Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Dying" languages

Since my early teens I have been interested in languages. I regularly read books in the major Western European languages, and still aspire to do the same for East Asian languages.

One aspect of this interest is languages that have become extinct. Although they have no living speakers, Hittite and Sumerian are reasonably well understood by scholars who work on the texts. Some 200 words (maybe more) are now understood of Etruscan. However, we know nothing at all of the ancient Indus Valley language, as its script has not yet been deciphered.

Nowadays some linguists and others are sounding the alarm about the imminent extinction of many languages with a small number of speakers. This matter is addressed in the closing section of a new book, “One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost,” edited by Peter K. Austin, the director of the endangered languages program at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

One question that is often asked is: how many languages are spoken in the world today? Austin's Introduction reckons the figure at about 6,900. Such estimates are always subject to a certain amount of oscillation because not everyone agrees about what criteria constitute a language. Most scholars--and native speakers--would agree that Dutch (the Netherlands) and Flemish (Belgium) are the same language, so that they count as one, not two in the reckoning. Corsican is simply a dialect of Italian; claims that it is a separate language are political, not scientific. But is Ruthenian separate from Ukrainian, or simply a dialect of it" Does Norway have one language or two (Bokmal vs. Nunorsk)?

I would say that the actual figure of languages is closer to 5,000. But perhaps there are a few that, even now, are unrecorded. The Introduction also tells us that just four percent of these languages are spoken by 96 percent of the world’s population. However, the figures for mandarin Chinese (the top language) are commonly inflated; it does not count over one billion speakers, because many people in China continue to speak Cantonese, Fujienese, and other Sinic languages. That they are not truly proficient in Mandarin is shown by the fact that television broadcasts of political figures are accompanied by subtitles when broadcast in South China. Be that as it may, we also learn that Vanuatu (an island republic in the South Pacific), with 100,000 people and 120 languages, has the highest language density of any country in the world.

The two final chapters are entitled “Endangered Languages” and “Extinct Languages.” Clearly some tongues are on the verge of dying out. Njerep, with four speakers left, none of them younger than 60, can't last much longer. Burushaski, with 90,000 speakers, is in much better shape. Kunwinjku, with only 2,000, has an intermediate status.

As the writer of the notice in the New York Times Book review aptly notes, "[w]hen a small population gives up its language voluntarily (as opposed to compulsorily), it does so to become part of a larger or more powerful community. To preserve such peoples, we’d have to isolate them or maintain their languages through some other artificial, even coercive, means. But that very artificiality is a signal that a language is on its deathbed."

The author of the chapter on endangered languages believes that 90 percent of the languages currently spoken will probably disappear by the end of this century. Before this occurs they should all be recorded, in grammars, dictionaries, and--of course--video presentations that will also show the accompaniments of gesture, too often ignored in these efforts. In all likelihood there will not be enough qualified linguists to undertake the job. In some cases laypeople could clearly help, especially with the videotaping.

Many who deplore this forthcoming mass extinction like to compare languages to species. What if we were told that 90 percent of the animal species on the planet would die out by the end of the twenty-first century? Wouldn't we be impelled to take urgent action? However, languages are not biological species, but human artifacts. Moreover, not all species are sacrosanct, for we believe and hope that some viruses have been extinguished forever.

Rather, it seems to me, one should evolve criteria for determining which languages should be saved. If memory serves, Dalmatian, a Romance language, disappeared in 1898. Since similar languages, such as Italian, Romansh, and Sardinian are flourishing we need not be too concerned with this loss. Ditto Cornish. It is gone, but Welsh and Breton, its close cousins, survive. However, if Basque were to be threatened--which happily it is not--every effort should be made to save it, as that language is the only representative of its particular language family. As such, Basque preserves special features that are not found in any other tongue.

There are also more subjective criteria. Some languages might be selected because of special qualities of harmony of their soundscape--beauty in short. Others might be chosen because of the epic poetry or other literature that they have produced.

I doubt if anyone is preparing a roster of such qualities. In view of the large number of tongues that are scheduled to disappear (if this book has the story right) there will probably be no rational pattern of preservation.

Is all this truly a cause for lamentation, however? If we were to end up with just the eleven most popular languages today, that would constitute impoverishment--a crime against "diversity," if you will. But the likelihood is that enough languages will survive to illustrate all of the main principles that have been discerned by comparative linguistics. There will certainly be more than even the most assiduous student could hope to learn in a lifetime.


Anonymous Peter K. Austin said...

Thanks for your comments on the One thousand languages book and for your interest in endangered languages.

While it is true that perhaps 600 - 3,000 languages will survive to the end of the 21st century, what linguists are now finding is that the languages most threatened currently include ones that show some of the most unusual and interesting features in their pronunciation, word structure, grammar,and patterns of meaning, not to mention the oral literature heritage that they express. I highlighted some of these in my Top 10 endangered languages published on the Guardian newspaper website (see also my blog post). Unfortunately, the "big" languages don't display this variety of linguistic diversity, so we need to document the smaller disappearing ones now.

5:55 AM  

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