Saturday, 31 October 2009

Lost languages

The following excerpt from this article by John McWhorter, via the always fascinating A & L

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation....

...The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history. Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.*

I love the argument that small languages naturally go with the maltreatment of women. Safe ground there, professor. Reading this reminded me strongly of an open letter written in 1930 by the great early 20C Hungarian writer, Dezső Kosztolányi to Monsieur Antoine Meillet, professor of the Collège de France, in which the latter suggested that the world may be better off without its troublesome small languages, such, for example Hungarian. Kosztolanyi defends the Hungarian language with great passion and wit, noting in passing that:

There are some tiny European languages that are spoken by so few that only linguistics know of them and collect them. For example, Livonian is spoken by 1,255 people, Nakh by 799, Archi by 797, and Ludic by a total of only 494 people. Linguistic communities of this size would fit comfortably into a large tenement house or in a steamboat. If the tenement house were to burn to the ground and its tenants all to perish in the fire.... then these languages would be irrevocably lost.

Irrevocably lost. The current Wiki entry for Livonian talks of it as a moribund language "until recently spoken by some 35 people, of whom only 10 were fluent". (Ludic however has comparatively prospered with some 3,000 speakers on a recent count.) But what is lost?

For a writer who loves language because he knows both its emptiness and its extraordinary depth of association, a language is far more than a dictionary, a grammar and a body of writing. It is a particular sense of the world. For a writer, the argument of convenience that assumes language is simply there to conduct transactions of one sort or another, seems utterly banal. The connection between language and experience is the point. The peculiarity, density and communality of any particular language is, in effect, an aspect of the world.

But let's throw away the mask of 'writer' - let's just talk about people, the way they feel their way into the world through word, syntax, turn of phrase, register, rhythm, timbre, manners. To wish a language out of the way is to wish a people out of the way because, well, they are in the way.

The argument for universality is rarely pushed by those speaking a minority language, of course. It is pressed, most of the time, by those seeking not universality but ubiquity, the ubiquity of the language they themselves speak, a language that, by one or other historical turn, has become a language of power.

At the end of his letter Kosztolányi finds himself "overwhelmed by humility, and love and admiration for every language. It is," he says, "as impossible to give a rational answer to what the point is of a people speaking their own language, of our speaking Hungarian, as it is to determine what the point is in living at all."

We talk perhaps too easily of humility and love and admiration, if only because such feelings are befitting. But that's not to say we don't mean them.

Regarding the Eyak language McWhorter says:

...the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.

That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word 'ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.

A problem? To whom? Not to speakers of English, I suppose. But the problem is not about a problem. It is about something more; about a substantial unique understanding of the world that once constituted life, that was itself an element of human life. And the point of living is?...


Peter Goulding said...

One would presumably argue that 500 years of isolation for Icelanders did not result in a maltreated feminine population - rather the reverse!

Brian Barker said...

Concerning the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

The commitment to the campaign was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

An interesting video can also be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

Gwil W said...

There's an Esperanto Museum in Vienna. Hitler liked Esperanto.

Nearer you George, the Manx language became extinct in the 19th Cent. according to my MacMillan. We'll not hear anyone say 'tailless tabby cat' in Manx anymore. But at least the cats still exist. I saw them running around Ramsey when the boats came in.

Other extinct European languages include Gothic and Old Church Slavonic, and perhaps even Cornish.

Faroese clings-on; stubborn as a rock limpet.

I see you're judging The Yorkshire.

It's my challenge to try and slip one by you - neat as a Brain Bevan sidestep.