because of my limited ability in Lao), such as, “If I wanted to speak English, I would live in England; and if I wanted to speak French, I would live in France”.

    For a period of about one year, I was able to live up to my own hype in this respect: I completed four courses in the Cree language in the space of 12 months. I then came to realize that my long-term future in working on the language was already over (whereas I had been hoping that it had just begun).

  87. To be sure, the Lao were more nearly right than Mazard (the author of the above-linked jeremiad): the English are not indigenous to England, nor the French to France (at least, the French language comes from elsewhere if the French themselves do not). He should say, “If I wanted to speak Welsh, I would live in England-and-Wales, and if I wanted to speak Gaulish, I would live in France.” Except that the latter is nonsense; in France, the resources for learning Gaulish either organically (!) or at a university are obviously worse than those for learning Cree in Canada. No, if what he wants is to learn an indigenous language, he should go to (Northern) China or Germany, where the indigenes are speaking their indigenous languages of Chinese and German vigorously. Indeed, France is precisely the “the endgame to cultural genocide” that he thinks Canada is.

    Also, did it ever occur to Mazard to go to where Cree actually is still spoken? All we hear about is the failings of Canadian universities. I bet there are villages in Northern Quebec or the NWT where you can buy groceries in Cree if you want to. Granted, the Cree may well see him as a colonizer and an intruder, but that’s his lookout.

    There is a second part to the lament:

    If your country is a European colony that defines itself in terms of European culture, then you’ll always be second-rate in the very same culture that you valorize: Canada simply has no unique advantage in any of these areas, and will always be at the same kind of disadvantage as Australia. Despite the endless propaganda of the C.B.C. on the subject, I don’t know if anyone in this country is really deluded enough to believe that Canada could ever be a great country to study English literature in (or French literature, for that matter). Nobody in Canada seems to be convinced of the importance of Australian literature, nor are the Australians very impressed with our output in Canada; on the contrary, all of the former colonies merely shuffle along with their second-tier, derivative traditions, that they pour resources into promoting (and exaggerating the importance of) for the domestic audience.

    This also seems to me to be nonsense. All of the former colonies? One at least, which he does not deign to mention for obvious reasons, does not seem to suffer from cultural cringe (ObHat: an Australianism). Indeed, it considers itself a world-class center of learning on at least one European language and literature, including but not limited to the local versions thereof. If Canada does not, it’s surely up to Canadians living in the country, as opposed to those living in Laos, to do something about it. Indeed, do Australians or New Zealanders or Irish still have the cringe in question, more than half a century on? I don’t know. (I understand that breeders of Irish wolfhounds in Ireland are by no means world-class.)

  88. And as if Tai is Indigenous in Laos…

  89. Yeah, the whole idea of indigenous languages gets sillier the more you think about it. Everybody comes from somewhere else if you go back far enough.

  90. marie-lucie says:

    I am appalled about Mazard’s experience trying to learn Cree and about his generalization of his experience to all Canadian universities. I agree with JC: Mazard should have gone to a Cree-speaking community (there are still some) and learned Cree by the same methods as he did Lao and others. He might also have sought out Cree speakers living in Regina. That does not excuse the allegedly terrible standards of teaching Cree at FNU, an institution which has had its share of problems of many kinds. I think that an originally strong program must have degenerated over the years, perhaps through the hiring of less and less qualified people.

  91. Not only the Lao are not indigenous in Laos (they came from China in 13th century), but many of the hill tribes as well (the Hmong migrated from China to Laos in 18th century, for example)

    Some hill tribes are probably more ancient, but the real aborigines – short, dark-skinned race called Negritos – are extinct in Laos (but still survive in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines)

  92. Cree language has nice script.

    It reminds me of mystery code in “The Adventure of Dancing Men”.

  93. You still have pockets of Austroasiatic in every province of Laos, though. For what we can know, Austroasiatic languages are the earliest spoken of all of Indochina, and probably Yunnan.

  94. No, if what he wants is to learn an indigenous language, he should go to (Northern) China or Germany, where the indigenes are speaking their indigenous languages of Chinese and German vigorously.

    But he didn’t just want to learn “an indigenous language.” He wanted to learn a language indigenous to Canada, apparently because he feels that not to do so (as a Canadian resident) would be tantamount to participating in genocide. This is an extreme position (to put it mildly), but I don’t think it’s fair to accuse him of simple exotica-seeking, and his oversimplification of European linguistic history is beside the point.

    (If Gaulish were still spoken in France but French universities were doing a bad job of teaching it while expending resources on Chinese and Ancient Greek, I’m sure he’d complain about that too.)

    Also, did it ever occur to Mazard to go to where Cree actually is still spoken?

    The absence of any reference to this approach is peculiar, I agree. But it’s orthogonal to his main argument, which is not “Learning Cree is impossible” but rather “The Canadian university system is failing to do what it should with respect to languages like Cree.” The merits of this argument are obviously debatable, but telling him to go find a Cree-speaking community if he wants to learn Cree so much isn’t a very convincing response, any more than “Just correct the errors yourself with a red pen” is as a response to complaints of failing journalistic standards.

    Granted, the Cree may well see him as a colonizer and an intruder, but that’s his lookout.

    Yes, and that possibility is an excellent reason to start out by taking lessons available to people without an existing stake in the community, isn’t it? For example, by enrolling in some introductory courses at a university.

  95. He wanted to learn a language indigenous to Canada

    I could swallow that if he hadn’t made the remarks about English and French. It may or may not be absurd to suppose that the best place to learn French is France, but it is absurd to suppose a priori that the best place to learn English is England. (It may be that some particular English university is the best place: I wouldn’t know, but I doubt he does either. I’m reminded of Dennett’s rational and intentional lectern, which desires to be at the center of the civilized world, so since it is already at Oxford, it just stays where it is.)

    accuse him of simple exotica-seeking

    I meant no such accusation.

    I’m sure he’d complain about that too […] “The Canadian university system is failing to do what it should with respect to languages like Cree.”

    So would I and so would most of us, I should think, and if it’s true that all Canadian universities are this bad or worse (Marie-Lucie at least suggests otherwise), then everyone should condemn them, not only Canadians. But I don’t really think that’s the point of the article, just a secondary target of convenience.

  96. J. W. Brewer says:

    One of the problems with defining who’s “indigenous” is how specific you are in asking “indigenous to exactly what geographical area,” combined with applying present-day borders anachronistically. Migrating from the territory of present-day China to that of present-day Laos was not necessarily a dramatic/significant event (certainly not on the order of migrating from old France across the ocean to New France) back in the days when present-day Yunnan was not really part of the territory of “China,” being either completely independent or owing only a very loose sort of feudal allegiance to whoever was running China but de facto autonomous. Note that you have similar issues in North America where “indigenous” groups have moved around quite a lot both before and after European contact — e.g. the Tuscarora moving up from North Carolina to New York in the 18th century to become an additional member of the Iroquois confederacy as well as various groups who have been at different points in time on both sides of what is now the US/Canada border.

  97. Mazard’s experience of (not) learning Cree at First Nations University, unfortunately, probably is quite typical.

    Marie-Lucie: He does stress how he discussed this issue with many teachers of Cree, none of whom could suggest a better program anywhere, so it’s not just from his own personal experience that he is drawing his conclusions about the teaching of Cree in Canadian Universities.

    All: Based on my own experience at a University in Western Canada, where Cree and Ojibwe were taught, I’m afraid the problem, paradoxically, is the Native student body, for whom (or, to be accurate, in whose name) these courses were originally designed. The overwhelming majority of Native University students (and of Natives aged thirty and younger) in Western Canada are native speakers of English, who at best have picked up a few individual words of their ancestral language from their parents and/or grandparents. These students’ sense of Native identity (or, more specifically, of Cree identity, of Ojibwe identity…) has their race/family history as its focus, and as an unfortunate by-product most think that learning “their” ancestral language will be a piece of cake: if you already feel (let’s say) Cree, and look Cree, then learning to speak Cree must be easy.

    Naturally, when these students actually encountered Cree or Ojibwe grammar in all its complexity they found it as difficult as any native speaker of English does. The realization that their self-perception as ethnic Cree or Ojibwe will not in any way ease the task of learning “their” language is quite a body blow to their self-image, as is the later realization that as a result they will never speak “their” language. Which in turn explains why (at this University) Native students dropped out of the Cree and Ojibwe language courses in far greater numbers than non-native students. The fact that the teacher was a Euro-Canadian linguist merely added salt to the wound.

    For members of a minority group whose self-hatred is both intense and deeply entrenched this is a very undesirable outcome, to say the least (“Your” language is being taught at a University, and whites are better at it than you are! Frankly, if a racist wanted to make Native students feel even more insecure about their collective moral and intellectual worth than they were before entering University, I doubt said racist could come up with anything better) .

    Now, most faculty members (whatever their ethnicity) at Native Studies departments (in my admittedly limited experience) see themselves as people whose core mission is to help uplift Natives’ self-image, to help reverse the legacy of colonialism. A laudable goal, say you? Well, yes: but unfortunately *everything* is to be subordinated to this Mission (INSERT INSPIRATIONAL MOVIE-TRAILER-TYPE MUSIC HERE). Including pedagogical and scholarly integrity.

    My guess, thus, is that the teaching of Cree and Ojibwe and other Native languages was kept at a very rudimentary level, if not deliberately dumbed down, to preserve Native students’ self-image. I’m sure they consider that a small price to pay for the Mission.

    P.S. The above is a very depressing hypothesis, I know. I take no joy in it: indeed, if any hatter could prove me wrong, believe me, such proof would cheer me up greatly.

  98. My guess, thus, is that the teaching of Cree and Ojibwe and other Native languages was kept at a very rudimentary level, if not deliberately dumbed down, to preserve Native students’ self-image.

    Discouraging indeed if true. Perhaps the Right Thing would be to divide the classes. My alma not-quite-mater did this with non-English literature. There was no department of comparative literature, though you could get a degree in it. Rather, the German (e.g.) department taught a course in Goethe in German (labeled “German”) and in the context of other German literature, and another course in Goethe in English translation (labeled “Comp Lit”) in the context of other literature of the period. The other foreign language departments did likewise, and made an agreement between themselves (doubtless extremely political) about how many and which such courses were required for a Comp Lit degree.

  99. My guess, thus, is that the teaching of Cree and Ojibwe and other Native languages was kept at a very rudimentary level, if not deliberately dumbed down, to preserve Native students’ self-image.

    As a white Australian I’m possibly the least qualified to comment on this, but my impulse is similar to John’s — it still seems like it would be a good idea to offer SOME option for people who really want to buckle down and learn the language (of course, maybe there is such an option and Mazard didn’t find it, but in that case it looks like a discovery problem).

    I could swallow that if he hadn’t made the remarks about English and French. It may or may not be absurd to suppose that the best place to learn French is France, but it is absurd to suppose a priori that the best place to learn English is England.

    I think he does himself a disservice with that sideline, yeah. That said, as I read it his argument is that Canada will never be a great place to study English literature, not the language itself. (I still disagree with him, but it makes a difference – it’s an argument about resources and access to materials, not one that ascribes unique powers to native speakers from certain approved locations but not others.)

    But I don’t really think that’s the point of the article, just a secondary target of convenience.

    Now we are getting into the realm of intention-guessing. I disagree; I think his point really is to argue that Canadian universities (and indeed Canadian institutions in general) don’t work the way (he thinks) they should, using his situation as an example, rather than just to complain that nobody would teach him Cree.

  100. Not only can languages decline for other reasons

    What reasons do you have in mind, and how common are they?

    they can actually decline faster once oppression and distress lessen or end.

    Not too surprising. People dying of cancer don’t necessarily suffer more and more as the end approaches, but it approaches just the same.

    Canada will never be a great place to study English literature

    Four words: Northrop Frye. Robertson Davies. (Or less specifically, Mark Hopkins on one end of a log, and a student on the other.)

  101. Also, did it ever occur to Mazard to go to where Cree actually is still spoken? All we hear about is the failings of Canadian universities. I bet there are villages in Northern Quebec or the NWT where you can buy groceries in Cree if you want to.

    Thanks for making this point. As someone uninformed about Cree, I wasn’t aware from the article that there *were* places the author could go. The university ought to have set up programs for speaking comprehension which connected students with native speakers.

    Though of course the social situation of Tamil is much better (many more speakers, places one can go for immersement etc), I found the description of the lousy, perfunctory teaching in NA universities to be painfully famliiar. The instructors do as little work as possible — not out of mission or supporting students’ pride — but because they can’t be bothered, and will trade an A for the student not making any noise.

    I do see a little of the “this ought to be easier for me so why isn’t it” in 2nd gen kids, and the jealousy of the occasional excellent white student, but I don’t think these are big factors, compared to the poor performance of the teachers.

  102. What reasons do you have in mind, and how common are they?

    Large influx of outsiders into a minority language community, high rates of linguistic exogamy, kids dropping a language because they consider the majority language cooler, young adults leaving their communities in great numbers in search of jobs or a more satisfying life, parents choosing not to speak their language to their kids due to various misconceptions about language (e.g. about bilingualism, or about the extent of the difference between a mother tongue and a fluent foreign language), speakers abandoning a language because they see it as “just a dialect”, etc.

  103. As someone uninformed about Cree, I wasn’t aware from the article that there *were* places the author could go.

    Whether Cree is one language or more is a question: it’s a dialect continuum extending from Alberta clear to Labrador, though the easternmost varieties aren’t usually called “Cree”. Across all varieties, there are about 100,000 speakers (like all counts of language speakers, this number is shaky and may be high or low by 20% or more). Though all varieties are considered “vulnerable” by UNESCO (that is, children do not speak it outside the home), it obviously isn’t dead yet. WP summarizes its situation thus (though without citations):

    In many areas, Cree is a vibrant community language spoken by large majorities and taught in schools through immersion and second-language programmes. In other areas, its use has declined dramatically. Cree is one of the least endangered aboriginal languages in North America, but is nonetheless at risk since it possesses little institutional support in most areas.

    But as Josiah Cotton and his father John Cotton, who had learned Wampanoag, put it back in the early 18C:

    Q: Uttuh woh nittinne nehtuhtauan Indianne unnontꝏwaonk?
    ‘How shall I learn Indian?’

    A: Nashpe keketookauaonk Indianeog kah kuhkinasineat ukittooonkannꝏ kah wuttinnohquatumꝏonkanꝏ.
    ‘By talking with the Indians, and minding their words, and manner of pronouncing.’

    (The ꝏ is oo-ligature.)

  104. Here’s the exchange with the ligatures replaced by 00 for legibility’s sake and the diacritical marks restored:

    Q: Uttuh woh nittinne nehtuhtaūan Indianne unnont00waonk?

    A: Nashpe keketookauāonk Indianeog kah kuhkināsineat ukittooonkănn00 kah wuttinnohquatumooonkăn00.

  105. John Cowan: the WP article grossly overstates the vitality of Cree: basically, my understanding is that (nearly) all varieties outside of Quebec and Labrador are no longer being transmitted as L1’s, nor indeed acquired as L2’s.

    Cree is indeed a continuum, and one where terminology is a very, very confusing mess: “Cree”, linguistically, is sometimes used to refer to the entire continuum, including its Easternmost members (Innu, Naskapi and Attikamek), whose speakers do not call themselves or their language Cree, and sometimes used solely to refer to the continuum in a narrower sense, i.e. the continuum of varieties whose speakers call their language “Cree”. Finally, it is sometimes used to designate the best-described variety, Plains Cree (the Westernmost member of the continuum).

    In some French-language publications the acronym CINA (=Cree/Innu/Naskapi/Attikamek) is used to unambiguously designate the continuum in its broader meaning, but despite its practicality CINA doesn’t seem to have become all that popular a term. A pity.

    The Innu used to be called “Montagnais” (as were the Athabaskan-speaking group now known as the Chipewyan, incidentally) and, confusingly, in earlier linguistic work “Montagnais” was also used to refer to all members of the CINA continuum spoken in Quebec and Labrador, on the basis of a single innovation, the palatalization of /k/ before /i/ (an innovation which is indeed unknown West of Quebec, but which is not universal within Quebec: it is alien to Attikamek).

    Finally, just to make things murkier, within the CINA continuum the division into different “languages/dialect” is inconsistent in terms of the criteria used. Plains Cree is a “language” separated from its Swampy and Woods Cree neighbors on the basis of its having /j/ as the reflex of Proto-Algonquian/Proto-Cree */r/ (Or */l/: Algonquianists agree there was a single liquid phoneme in Proto-Cree/Proto-Algonquian, but use L or R to represent it, according to what they believe the phonetic value of this single liquid phoneme was. This variation can lead the uninitiated -such as myself when I first grew interested in comparative Algonquian-to believe that Proto-Cree/Proto-Algonquian had two liquid phonemes). Innu and Naskapi, on the other hand, are each defined as a single language, each with dialects…with the latter being defined through the presence in each of these dialects of separate reflexes of Proto-Cree /r/.

    In the case of Innu its identity as a separate language/variety is established through other criteria: for instance, a pan-Innu innovation unknown to other varieties of the CINA continuum is the use of a negator /apu/ (+ conjunctive forms of the verb). But some other “languages” may well turn out to be collections of otherwise deeply differentiated dialects.

    Incidentally, other Algonquian continua are not subdivided on the sole basis of the reflex of Proto-Algonquian /r/: in the case of the Ojibwe continuum for instance this would be difficult, as all (modern!) Ojibwe varieties have /n/ as their reflex of */r/. Meaning that the various divisions within the Ojibwe continuum, with separate varieties such as Chippewa or Saulteaux, are established through criteria quite unlike those whereby Plains Cree or Attikamek are considered languages within the Cree (CINA) continuum.

    Hope the above clarifies things a little.

  106. Good lord, that’s confusing! Not your fault, of course, but it’s certainly discouraging.

  107. No hairier than Chinese, which sometimes refers to Mandarin, sometimes to the varieties called by that name in English (which excludes Dungan) and sometimes including Dungan. Sociolinguistically Dungan’s Cyrillic writing system makes it very friendly to Russian borrowings, but dialectologically it is actually inside the Mandarin dialect continuum.

  108. A thought I forgot to add… There’s nothing that can be done about demographic change, and making a language cool or a poor and rural area attractive is extremely difficult, if not impossible. But I feel states supportive of language preservation could do more to combat misconceptions. Certainly strong ad campaigns outlining some basic facts would be a better use of resources than translating countless obscure documents no one is likely to see anyway. I know there have been such campaigns from time to time, but it’s pretty amazing how misinformed people still are, even in countries or regions with well-established language preservation movements. It’s hard not to feel like more could be done in this area. Maybe make it part of the curriculum?

    Of course, some things might not be emphasized enough not because of some sort of oversight, but because they’re seen as potentially divisive. Campaigns explaining the importance of using the minority language in the home (as opposed to consigning it to schools) might be difficult to pull off without alienating people.

    John Cowan: the WP article grossly overstates the vitality of Cree: basically, my understanding is that (nearly) all varieties outside of Quebec and Labrador are no longer being transmitted as L1′s, nor indeed acquired as L2′s.

    What’s the situation in Quebec and Labrador?

  109. David Marjanović says:

    Sociolinguistically Dungan’s Cyrillic writing system makes it very friendly to Russian borrowings

    This is heavily helped along by the presence of Persian and Arabic borrowings with [r] and consonant clusters.

  110. Campaigns explaining the importance of using the minority language in the home (as opposed to consigning it to schools) might be difficult to pull off without alienating people.

    Perhaps the schools are indeed the right place for such a campaign, but aimed at the students who still speak the L1. Putting the authority of the state behind the proposition “Your languages are precious, and you should speak them with your (future) children so they are not lost” might have interesting effects.

    presence of Persian and Arabic borrowings

    Which probably exist in colloquial Islamo-Mandarin of other kinds but can’t be used in Chinese writing without extreme pain.

    Victor Mair on the effects of Dungan writing on the language: words vs. syllables, dictionary lookup, actual as opposed to graphical etymologies, popular literacy, non-traditional poetry, what is “Chinese”?, borrowing by characters, writing non-standard topolects in characters, the unimportance of theoretical lexical ambiguity (he uses the English sentence “We can ring up the operator right away and have her tell the highway patrol that a drunk bear from the state park is creating a traffic jam at the cloverleaf” to illustrate this) — in short, all of Mair’s themes in a single package.

  111. Gwenllian: in Quebec and Labrador (East) Cree/Innu/Naskapi/Attikamek are still healthy community languages, with children acquiring them at home as a rule: the impact of French or English is much more pronounced in their speech than in their parents’ or grandparents’, not surprisingly. The various varieties form a messy continuum: East Cree is spoken in nine communities in Northwestern Quebec, for instance, with substantial differences between Northern and Southern East Cree: Naskapi shares features with Northern East Cree, and indeed I would not be surprised if Northern East Cree was found to be globally closer to Naskapi than to Southern East Cree. Innu is a grouping which does share a number of shared innovations (I gave an example of one such innovation above), but its internal diversity is very substantial: a recently created and accepted Pan-Innu orthography involves speakers of different Innu varieties learning different sound/spelling conventions.

    The major exception to the above generalization on language transmission is the Innu community of Pointe Bleue (AKA Mashteuiatsh) in Quebec, where the younger generation has French as its L1, creating a situation where the local Innu variety must be taught as an L2. One consequence of this is that the Pan-Innu spelling system is not in use there: the logic being that, whereas for L1 Innu speakers the relationship between sound and spelling is not too much of a challenge, for learners of Innu as an L2 it would be too difficult to teach them the local Innu variety by means of this spelling system. As a result a local spelling system, representing the local Innu variety, is in use: as a result Mashteuiatsh/Pointe Bleue Innu is sometimes said to be a separate language, called Nehlueun.

  112. Perhaps the schools are indeed the right place for such a campaign, but aimed at the students who still speak the L1. Putting the authority of the state behind the proposition “Your languages are precious, and you should speak them with your (future) children so they are not lost” might have interesting effects.

    Yeah, I think it could have an effect on native speaker kids. Simply supporting preservation might be too vague. It might be good to have the speak it with your children part spelled out more often.

    But when you’ve got L1 and L2 speakers in the class, how do you advocate speaking the language to your kids as the right thing to do, without offending, or at least putting off, the children whose parents didn’t do it? Language preservation movements already get a lot of grief for supposedly being exclusionary and divisive as it is.

    Etienne, thanks for the detailed explanation!

    in Quebec and Labrador (East) Cree/Innu/Naskapi/Attikamek are still healthy community languages, with children acquiring them at home as a rule

    What are the reasons for such different situations?

    One consequence of this is that the Pan-Innu spelling system is not in use there: the logic being that, whereas for L1 Innu speakers the relationship between sound and spelling is not too much of a challenge, for learners of Innu as an L2 it would be too difficult to teach them the local Innu variety by means of this spelling system. As a result a local spelling system, representing the local Innu variety, is in use: as a result Mashteuiatsh/Pointe Bleue Innu is sometimes said to be a separate language, called Nehlueun.

    Is the local spelling producing good results for Nehlueun? And are learners taught the Pan-Innu spelling system once they master the local one?

  113. In answer to your questions, Gwenllian…to start with, the difference between Quebec and neighboring provinces in terms of the better preservation in the former of aboriginal languages comes down to three major factors. First, in the seventies, as a result of the French-English language debate in Quebec, aboriginal languages were granted a degree of official recognition in education. Second, among the Cree and Naskapi English remains the chief second language, with French being a third language, and as a result English lacks the monopoly it has outside Quebec as a link with the outside world, thereby easing the task of language maintenance. Third is the fact that the residential school system (a system of boarding schools for aboriginal children which had forced acculturation as its explicit goal) was quite marginal in Quebec when compared to the rest of the country, and much less assimilationist and more humane in its philosophy (Quebec never practiced forcible sterilization of aboriginal women, unlike certain other provinces, for example).

    In Labrador the preservation of Innu is more a matter of geographical isolation than anything else, and indeed there is a remarkable contrast between Quebec and Labrador in terms of Inuktitut, which is a healthy language in Quebec and no longer transmitted to children in Labrador. Of course geographical isolation also partly accounts for the healthy state of the CINA varieties in Quebec. The other aboriginal languages of the province are in much worse shape, unfortunately.

    As for Nehueun…I have no idea as to how effective its teaching as an L2 is, or what impact the use of a separate orthography has. I strongly suspect, however, that the pan-Innu orthography is not taught in school in Pointe-bleue at any time.

  114. Man, I’m learning a lot from this thread.

  115. Thanks, Etienne!

  116. Gwenllian: you’re quite welcome. Hat: Considering how much I’ve learned over the years from your site I am more than happy to offer some information in return.

    All: a clarification to my last message for those hatters not familiar with Canadian political geography. In contrasting “Quebec” and “Labrador” I just realized that some non-Canadians might find this misleading. Whereas Quebec is a province within Canada, Labrador is neither a province nor a territory within Canada: instead, it is part of the province once known as Newfoundland and now known as Newfoundland and Labrador.

  117. But when you’ve got L1 and L2 speakers in the class, how do you advocate speaking the language to your kids as the right thing to do, without offending, or at least putting off, the children whose parents didn’t do it? Language preservation movements already get a lot of grief for supposedly being exclusionary and divisive as it is.

    Can you give some examples of language preservation movements being criticized as divisive? Or L2 parents feeling offended?

    I have met parents who didn’t transmit to their children the language that their kids are learning via teachers. I did not disguise my views and they did not take offense.

  118. @fisheyed: I can very easily imagine it causing offense to people who do not speak the language natively. It can suggest that they are not “real” members of the group.

    I actually encountered something like this myself just last weekend, and I was surprised by the strength of my own reaction to what might have seemed an innocuous comment. The L1 of most of my ancestors was Yiddish, but everyone in my family born in America spoke English as their L1 instead. My grandfather was probably a fluent L2 Yiddish speaker, but I don’t think he had anyone to speak the language to after his own parents died. I am fairly fluent in standard German, and I know a lot of specifically Yiddish words, but I do not consider myself a Yiddish speaker. Last weekend, I was watching a documentary about American Jewish POWs captured during the Battle of the Bulge. (None of them had become unstuck in time.) They were sent to a slave labor camp, and one of the Polish Jews who was already there was talking about trying to communicate with the new arrivals. He didn’t know English; they didn’t known Polish; so he tried talking to them in Yiddish. Except he calqued the name of the language as “Jewish.” I was surprisingly stung by the notion that I (and the Jewish GIs in the story) could not speak “Jewish”; it felt like an attack on my (and their) Jewish identity.

  119. marie-lucie says:

    … could not speak “Jewish”

    Perhaps because “speak Jewish” seemed to mean ‘speak like a Jew’ while “speak Yiddish” referred to the particular language.

  120. yidish means both ‘Yiddish’ (as a noun) and ‘Jewish’ (as an adjective) in Yiddish itself, so it’s a natural error to make.

  121. I’ve heard an older American Jew (about 80 y.o. around 1980), L1 Yiddish, fluent L2 English, call the language “Jewish”. I found it charming. I agree it’s probably a calque on Yiddish, contrasted with native N. Americans calling their own particular language “Indian”.

  122. @fisheyed: I can very easily imagine it causing offense to people who do not speak the language natively. It can suggest that they are not “real” members of the group.

    There has been quite a bit of discussion of imaginings of all the terrible things that any language preservation initiative can cause (including the imaginary multinationals and their imaginary objections). I am more interested in actual reality. Where are the concrete examples of people who are offended by language promotion efforts to the point that it matters, e.g. interferes with other childrens’ language acquisition of endangered languages?

    What is the verb in English for twisting the tips of one’s moustache to sharp points? (The connection between the above and the moustache-sharpening verb is left as an exercise for the Tamil-friendly reader.)

  123. Yeah, it’s a natural error for a nonnative speaker of English to make. I knew precisely what he meant and how he came to say that. It was just oddly unsettling.

  124. Can you give some examples of language preservation movements being criticized as divisive?

    My experience is very limited, but every language preservation movement or minority language situation I’ve paid attention to for a long enough period of time to notice such things has had those accusations levelled against it. I think it’s just inevitable.

    Or L2 parents feeling offended?

    I suggested that this might happen if schools were to start emphasizing how much better for the language it is to speak it in the home. In addition to what Brett said about identity, in a situation like this school one, the L2 child or their parents might feel that the school is shaming families like theirs and accusing them of letting the community down.

  125. There was a recent mention, here or on LL, of a campaign for language preservation that used the term ‘treasure language’ — to me it seems a happy phrasing, a way of assigning value to knowing the language without guilt-tripping people who don’t speak it natively.

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