Yes, of course I’m going to talk about Jack Hitt’s article in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine. But long-time readers who remember my frequent railing at the idiocies perpetrated by the Times may be surprised at my response: I basically liked it. In this I part company from my fellow linguabloggers, Mark Liberman and Semantic Compositions, both of whom had serious bones to pick with it. It’s not that I disagree with them about the facts, it’s just that I have different standards for a long Magazine piece than I do for a news article. The latter, if it is about language, should get the facts right, just as a story about biology or politics should, and the Times seems to find that almost impossible. But since I know that to be true, I don’t expect any linguistic accuracy here, and the focus is not on the language (pace Mark Liberman, who seems personally offended that no account is taken of whatever peculiarities of morphology or syntax might be exhibited by Kawesqar, the language in question) but on the human meaning of language loss, which Hitt (in my opinion) gives a moving account of. He’s a good and thoughtful writer, and that is more important in this venue than knowing one’s fricatives from one’s stops. (I suspect I have an advantage here in being so long away from the academy that I’m better aware of what the average reader expects and needs from a mass publication; sure, I’d prefer a higher base of linguistic understanding in both the reading public and the ink-stained wretches, but I’d like world peace too.)
On the other hand, there is one head-slappingly stupid remark that has not been pointed out by the aforesaid carpers, so I’ll do the honors myself. Hitt says:

A handful of linguists dismiss salvage efforts like Terralingua’s as futile exercises. They say languages just die, as spoken Latin did, and then are reborn as French, Spanish and Italian. No big deal.

This is one of my pet peeves, and one that should be clear to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds, even with no linguistic training: Latin did not die. It grew, it developed, it gradually split into French, Spanish, Italian, and the other Romance languages, and it is still with us under those guises. It is dead in the sense that your four-year-old self is dead: that self was very different from you today, you probably don’t remember much about it, you wouldn’t understand much it said if you were somehow to encounter it… but in another and more important sense, it lives on in you. “Dead” is a metaphor here, and a dangerous one, tempting a writer into a stupid statement like this (which I guarantee was thought up by Hitt, not any “handful of linguists”). Kawesqar isn’t going to be “reborn,” it’s just going to die. It’s like telling someone about to be shot that your four-year-old self is still alive in you. It’s not going to reassure him. We really should reserve the term “dead” for languages that have gone from the earth without issue, like Sumerian and Ubykh, not for those that have simply changed into new forms, like Latin and Old English.
Addendum. Claire made a comment in this thread that she didn’t take seriously but I thought was actually a promising idea, and Mark Liberman agrees with me. Why shouldn’t companies sponsor dictionaries?
Further addendum. On the topic of not expecting much from non-linguists, see John McWhorter’s discussion at Language Log.


  1. Actually, Prof. Liberman is really just annoyed that they didn’t talk about phonetics (just kidding, Prof. L!).
    I hadn’t thought about language death vs. growth in the terms you suggest here. I think that Hitt’s attitude, though — along with a lot of other sentimental types — is that indigenous people the world over are supposed to live in mud huts, and engage in nothing but subsistence farming and muttering creation myths around fires.
    Then enlightened travelers like Jack Hitt can come around and coo over how cute the living museum is. So when some particular grouping of syntax, vocabulary items and phonology stops being spoken by the natives, it’s like losing a one-of-a-kind painting or other exhibit. But the sense of loss over the language ignores the question of whether or not the people involved are any happier. That’s why I felt Hitt’s viewpoint was so toxic.
    I find myself instinctively liking your view of the phenomenon as language growth and evolution. It seems like a useful corrective to the attitude of treating people as museum pieces. I wish more linguists thought like that.

  2. One of the best parts of this Sunday NY Times article (or must I call it a piece?) was the explantation of the origin of the name Tierra del Fuego. Still, I almost gasped when I read the word largish.

  3. I’m not hard to please, really — I’d have been happy with a spark of genuine curiosity about culture, geography, climate, history, politics, or anything else, never mind language. I experienced the article as a sort of dull ache, reported by someone who seems unengaged morally as well as intellectually. There’s certainly plenty of depressive atmospherics, and maybe I misinterpreted bereavement for lack of interest.
    From a wider point of view, I guess the question is what most readers will take away from it. I should have said the take-away message is: “it’s depressing, hopeless, does it really matter? who knows, who cares, really…”
    If that’s wrong, so much the better.

  4. It’s wrong. (Speaking as a linguistics student who has taken few enough courses to read the article like anyone else would.)

  5. I agree about the museum piece comment. It annoys me no end to see my old lady Aboriginal friends, some of whom own mobile phones (a rarity among people over 70) being treated as stone-age freaks because they like talking a language with no fricatives and 15 cases… actually “annoys” is rather mild, but you get the idea. I don’t think many linguists subscribe activity to the “museum piece” idea anymore. maybe I’m wrong. Hope not.

  6. The ethnologue link you give has the language as one of two classified as Alacalufan with the other, Kakauhua, being “extinct”. Which seems to be depressingly appropriate.

  7. Hey, that article quotes Prof. Marianne Mithun of UCSB— in a former life I was a UCSB linguistics undergrad, and IIRC I had a morphology class with her. Nice lady, and a fine teacher.

  8. I reckon that almost-dead languages would make an excellent security/privacy tool: the fewer living speakers, the more valuable the language.
    Language isn’t just for including people, it’s for filtering out the others too.
    Someone simply needs to gather two or three surviving speakers of an almost-dead language, put them together with some linguists and language teachers at a luxurious location, and then sell a very very expensive three-month intensive course to a class of around a hundred obscenely rich people with nothing to do but lots of dodgy, police-shy networking needs.
    Idle, multilingual daughters of Russian gangsters looking to go into dealmaking themselves might make a good start.
    Then advertise the whole of this as a kind of extremely exclusive networking club:
    – pricey enough to keep out the riff-raff,
    – guaranteed only sold to a max of two or three hundred people per language
    – provides both the venue for meeting the other members of the clique, and the wherewithall to keep in touch with them very privately thereafter.
    What would be nice of course is that it would precisely save the most-endangered languages first.

  9. I was disappointed that Hitt didn’t mention the fact that Scottish Gaelic speakers are outnumbered in Scotland by Urdu speakers and that Scottish Gaelic is apparently in danger of extinction. Let’s hope the Scots are as determined as the Welsh.

  10. When I was an undergrad we came up with a sponsorship scheme to raise money for our fieldwork. For the cost of enough fieldwork to produce a reference grammar, dictionary and texts, your company would get the right to name the language (many of the languages had no name the speakers used), unlimited rights to vocab items for product names, your company logo on the front of the dictionary, etc..
    (Before anyone takes me seriously, we came up with this idea at the pub one Friday evening)

  11. I was curious to see whether I’d like this article, for my own selfish reasons — I had pitched a very similar idea to the NYT Mag, but was turned down with the reasonable explanation that something on the same topic was already in the works.
    No surprise that my take would have been from the point of view of Yiddish. I think I would have done it more interestingly, not because I’m a better writer but because there’s simply more that can be done for an endangered language than a moribund/dead one. Less Beckett, more Tom Stoppard.

  12. More Beckett.
    Less Tom Stoppard.

  13. Sorry to be stupid, but I didn’t understand that Beckett/Stoppard comparison the two of you just made.

  14. I believe the point is that Beckett typically gives us speech grinding down almost to the point of catatonic silence, whereas Stoppard features language florescing wildly in all directions. (Me, I love ’em both.)

  15. The ball was lying there. So I hit it.
    *whistles unconvincingly*

  16. Ah, thanks. Silly of me – I see the Beckett/Stoppard point, now you explain it, Steve.
    No-one wants to buy a very discreet language, then? Only four speakers left, all must go.

  17. Of course “living”, “dying”, “extinction”, “growing” and “being descended from” are all strictly speaking metaphors. But they’re useful ones, in the natural and social sciences as well as in linguistics.
    And I don’t think it’s stupid or inappropriate to speak of the “death” of a language, even a language with descendants.
    We don’t say that Portuguese is the same thing as Spanish, so why should we say that Latin is the same thing as Spanish? In both synchronic and diachronic views the boundaries between languages are often fuzzy to the point of invisibility, but that doesn’t mean that there are no distinctions among them. If you grant that Latin and Spanish are different languages, and there are no more native speakers of Latin, then it makes perfect sense to say that Latin is “dead”.
    Which isn’t to say that I’m not appalled by the argument “Latin died so why should we care”? That’s just like saying “dinosaurs died so I don’t care about condors or humpback whales”. Language extinction matters not because language doesn’t change, but because we’re seeing a massive die-off and a catastrophic loss of diversity in an unprecedentedly short time. And it matters because it’s happening at the time scale of individual lives, with great cost to the people watching their cultures die.

  18. Yeah, dinosaurs didn’t die, they just turned into condors.

  19. Prentiss: I simply don’t understand your argument. I think it was clear from my discussion above that I understand the metaphor involved; I just think it’s a lousy one, because it fatally (ha!) obscures the distinction between the “death” of Latin (tell me, exactly when did it “die”?) and the all-too-real death of Sumerian and Ubykh. It seems obvious to me that that distinction is far more important than the putative joys of using the metaphor for Latin. If you disagree, I’d very much appreciate hearing why.

  20. Could you please tell me what are the DEAD LANGUAGES of the World?
    Is it true that only these Dead Languages are recognized as Classical Languages by the Government to encourage govt. funded Research work?
    Particular reference to India on these aspects will be appreciated.
    A reply may kindly be sent to my email address

  21. My email

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