John Ross presses the claims of disappearing languages in When a Language Dies:

Because just a few people speak most of the world’s languages—4% of the world’s people speak 96% of its languages—most linguistic systems are extremely vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life and death.

Linguistic diversity flourishes in the south—half of the world’s languages are concentrated in just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Australia, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Mexico. Mexico’s Oaxaca state, smaller than Portugal, is host to 16 distinct ethnic groups and speaks more languages than all of Europe.

“Cuando muere una lengua
todo lo que hay en el mundo,
mares y rios,
animales y plantas,
ni se piensen, ni se pronuncian
con atisbos, con sonidos,
que no existan ya.”
“When a language dies,
all that there is in this world,
oceans and rivers,
animals and plants,
do not think of them,
do not pronounce their names,
they do not exist now.”

If each language was a room than Mexico would be a great mansion of 62 rooms, linguist/poet/historian Carlos Montemayor reflected at a recent presentation of a newly translated volume of Mexican indigenous poetry. “These languages are not dialects but rather complete linguistic systems. Purepecha is as complete as Greek, Maya as complete as Italian. There are no superior language systems. All have grammar and syntax and vocabulary and etymology. It is an expression of cultural racism to consider indigenous languages to be dialects.”

Of course it’s not necessarily a huge tragedy every time a language dies, but it is a shame if you enjoy diversity, and if it can be prevented or delayed by helping people record and pass on their own languages, I’m all for it. And I do enjoy rants on the subject. People should be passionate about language! (Yes, even the people who are wrong-headedly passionate about changes in English; I deplore their ignorance but admire their passion.)

Via wood s lot.


  1. No saves, Antonyo, lo ka es morirse una lingua. Es komo kedarse soliko en el silensyo kada diya ke el Dyo da. –Marcel Cohen, 1985
    That’s Dzhudezmo, or Judaeo-Spanish, and means “You don’t know, Antonio, what it’s like when a language dies. It’s like finding yourself alone in silence on every day that God gives.”

  2. Ah yes, the famed debate surrounding language death. One of my favs. But, LH, comments such as “Of course it’s not necessarily a huge tragedy every time a language dies” really don’t help. Furthermore, it is a touch anglocentric in that there is no imminent threat to English therefore we need not fear preserving our own ‘beloved language’ (Fishman).
    The topic of language death came up a few weeks back in my Languages in Contact linguistics class, whilst I was directing a discussion on the subject. A student in the class questioned why languages should be saved. They’re not, after all, like an ecosystem that could throw off the food chain. People aren’t necessarily dying and some of their cultures are being transmitted intergenerationally (i.e. North American aboriginal languages). Of course, she does have a point. But that’s when I realized that we, the majority language speakers of the globe, are much too arrogant to even comprehend the matter. And that’s why I believe attriting languages should not be saved for US – whomever that may be –
    but for THEM. Could you imagine sitting on the bus, talking to a stranger on your way home from work, explaining to him that you were the LAST speaker of English in the world? Such is the case, as you blogged in the past, for the last speaker of Eyak Marie Smith Jones.
    I am (obviously) passionately FOR language maintenance and preservation. Not simply because, as a linguist-to-be, I’m ‘supposed’ to be in favour of it, but for all the reasons outlined in Crystal 2000 (plurilingualism assures diversity, etc.). This passion of mine especially surfaced when I heard Doreen Dauenhauer speak in Tlingit at the Cornell Conference on Language & Poverty. When you see the face of a woman who is one of less than 800 to speak her language, you quickly and without conviction become an advocate of endangered language preservation.

  3. Languages should be saved because they may contain phonemes which are highly unusual. Had the Khosian languages et al. died out before the rise of linguistic study, we’d have no idea that clicks can be used in human speech. I always found it odd that one of the linguists most resistant to the idea of language preservation, Langefoed, is a phonologist.

  4. It is pretty funny when someone who call him(?)self [deservedly] an Arrogant Polyglot acuse the “majority of language speakers of the word” of arrogance.
    Besides an obvious conflict of interests (future linguist advocating for language preservation) and reference to “diversity” – may I ask who do you propose will fund the bill for language preservation?
    Whoever wants to preserve their language have an absolute right to do so – but not by involuntary extortion from tax-paying public. Go form a charity, if you want, just not appropriate MY money.

  5. Justin Neville says

    It may be overly pernickety of me, but John Ross not only gets his Spanish wrong (should be “piensan”, not “piensen”), but the translation he gives or quotes from elsewhere also seems to me to somewhat unhelpful. The “they” in the last line misleadingly does not refer to the same thing as the “them” two lines previously; the translation appears to be saying that everything in the world doesn’t exist any more (whereas the point is that the thoughts and terms for them don’t exist any more because the language that used those terms doesn’t exist any more).
    On reflection, I’ve decided that I am being overly pernickety, but since when was that a reason not to submit a post?

  6. Yes, even the people who are wrong-headedly passionate about changes in English; I deplore their ignorance but admire their passion.
    That’s weird—I’m the exact opposite.

  7. Language preservation is a chimera. I don’t believe you can really separate a language from the culture that developed it – if that culture is dead than for all intents and purposes the language has died too. This is sadly the case with most indigenous North American languages for example. What would be the purpose of resurrecting Algonquin today if the folklore, poetry and traditions that presumably once made it rich and evocative have all disappeared? When culture changes the language can change so quickly that languages die without anyone even noticing. Standard English may not be in danger but hundreds of dialects of English have vanished or are vanishing every day. In my native New Hampshire the traditional very deliberate and concise local dialect has almost completely vanished over the last 40 years as New Hampshire has become more like everyplace else. That language has as much, or as little, right to be preserved as Tlingit, but when the last old New Hampshire farmer dies there probably won’t be a hoard of reporters standing by to record his thoughts, no one will even notice the language has gone.

  8. But, LH, comments such as “Of course it’s not necessarily a huge tragedy every time a language dies” really don’t help.
    You’re missing the point of the comment. I wasn’t saying “I don’t care if languages die” (obviously I do), it was to acknowledge the opinions of people like Tatyana (who doesn’t want her money spent on language preservation) and Vanya (who thinks it’s futile to preserve languages when the culture has died). Look, languages die all the time and did even before the era of Total Global Domination. They’re like species. I share your feelings about language, but if you go too far in the direction of insisting that every single language be preserved at whatever cost, nobody will listen to you. Preserving languages is a good thing if it makes sense in a given situation and if the speakers themselves are eager to do so. Otherwise there’s no point.

  9. michael farris says

    Tensor: “That’s weird—I’m the exact opposite.”
    You admire their ignorance but deplore their passion?

  10. michael farris says

    “Whoever wants to preserve their language have an absolute right to do so – but not by involuntary extortion from tax-paying public.”
    Well involuntary extortion from the tax-paying public was used to make the languages endangered in the first place.

  11. It’s not Ross’s Spanish, as a check of the original makes clear, though it is Ross’s English translation and probably Ross’s transcription error. The *original* original is said to be in Aztec, no author or text given; the Spanish translation of the Aztec is by Miguel Leon-Portillo.

  12. How, Michael?
    I’m not familiar with any US government project with specific aim of shutting out publishing in languages like Yiddish, f.ex. Is there police raids I’m not aware of arresting speakers of Lemkiv dialects? Or crushing out on Esperanto dissent?

  13. Michael Farris says

    I was thinking of government tax-payer funded indian schools which had a pretty decimating effect on native american languages and cultures (according to plan). The US government actively suppressed printing in native american languages too (destroying printing presses etc).
    I’m less concerned about immigrant languages and agree with you there, if immigrants want to maintain their own languages on their own then fine, but no government money for it (though I’m tempted to make a slight exception for Yiddish).
    But native languages are another matter.

  14. Tatyana, I like your fire. But really, our governments spend money on projects much less desirable. Let’s say war, for example. I know in Canada the Federal government at least recognizes linguistic plurality and even invests money into it, either academically or otherwise.
    LH, you raise a valid argument. Where do you begin? How do you prioritize? That’s certainly an ideological issue. Also, I agree that it is not appropriate to ‘convince’ an ethnic group to re-adopt their indigenous language. It would be like someone saying ‘Hey, AP, you’re gay, right? So why don’t you put this lovely dress on’. No thanks. So not a part of my culture.
    Vanya, it sucks when a group succumbs to outside forces thereby abandoning their regional variety. Unfortunately (and reluctantly), I have to say that NHE is not on my list of priorities for language maintenance.
    Michael Farris, I’m with you. A shifting group of Italian speakers in NY is not of great linguistic concern. Though their history should not be erased, a tremendous body of the Italian language exists outside of their enclave. And it truly is terrible how First Nations people were treated by both the US and Canadian governments? I believe someone once said (though I’m sure I don’t have this down exactly) that it would be cheaper to kill the Indians that to educate them the ways of the English.

  15. AP, I rather like our government spending money on war – and mine (and yours, accidentally), defense. It’s a primary function of the government. I don’t like federal spending on much else – not education, not science, not farm subsidies and surely not funding the preservation of dead and dying languages. If you and others are confident that endeavor is good for society – convince the public to donate money voluntarily. Compulsive taxation is mismanaged too often to add another burden on innocent taxpayer.

  16. There are two goals behind language preservation. The first is for linguists and psychologists: every language is different, and we need to study as many as possible if we are to gain a deeper understanding of the human mind. The second is for society as a whole: to keep indigenous people out of prisons, psychiatric wards and suicide statistics. I would imagine that even someone like Tatyana would prefer that their money not be spent on rehabilitation for victims of language/culture loss. Lord knows it saves more for the war effort.

  17. Tatyana, luckily we don’t ever have to worry about your Libertarian fantasy (my nightmare) coming true. The government will continue to subsidise the arts and sciences (which does much to assist the cause of language preservation).

  18. Someone like Tatyana would definitely object having their (mine) money spend on rehabilitation of people who turned to the life of crime because of loss of their culture/language.
    Mr. Culver: who knows who’s going to laugh/sweat in nightmare at the end…I still believe people are ultimately freedom-loving and rational creatures. You, obviously, like dictatorship and legalised extortion. To each its own.

  19. So Tatyana gives us the answer: preserve languages and cultures, and save taxpayer money. Everybody’s happy! And at the end of the day, isn’t that what Society is all about?

  20. Dear Sir, should you really allow the barbarism “f.ex.” in comments? It only hastens the death of dog-Latin; we must preserve “e.g.”, must we not? Your obedient servant, Pompus Prattus.

  21. Dear Sir, I completely agree with Pompus Prattus. Take heed s.v.p.

  22. When a language dies it does not simply happen in a vacuum. There is a social, political, economic context in which it occurs.
    Take Manx. My grandfather was Manx-Engliah bi-lingual, my father could deal well with the everday pleasantries and understood quite a bit more, I know a few words, my daughter has no Manx at all. Why?
    Well, in the 1870s the British Government kindly offered to pay for universal education – we were a little broke then – with a condition. No Manx would be taught or spoken in the shiny new schools.
    I am not putting forward a claim that the Manx were among the 100 or even the 1000 most oppressed peoples on the planet. What looks to have been carelessness lost us and the world a perfectly serviceable language with its unique world view.
    We all know that there are stories far more horrible than that but I cannot consider the loss of any language with a shrug and the phrase “stuff happens.”

  23. So nomis misunderstood me.
    If indigenous people don’t feel the need to preserve their own culture/language, what right the government has to force everybody else to pay for it?
    If they do want to preserve their culture/language – good for them (and for linguists around the world). It’s their business, not government’s, and they should foot the bill. If they experience luck of funds they can start a fund-raising campaign, just like champions of every other cause in civilized society.
    The defense line “I killed a man in drunken rage because my language is dying” holds as much water in as “I raped cause I grew up in a broken family”. Life is not a kindergarten.

  24. I remain silent on the advice of my lawyer.

  25. Surely for the best.

  26. Tatyana, we’re not talking about some criminal’s defence. Rather, the point is that if there are fewer broken homes (and language loss), there is a corresponding decrease in crime. Therefore, the government has a strong motivation to invest a little bit in social work to avoid the greater loss of more crime.
    And people need to be convinced that their language is a valuable resource. Your average speaker of an endangered language cares as much about its loss as about the fate of an endangered species, yet both a necessary to their respective ecosystems. Convincing people to hold on to their language takes some money.

  27. I’m pretty sure I didn’t misunderstand you Tatyana. Mr Culver sums my point up nicely: social problems caused by language and culture loss are expensive. If we invest in language maintenance it may well save money by preventing those problems. A stitch in time saves nine, right? Think of linguists as seamstresses working hard to save your tax dollars.

  28. The problem is, what does it mean to “preserve a language”? With the exception of super-savants, if someone doesn’t really want to speak a language — I mean REALLY want to, usually because they are terminally fascinated by the culture or want to make money off its other speakers — they just won’t learn it properly. It’s an unfortunate feedback thing: if there are enough enthusiastic speakers of a language, they’ll keep it alive without external prodding; if a language doesn’t have enough external speakers, external prodding (including ethnic-group-based financial incentives) can’t produce that genuine fire that is necessary for language learning.
    If by “preserve” you just mean “send some linguists and anthropologists out to record as much of the language as possible before it’s gone for good”, then I say do it and to hell with the taxpayer-money argument. It’s not like, as AP says, governments don’t waste money on non-vital, unwanted stuff already (worthless bridge, anybody? meaningless monument? nationalized sports center?) At least linguistics is non-vital, unwanted stuff written in an awesome superalphabet.

  29. Maureen, it was a pleasure reading your post, especially from someone with intimate knowledge of Ianguage death. It is reassuring, that the British government has experienced a recent shift in its ‘One nation, One language’ view. For example, Manx is still hanging in there and has some institutional support. The same is true for Jersey French. We don’t need to spend billions preserving languages via documentation, etc., rather we can economically develop curriculum so as to offer immersion programmes through the minority language. What better way to ensure language transmission? If the Channel Islands can do it, why can’t any one else, right? Baby steps…

  30. For some reason the spambot had mistaken something from my attempted comment for a naughty word; I’m posting it in my journal.

  31. I was typing simultaneously with other commenters; I don’t have much to add however – except to note a curious use of “we” in both of AP and nomis’ comments.
    Matt, I agree the government wastes infinite amount of taxpayers’ money; that is not a reason to pile more and more. As my wise grandma used to tell me – if you see the mishigine jumping off the bridge, would you follow him ?

  32. George Cauldron says

    I rather like our government spending money on war – and mine (and yours, accidentally), defense. It’s a primary function of the government. I don’t like federal spending on much else – not education, not science, not farm subsidies
    You like war spending but not spending on education or science.
    Good lord, I hope I never live in a country that you’re running.

  33. I admire Tatyana’s _______ but I deplore her _______________. (I have the same lawyer as John Emerson.)
    As soon as my government is elected to office I plan to burgle her home, pawn her candlesticks, and use the money to support Yiddish poetry.
    Wait for it, man, wait for it.

  34. it is not a translation from aztec. Is a poem by Miguel León Portilla (Universidad Autónoma de Mexico, UNAM). Portilla is spanish-nahua speaker.
    Miguel León Portilla
    El español y el destino de las lenguas amerindias
    “Si en Hispanoamérica y en la Península Ibérica se consolidan nuevas formas de convivencia lingüística, el hecho insoslayable de existir en geografías plurilingüísticas, lejos de ser fuente de conflictos, será manantial de riqueza cultural y, a la postre, de creatividad. El universo de Hispanoamérica será escenario de una variada sinfonía de voces, entre las que la antigua lengua de Castilla será vehículo de universal comprensión, enriquecida con la presencia de los idiomas, también milenarios, de los pueblos originarios del Nuevo Mundo. Y de las otras que también se hablan en España. Hermanadas todas, nos estaremos encaminando a la aparición de lo que un día será el gran conjunto de expresiones de la palabra con significación y alcances en verdad universales.
    Que jamás ocurra con ellos lo que en un poema en náhuatl y en español expresé con temor:
    Cuando muere una lengua
    Las cosas divinas,
    Estrellas, sol y luna;
    Las cosas humanas,
    Pensar y sentir,
    No se reflejan ya
    En ese espejo.
    Cuando muere una lengua
    Todo lo que hay en el mundo
    Mares y ríos,
    Animales y plantas,
    Ni se piensan, ni pronuncian
    Con atisbos y sonidos
    Que no existen ya.
    Cuando muere una lengua
    Para siempre se cierran
    A todos los pueblos del mundo
    Una ventana, una puerta,
    Un asomarse
    De modo distinto
    A cuanto es ser y vida en la tierra.”

  35. michael farris says

    Addressing Tatyana’s spam-bot avoiding LJ post:
    There’s a very big difference between adults looking at the lay of the land and deciding that switching languages might be a good idea (or making choices that make switching languages necessary) and outsiders deciding for others by beating their children when they speak their native language (common practice in schools designed to make sure that native americans only spoke English at least until the 60’s).
    When language shift is a choice at the individual or community level, not much damage is done. When language shift is forced and under duress, the human carnage can be pretty severe.
    There’s a very big difference between informed choice and unenthusiastic choices made under the pressure of bu11sh1t propoganda. I also have no problem with government monies used to give speakers a better idea of what the real options are. Maintainance of a minority language has consequences (not all of them ideal) and language shift under duress has consequences (far worse IMHO). I don’t expect you to agree, I’m just trying to make my position clear.
    Of course the impetus for preservation has to come from the speakers themselves, but I have no problem with government monies being used to supplement their efforts (as in paying for linguistic consultants, videotaping equipments, printing etc.)

  36. Michael, are you talking to me? Have you read the post in my journal? How can you address anything I said if you avoid reading it? Especially if I said essentially the same thing, at least in one aspect.
    Zackary, I will give you my silver willingly – just talk to me. Ask and you’ll receive. And I doubt you have the same lawyer with Mr.Emerson. Oh, darn, I have to stop at this – MY lawyer is calling.
    Mr. Cauldron – I like as small government with as little spending as possible. If I could
    I’d only trust them with military drills and equestrian police promenades. And have miriad public organizations scrutinizing their activities at that. You have every right to wish the opposite. I just hope I’ll never live in your country.

  37. michael farris says

    Tatyana, yes most definitely to you and I did read it and thought I was addressing some of your points (I guess that shows my writing skills aren’t what I wish they were). Maybe some kind soul can figure out how to outwit the spam-guard so it can be posted here too.
    Part of your point seemed to me that a choice is a choice is a choice and external factors don’t matter, I think they do.
    Believe it or not, I even prefer smaller to larger governments too, I just disagree on how small is feasible. The libertarian, police, military and courts only model is an unreachable mirage for reasons that have nothing to do with language shift and language death.

  38. Just to change the subject a little:
    As the story notes, language diversity seems to be greatest in places like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Australia, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Mexico. Ross characterizes these places as “the south”, whatever that means — a better common denominator would be that many of the places with a high number of surviving are also places with a lot of biological diversity. Perhaps this is because, as less-developed areas, industrialization and globalization have so far not decimated either the original language diversity or the biological diversity.
    Until just a few decades ago, the prevailing attitudes about education and development in international agencies was that encouraging language preservation ran counter to helping nations develop economically. The same attitude was true historically within the United States, which has wiped out hundreds of native languages and has quite a few teetering on the brink. US native tribes were certainly discouraged and often forbidden from teaching native languages in their schools.
    A most enlightened change to this attitude was introduced in Papua New Guinea about 15 years ago with the aim of preserving the rich linguistic heritage there. Education in the first three years is mandated to be in the child’s native language. Thereafter, the country’s creole lingua franca is taught, along with the official language, English.
    The Papuan policy has had a positive effect of encouraging education for girls, who tended to be kept out of school previously, as well as generally increasing literacy and preserving languages and cultural heritage. Unfortunately of course, in the long run literacy itself threatens the survival of local languages, since only literacy in a more broadly-spoken language is useful for trade and employment. But at least the Papuan system may provide a respite during which documentation of languages and other cultural artifacts can take place, and other means of preserving cultural heritage can be created. Much better than what American native tribes are having to do, in some cases re-learning or re-creating extinct tongues from scant records.

  39. Martin, biodiversity and linguistic diversity are both broadly correlated with latitude. It’s less to do with recent development and more to do with a whole bunch of other factors. Guns, germs and steel has a heap of information about these correlations.
    Tatyana, there are many governments in the world that spend basically their whole budgets on the military and oddly enough, I can’t think of a single one I’d like to live in. Burma, for example. North Korea? Chad? Bhutan? Please give me a list of ways in which your average citizen of Burma is better off, with their small government which contributes primarily to the military and not much else, than your average citizen of, say, Australia.

  40. When does a language die? When the last native speaker dies? When the last speaker of any kind dies? What about the “oceans and rivers, animals and plants, do not think of them, do not pronounce their names, they do not exist now” idea you quote? The names of animals, plants, rivers, oceans, mountains, and so on continue to exist. For example, the comments on your posting “listing languages” declare Massachusett dead, yet you cannot walk a mile in Massachusetts without encountering a Massachusett place name — not even counting the name Massachusetts itself. And didn’t we all eat squash at Thanksgiving? Well, except for those of you who ate quahogs 🙂
    OK, maybe quahog is Narragansett (which I didn’t see on the list), but you get the idea.

  41. When I think about it, I find Native American place names more painful than otherwise. “After we kill you we’ll name something after you, OK?”
    IIRC Borges had a piece about “The last Anglo-Saxon” which was somewhat off the mark, since Anglo-Saxon developed into ME. (Maybe it was “The Last Pagan Anglo-Saxon”.)
    I’m surprised that the Caucasus wasn’t on the list. Azerbaijan has about 100 native languages. (Wixman). The Caucasian languages are not related to any others, except nostradically, and one thing I read seemed to say that the three major Caucasian groups are not closely related to each other, either.

  42. John, it’s too bad you don’t read Russian. I googled “dialects and languages of Azerbaijan” to get better idea of your 100 number – and this is what I fished out, and from the most oficial source possible.
    LH, this site is a fascinating read; I think I might overextended my lunchbreak reading about all those ancient squabbles – have to stop now!
    Claire, you’re erecting a strawman. I know I’m a single-minded person but not exactly as downright ..er.. plain as you paint me to be.

  43. “Tatyana, we’re not talking about some criminal’s defence. Rather, the point is that if there are fewer broken homes (and language loss), there is a corresponding decrease in crime. ”
    That may be true, but it only matters when the community itself decides it matters enough to them to push the issue themselves. Here in the Puget Sound there is a revival of Lushootseed, not because the state is pushing it, or God forbid the BIA, but because Salish people want it to happen. And they want it for reasons of social health. They originally funded it out of their own tribal funds designated for substance abuse treatment.
    The discussion of the utilitarian aspects of language survival alwys sem to make a basic mistake. Peopke often airly assume that language is intended to communicate with people. Only sometimes is that true. Often it is intended to communicate on front of people. This is one reason that minority languages hang on, specifically because they function as cryptolects. And I gar-on-tee you, Lushootseed is as cryptic a cryptolect as anyone is likely to need. This is one reason that dialects in China are holding their own among educated speakers.
    As for the role of boarding schools in kiling native langugaes, I would expect beating a kid would be as effective at killing a language as it is on curbing smoking and masturbation. Go look elsewhere for an explanantion – how about social and economic collapse that discredits the whole culture, including the language, or maybe complete inundation with breed-like-bacteria European settlers?
    As for the govrernment’s role in promoting the arts, that is a good idea only if the process in undemocratic enough to avoid bland crap that passes through committees and manages to offend no one, or crap obscure enough not to offend anyone because no one pays it any attention. There may be some parallel in the preservation of languages. Irish has had government support for 80 years now, and resistance from the Church, but the real impetus for revival seems to have come from the IRA.

  44. An extremely sensible comment, Jim. Thanks.
    I would never dream of speaking for Tatyana, but I will point out that she’s coming from a very different set of assumptions about politics and society than (I venture to say) most commenters here. As an anarchist, I agree with her in theory (except for the military part), but I disagree that it’s a good idea to try to move precipitately towards our goals in the current situation, in which a great number of people have become dependent on government. But this is far removed from issues of language survival.

  45. Can someone summarize Tatynana’s page?
    Besides beatings, the Indian schools discouraged native-language use by separating students from their parents, and (effectively) by lumping speakers of a lot of different languages together, so that the only common language was English and some students had no one at all to speak to.

  46. There is not just one page, John (aren’t you lucky to have a name no one will scramble?), there is series of articles, chapters and subchapters with multiple links on history of Azerbaijan, from neolithic period to Black December ’90 – including historical outline of development, transformation and fall of country’s many dialects and languages.
    Indian kids at school: how does that differs from experience of immigrant children in regular American public school? My son’s kindergarten teacher gave me the report card after his first semester where all lines were marked Unsatisfactory; she complained he talks during class – in Russian, oh horror! She almost wrote him off to the special education on the grounds of speaking Foreign in class and not participating. And you know what? He’s better for that. His Russian is funny now (probably like my English), but understandable – and he uses it as a ‘secret code language’ (Jim, you’re exactly right). I can tell you though the kids lived thru it easier than adults, by obvious reasons – so what? Life is tough. We all have to learn to swim in the turbulent waters to survive and to prove ourselves.
    Liberal sense of entitlement and at the same time reliance on the benevolent government/kind old uncle/sage therapist/&c brings sometimes funny results. I recall a conversation, a year ago, with a visitor from Tallinn, professor of Semantics on Fulbright, who was outraged that Estonian government “turned around” and demanded from academics fluency in country’s language. Incredible, she said, They would tell Us what language should we speak in our own University! But, I noted, it’s their University, they’re your employers – besides, linguistic matters should be an easy task for you professionally – No, she said, I’m too valuable an asset in their scarce academia to be inconvenienced by these ridiculous requirements!
    Her problem was typical to Government-reliant Liberal of any country:
    The essential psychological problem for the left is that they believe that they are the Elect, the Chosen to whom the masses owe power and deference because they want to uplift the masses whether or not those masses want uplifting in the first place, and then those same masses have the nerve to reject their betters’ beneficence”. Compare to Mr. Culver’s insistence that people need to be “convinced” to hold on to their language – and he demands other people’s money for that.
    LH, dependence on government isn’t dependence on heavy drugs; it can be loosened and eventually eliminated – if the person comes to realise the money he/she is living on isn’t nobody’s – it’s the money of every person he/she meets on the street, at the register at the supermarket, in the doctor’s office.
    But you’re right, I’d wandered waaay too far from the topic of this post. Sort of.

  47. Tatyana, immigrant children are not taken away from their parents and send to distant schools to be taught English. This is about as intrusive as government can get and I’m surprised that you don’t object.
    In Estonia, as I understand, there’s a big problem because the educational system was Russian-based before liberation, and a considerable part of the population is monolingual in Russian. It’s a tough question and as I understand, any solution will be government-imposed.

  48. John, if that what happenned: separation of families regardless of parents’ approval then this policy is criminal. But the crime is not perpetrated against language. Would it be OK with you if the kids were forcibly separated from their families and send away to study their own dialect?
    “Separation by force” is the operating phrase here, not “separation due to studying English”.
    Estonia: and why, do you think, people who were born in the country, lived there for 20-30-60 yrs don’t know how to speak local language – and still don’t want to, despite considerable multiple-phased government effort (as it explained in the article I’ve linked) to do so? I’ve met fluently bilingual residents of Pyarnu – so it is not an impossible enterprise.

  49. Because they weren’t Estonians, and because when they came there, Russian was the official language, not Estonian.

  50. I don’t mean to inject acrimony into the conversation, but I must say that Tatyana’s personal experiences are hardly typical of the Russian-speaking immigrants. Language loss has a myriad ways of breaking families and disrupting traditional social networks. To provide an example parallel to the one she gave, my brother grew up almost monolingual in English, despite having parents who were never able to acquire any significant English. As a result, their ability to help him with homework was severely impaired. They failed to instill a love of reading in him, since they couldn’t read along with him in English, and he couldn’t manage reading in Russian.
    Libertarian thinkers (the disingenuous variety) have a lot of hidey-holes and quick change-ups between utopian thinking, moral philosophizing, and amoral realism, but at least they’re usually not in the habit of blaming young children for their reactions to the outside world.

  51. Tatyana, I’m not setting up a straw man, I’m pointing out what happens when you take your comments to their logical conclusion:
    “I rather like our government spending money on war – and mine (and yours, accidentally), defense. It’s a primary function of the government. I don’t like federal spending on much else – not education, not science, not farm subsidies and surely not funding the preservation of dead and dying languages. …”
    If you don’t want to answer my original point then at least explain to me what nuance I missed in this?

  52. Re: “…if that culture is dead than for all intents and purposes the language has died too.”
    I suppose then that a distinction needs to be made between “natural death” and “murder.” The French government’s appalling (and largely successful) attempts to eradicate France’s minority languages come to mind — thus wounding the very much alive cultures.
    Now that the dirty deed is done, they are making a few random and futile gestures to support the teaching of those languages in the schools.
    On the flipside, while it may no longer be the case, the government of Ontario used to fund “heritage” language classes after school which, some may argue, is promoting a minority culture in a vacuum, but it always struck me as a wonderfully compassionate use of my tax dollars.
    What’s that line about those who don’t remember what happened before they were born will remain children forever?

  53. a distinction needs to be made between “natural death” and “murder.”
    That’s my basic take on the issue. If a language is dying out because its speakers find a majority language more useful and don’t have a deep sense of attachment to their own, that’s one thing. But official attempts to force people not to speak their language are reprehensible.
    Claire: Not to speak for Tatyana, but your examples (Burma et al.) were of countries with extremely repressive governments that spend money on the military to control their own people. I’m pretty sure Tatyana finds that as objectionable as you and I. She’s interested in maximizing freedom, and her point is not that government should spend as much as possible on the military but that government should be as small as possible, existing basically only to protect its citizens against outside threats, and should spend (and therefore raise) only as much money as is necessary to do so effectively. (Tatyana, please correct me if I’m misrepresenting you.)

  54. LH, it’s a second time your spambot kicks me out with “questionable content” stamp; I swear I wasn’t going to promote any externalities enhancement!
    I’ll send you my reply via e-mail; could you post it under my name?

  55. [This is Tatyana’s reply:]
    LH, you’re representing me just fine. You summed it up precisely. Claire, if you’d read my reply to Mr.Cauldron above, you’d see your question resolved, I’m sure.
    Wimbrel, who are you to say my experience is not typical and your brother’s is? I’d say 80% of my fellow immigrant friends and acquaintances had experiences similar to mine – it depends on where you live, how strong is your motivation, your temperament and ability to follow up. If your brother failed to learn English – and also failed to maintain emotional contact with his son – that’s not a reason to demand money from the American government (and in the end – from totally unconnected to your brother taxpayers) to fund bilingual education and preservation/promotion of Russian. If your family had a goal of educating your nephew in Russian tradition – there are plenty of private Russian-speaking enterprises available: evening classes, tutoring schools, art studios. Question of priorities. Besides, teenagers who don’t want to read is not particularly a Russian or even immigrant problem – many native-born American kids don’t want to read books; and I don’t think it’s a catastrophe either: there are plenty of other media available today to get the mind working.
    As to all your other claims – typical of Liberal impotency: you attach labels when you can’t win the argument, in the fingering tone of a Pravda op-ed: tried and proved soc1alist tactic.
    Someone who has NO morals will label the ones who have as morally philosophizing. Someone who is used to selling out will blame others who don’t engage in manipulation and compromise as utopian thinkers. Someone who prefers moral relativism and po-mo notions of “everything goes” will see principled others as amoral realists. Why do I think you fit right in in American academia?
    [Posted by Tatyana, despite the best efforts of my overvigilant spam filters.]

  56. Languages are facinatingly complex to study. Thanks for some great things to think about!

  57. In all deference to Tatyana, I am beginning to sense that old divergence rear its ugly head once more. (I think) she thinks that if there is a way and people aren’t using it, it’s their problem. That way the onus lies with the victim.
    I maintain the opposite, that people in particular circumstances are insufficiently aware, or convinced, or know how things work, or worry about consequences, to take advantage of good opportunities, whether they are language fluency, education, whatever. The government (I think) exists to identify needs and fulfill them.
    If you equate expertise with paternalism, again, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Or, rather, I can agree to disagree, and you can continue fantasizing about my “Liberal impotency.”
    I had hedged my words in my last remark, but now I don’t really see a need to. Your experience is clearly not typical of the people who surrounded me when I arrived in the US, nor the people I work with now.
    I must remind you that those who stand to lose their language, typically marginalized people, can’t usually afford (economically or socially) “evening classes, tutoring schools, art studios,” which are cottage industries, anyway. What we’re talking about is not an expensive art studio class where five-year-olds learn to make “ethnic crafts,” but people whose livelihoods and social networks depend on a language that’s vanishing from under their feet.
    I didn’t mean to frame this conversation in the familiar left/right way. Dear Mr. Hat, I’m sorry I didn’t do more to stop this process. I sincerely apologize.

  58. Eh, no problem. I’ve seen worse. I think as long as people agree to disagree, we’ll survive.

  59. Back to language preservation. Barbara Aikhenwald had an article about which structures are likeliest to spread across languages and I bet the principles apply in reverse to resistance to thhat kind of blending or language loss. She notes how the pasive is spreading like an STD and says also that evidentiality systems spread quickly in environments where it looks like evasiveness not to use evidentiality markers, even in oyur own language that doesn’t traditioanlly have them.
    She says, IIRC, that the likelhood of change in general depends on external factors that have the effect of delegitimizing the origianl culture and langugae, such as poverty or defeat. Back a thousand years ago when I was working at Irish Brendan O’Hehir saud that more than anything it was the Famine that put the knife into Irish; it was just such an overwhelming disaster, and the whole culture went into a suicidal depression. The same factors can act in reverse, as when the English were able to retain their separate identity in India.
    hen there are internal charcteristics of a grooup. Scandinavians in particular seem prone to langugae loss. My own Danish(?) ancestors lost no time in learning Irish as soon as they got off the dragon ship. Swedes in the US used to be renowned for forgeting how to speak Swedish in the time it took to get from New York, hop the train, and get to Minnesota. Then there is the resiliance of “Ebonics” despite all efforts to scorn it to death. Maybe a “culture of resistance” makes all the difference.

  60. Culture of resistance is a great term – and it applies to Estonia perfectly.
    This is in answer to J.Emerson: Russian was the language of occupants – first time,in 1940 and the second – 1944, language of bloody executions and deportations, language of unwelcome immigrants. Estonians never willingly assumed Russian as their native language. They resisted russification well into 1970: only in 1981 Russian was official language in the 1st grade of school. In 1989, under Gorbachov, Estonians passed legislature declaring Estonian the official language of the Republic.(see more here, good as a primer). Some personal experience: in 1991 I spent 2 summer months in Pyarnu. The dominant language – and culture – were distinctly Estonian: shop signs, newspapers, people talking on the street, etc. it’s a resort/port town, so Russian, German and English were in rotation too, in that order. My landlord, ethnic Estonian, spoke 4 languages (plus Finnish) fluently, always making sure we understood he speaks Russian with us out of politness.

  61. Jim, I think you were referring to Alexandra Aikhenvald.

  62. I have talked to Swedish-Americans born about 1925 whose immigrant parents forbade them to speak Swedish — one of them said that his father hated Sweden. Scandinavians seem mild-mannered and prosperous now, but a century ago they had some real hard times and hard feelings. Finns even more so.
    Various things I’ve seen about Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants (local history, family history) seemed to say that for them, religion was most important, and ethnicity not so much. They were welcomed as white Protestants, too.

  63. My mother’s parents (first-generation immigrants from Norway) wanted the kids to learn Norwegian and even offered them a penny for every word they learned (if I recall correctly), but they had no desire to — they were American and didn’t care about that old-country stuff.

  64. Norwegians seem to be the exception to the rule and this difference is probably their sense of nationalism, which Danes and Swedes never had need or occasion to develop.
    “I have talked to Swedish-Americans born about 1925 whose immigrant parents forbade them to speak Swedish — one of them said that his father hated Sweden. ”
    This sums up very nicely how and why a lot of European immigrants did not pass on thier langugaes. They associated the langugae with the past, and they were escaping the past. I notice that Europeans tend to be unaware of how much this attitude colors Americans’ attitudes about Europe. Europeans see Americans as little imperfect copies of Europeans who are at the same time not European, and Americans see Europeans as shiftless and lazy stay-behind trash without any energy or initiative.
    And I did mean Alexandra Aikhenvald. She writes more like a Barbara than an Alexandra, I guess, although she would probably be horrified to hear that any personality at all came through in her scholarly writing.

  65. Michael Farris says

    “Norwegians seem to be the exception to the rule and this difference is probably their sense of nationalism”
    And even Norwegian linguistic nationalism is a puny thing next to that of many countries. The most common written standard (bokmaal) is still basically a kind of modified Danish and the standards that are closer to Norwegian speech have never really caught on.

  66. “And even Norwegian linguistic nationalism is a puny thing next to that of many countries.”
    That ain’t no lie! Norwegian “nationalism” can only be called that in comparison to Swedes’ complete lack.

  67. “She writes more like a Barbara than an Alexandra, I guess”
    Heh, maybe so. The academic world could do with a bit more personality in its writings, even if it does lead to occasional obfuscation of names.

  68. Tatyana, простите, I got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
    But, um, Jim???? wtf??? what do the writings of Barbara Fox and Barbara Partee have in common, for instance? Or don’t they write like Barbaras? Do enlighten us, this variant of nominative determinism isn’t something that normally gets discussed in conversation analysis.

  69. That’s just the sort of question a Claire would ask…

  70. Pity my name’s not Claire then. It’s just my professional pseudonym.

  71. “Pity my name’s not Claire then”
    I guess that sums up Jim’s nominative determinism. It all seemed a little dodgy to me anyway – I don’t think Aikhenvald’s writing is anything like a Barbara.

  72. My npr station aired an interesting show on this last night. Welsh, Provençal, Zapotec, and Maori. Professionals will probably be interested in the third segment, the story of an ethnologue translator in a Zapotec village.

  73. “Various things I’ve seen about Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants (local history, family history) seemed to say that for them, religion was most important, and ethnicity not so much.” — True of 18th and 19th C. Dutch immigrants who went to Michigan, New Jersey, Iowa and elsewhere, but not true of the original 17th C. Hudson Valley Dutch, who clung pretty stubbornly to Dutch language and tradition — strongly through most of the 19th C. and in a few isolated pockets well into the 20th, despite the British takeover of the territory in 1664.

  74. The historical tendency has been for languages to die out. For example, there are fewer languages spoken in the world today than there were 500 years ago and even then there were fewer spoken than 2000 years ago.
    One of the few good things that the Soviet regime in Russia (1917-1991)did was to record all of the minority languages of the Soviet Union and compile dictionaries on them too. Cyrillic based alphabets were created for languages that had been unwritten or were maybe poorly written in Arabic like Abkhazian, Chechen, Tate, Yakut, Yukaghir and Chukchi.
    As Mario Pei points out in his “Story of Language” book, Leibniz had recommended three centuries earlier that Peter the Great undertake a study of all the languages of the Russian Empire and record them; The Soviets were simply doing, on their own volition, something that the brilliant Leibniitz had once suggested to a czar.
    It was great that the Soviets did this because all of these languages will probably be extinct in about another 200 years.

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