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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 06, 2012

What's Wrong With Language Death?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of diversity. Being a bit of a beer geek I cannot stomach the thought of a world in which only fizzy, yellow, industrial lagers existed (also known as 'the 70's'). As an avid listener of oddball music, the idea of a sonic universe in which only top 40 hits can be heard gives me the shivers. And, as an inveterate traveler, the entire thrill of heading into the great unknown is based entirely upon engaging something different and being stimulated by the challenge. And that includes the buzz I get when I'm surrounded by the cadences and sonorities of foreign tongues.

So the term 'diversity' has positive connotations to be sure but, since it is a bit of a pop philosophy buzzword, we should not assume that it constitutes a self-sufficient argument, a magical incantation or formula, for desirability or correctness. Sometimes unity is called for, sometimes a singularity of method or purpose is the most efficient means to an end. After all, I've submitted research papers for publication that are said to be too unfocused, lacking rhetorical unity, Vishnu-esque arms of discourse spreading out in all directions. I'm not going to tell the editor that this is a good thing, that I've done this deliberately in the name of diversity. Nor do you want all eleven players on the soccer pitch doing their own little runs for the sake of 'strategic diversity'.

Maybe we can say the same about languages. Sure, we have an emotional resonance to words like 'diversity' and language 'death' but is that sufficient to support the preservation of dying languages? This Columbia University linguist for one doesn't think so. And while I don't want the world to morph into a single patois it's hard to deny that life would be a hell of a lot more efficient if it were to happen.

Museum-pieces, quaint collectibles, and middle-class western conceits...

The fact that I like hearing myriad languages in my travels is probably a bit of self-indulgence on my part. I find them to be indicative of 'local colour'- they serve my traveller's sense of amusement. So perhaps I am guilty of treating them like museum-pieces, quaint collectibles, a middle-class western conceit. You know where this is going-- that we might be prone to keeping the comatose tongue alive on artificial life support because of the collector culture's need to preserve.

Languages have died, morphed, and melded since the first caveman grunts were snorted. And relative linguistic attrition is a fact of modern life as people have greater means of communicating and the ability to migrate. We can't pretend that the world is an amalgam of isolated villages no matter how quaint that may seem. Languages die because presumably there is no need for them anymore (which makes language death distinct from ecological diversity arguments where natural balances found in diversity need to be kept). The necessity to keep a language alive must have more functionality than life-support provided by anthropological gawkers.

If Korean were the global language...

But does this mean that the evolution of languages will lead inexorably to the global use of a single tongue (let's say, English, because that is the horse which has already bolted from the barn)? No. There is no reason to believe that major regional or national languages are under threat. Japanese, Portuguese, and Turkish are not going to disappear during any time frame that we are able to comprehend.

Of course one could argue that I'm likely to be insensitive to language death, considering that my mother tongue is the dominant species. Ok, so I'll try to imagine how I would feel if the dominant language was not my own but, for the sake of argument, Korean (unlike Kanji, Hangul is a script that lends itself to potentially widespread dissemination). And if English was now spoken only by a handful of people in my own neighbourhood, how would I feel?

To be honest, I think that to some extent that would be pretty cool- having a near private language that almost no outsider could access. I would also be very pissed off- that is if my family, community or education authorities had not encouraged or persuaded me to become proficient in the dominant lingua-franca, in this case Korean.

And what would that dominant Korean be like? Well, it sure wouldn't be like the Korean spoken in Korea now-- that's for sure. By the time each local area had their way with the language and had injected their local communicative needs into the tongue it would be, ironically, a diverse Korean, reflecting the local colour as opposed to creating it. The language isn't going to turn Samoans into Seoul-suited salarymen-- rather they'll turn Korean into something that seems more Samoan-flavoured.

'Identity' as middle-class Western armchair sociology

But with the impending loss of my native tongue what about my 'identity'? Wouldn't I be losing my identity as a member of the English-speaking community if my language died out? Wouldn't this be traumatic? Not really.

'Identity' is another of those middle-class Western armchair-sociologist concepts that has found credence in the common parlance, so that concerned people like to toss it out frequently, but are not really sure what it actually means. It just sounds like the 'right thing' to say. And we tend to ascribe 'identity' language issues to isolated minorities more readily because presumably we see them as frail, simple folk-- our typically reductionist projections as to how other people are supposed to feel. And apparently, these 'natives' are so weak that if their linguistic branch is cut off the roots of the whole tree will wither. This is what 'we' of course say about how they must feel. (Ironically, a Sri-Lankan presenter at the recent national JALT Conference made a similar remark about the ubiquity of this 'identity' concept ascribed to him after he had gone to the US, but was pretty much alien to the Sri Lankan ethos).

Here's my take on 'identity'. My identity, like yours, is formed by my experiences. So, my experiences living in Japan and in worldwide travel have formed a good chunk of my identity but my learning and using the Japanese language regularly hasn't. The language is a by-product of those identity-creating experiences, not the cause of them. Think of identity as a tree with experience as the trunk, then branching off into numerous branches of identity. One of these associated experiential branches is the code- the language. Cut that branch off, as immigrants often do when they leave for foreign shores, doesn't mean that the whole tree dies. (Claim that it does and I'll put you in bed with linguistic nationalists). The brain is a little more malleable than that, and I'll try to assume that the brains of those who speak dying languages aren't somehow simpler than mine.

The old 'disappearing culture' canard

And here's an interesting point. I have a greater sense of emotional tie to my 'new' language, Japanese, than I do to English. I start to miss Nihongo when I'm away from the country for long, I want to use it, it sounds pleasantly warm and comforting once I arrive in the immigration halls at the airport. The point is, there is no reason to believe that only mother tongue offers a sense of warmth and emotional comfort.

I'm trying to think of other objections too. One would likely be the old canard that when a language dies a whole way of life, a whole culture dies with it. I don't buy this. Surely culture, ideology, thoughts transcend language. The most obvious example is Latin. The language is dead but would anyone want to say that the culture legacy that emanated from the Latin world have been lost to perpetuity? The language of ancient Greece is an ex-language too but does anybody want to say that the associated ideology and culture have been erased from the annals of human history?

Language as repository of history and ideological determinant

Speaking of history, David Crystal speaks of the need to preserve languages as repositories of history. But this seems to be an inadvertent concession to the fact that it's the history, not the language, that is important-- that the language is only a means to the more intrinsic historical end. And histories can be written down in another language and preserved that way.

This is, of course, unless you prescribe to the Sapir-Whorfian notion that languages are so tightly embedded into individual consciousness that certain ideas can only be conceived and communicated in one language and not when another is used as the medium of communication. I've railed against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on many occasions (and you can scroll down a little to see some of my arguments reproduced against this deservedly much-maligned theory).

Finally, one might argue that certain local idioms, which are rich but cannot be translated wholly into another tongue, would be lost. This may be true. But would anyone really want to argue that the loss of English idioms like 'raining cats and dogs', 'carpetbaggers', or to 'cry crocodile tears' would actually impoverish human culture as a whole? And would those who mourn the loss of such cultural bulwarks not actually be crying crocodile tears?

Addendum: Mike's handy-dandy Sapir-Whorf arguments-

1. Whorfians regularly commit category errors. For example the undeniable mutual causal relationship between language and thought in general becomes twisted into languageS (plural) and individual thoughtS (ditto). The human capacity for language and thought in general is a completely different animal from Spanish, Tagalog, Korean et al and he individual thoughts, beliefs, behaviours etc. that humans manifest. Their qualities and features and not transferable.

2. Whorfians confuse correlation with causation. The fact that descriptions of current capital systems are founded in English and are adopted as loan words in other languages and/or is referenced across the business world (correlation between language and practice) hardly implies that using that language legitimizes or endorses all the practices found therein (causation- that the language causes the belief or value system). This fallacy occurs so often that my desk has a little dent from me hitting my head on it.

3. There is a nasty inconsistency in the application of the hypothesis. Most 'English as Imperialist' fans (rightly) decry the old notions propagated by agents of the empire, that English somehow embedded higher, nobler thought, that it enabled science, progress, democracy. But the same people do believe however that English enables pernicious Anglo-American military-industrial values to be transmitted. English, it seems, is a conduit only for the values they oppose. Strange. What this looks like to me is politics masquerading as linguistics, with the politics taking priority and linguistics unsurprisingly 'uncovering' examples that suit their agenda.

4. Sapir-Whorf is a Pandora's Box for prejudices and bigots. You know, “You can’t negotiate with Arabs because they have no word for compromise and are therefore incapable of grasping the concept”. That sort of thing. We get this sometimes in Japan, linguistic nationalists who believe that non-Japanese couldn’t possibly grasp a concept that doesn’t have a matching single lexical cognate in English, and english speakers arguing similarly about irony and so forth, where the Japanese language has no single item.

5. I agree with Steven Pinker’s famous debunking of Sapir-Whorf as being tautological, that basically one finds what one is looking for in that ‘exotic’ language because one has already assumed the existence of the causal arrows. This is one of the main reasons it is not taken very seriously in linguistics these days.

« English as Imperialism- beating a dead horse with ELF | Main | A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions »


"Surely culture, ideology, thoughts transcend language" I don't buy this.

To my way of thinking culture is embedded in language and vise versa. Historically languages have been outlawed at the outset by the conquering civilizations......Then (usually) what follows is an inevitable cultural decline or at least a transformation into nothing which resembles the original culture.
I'm not going to go into detail, but Australian Indigenous language and culture is an example. Where there once existed some 700 languages now there are about 20 that stand any chance of survival.
I once heard a multilingual French lady/super-linguist say that when she verbalizes the word "hand" (for example)in any other language other than her native French her association and sense of attachment and self is very different from when she says the word "hand" in French. "Words" aren't just words, they are in fact inextricably connected to culture and thought.....Without question in my view.

Hi Frank. I both agree and disagree.
While there is often some connection between ideology/culture and language (that is, the latter will reflect the former) I would say that any 'embedding' is far from uniform, that it is quite haphazard and sloppy.

What I mean by this is, if you think of three layers- one of ideas (such as Marxism, Christianity, new age, scientific rationalism etc.), one of cultures (like East Asian, Caribbean, Pacific Island-- even subcultures like that of students or doctors or...) and languages, and put the layers over each other there will hardly be a neat three-tiered pancake-like result. The ideas cross cultures, so do the languages. A Korean can be a Marxist or an evangelical Christian. The language doesn't force any one ideology upon them. Western Capitalism crosses many linguistic boundaries and the continuum of European cultures too includes attributes that are not limited to linguistic domains. The whole thing looks like a huge all-ingredients Mos Burger with bits leaking out all over and only a few of them melding and merging.

A strict interpretation of your view would also justify those occasional people who say things like "unless you were raised in Japanese culture and speak pefect Japanese you can't REALLY understand 'enryou'. Stuff like that. Or that translation is actually impossible, that minds remain mental islands locked in by language. Does anybody really want to say this?

As for the French 'hand' business- well it's true that some words in specific languages have local connotations-- 'liberty' to an American gun fan, sakura to most Japanese-- but the connotations can be explained in another language. In other words, it's the experience an ideology that creates the connotation- not the language itself. The denotation however remains quite firm. If I tell a French doctor that I injured my hand he/she won't project an image different from a Russian or Japanese doctor.

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