Is language extinction a good thing?

5 minute read

That's the question posed by Ronald Butters in a recent book review, discussed by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log. The book is Language in the USA, edited by Edward Finegan and John Rickford. I don't get Language, but Pullum pulls this quote from Butters:

What they do not really explain is why [language extinction] is necessarily anything other than a rather good thing. Shouldn't we WANT to 'integrate' -- read 'absorb' -- these worthy people into mainstream economic and cultural life? Isn't it just inevitable? Isn't that why I am a member of the educated middle class and not mucking around without indoor plumbing in some Swedish monolingual farm community like my mother's grandparents? Yamamoto and Zepeda's answer (177), to someone who believes in the prevalent American linguistic ideologies, seems both effetely romantic and hideously self-serving: (a) 'When we lose a language, it means a "tremendous loss to the cultural richness and distinctness of the native communities" (Goddard 1996:3)'; and (b) 'the loss of linguistic diversity is a loss to scholarship and science'. Most of the students and other naifs who may be forced to read this book come from families who wear nice clothes and live in nice houses with numerous electronic appliances and good foreign cars in the driveway; most of the rest come from families who are struggling to find the means to live that way. Should people really be forced (or even encouraged) to 'preserve' languages if to do so might stand in their way of achieving middle-class comforts -- even if they get some vague additional promise of 'cultural richness' -- simply because linguists want to be able to study the living languages?

Pullum reflects on this point, paraphrasing it and calling for tolerance of this view:

In short, widespread faith in the ideal of linguistic and cultural assimilation should -- especially in a democracy -- be treated with respect and considered thoughtfully, not snapped at as if it were ignorant bigotry.

Which makes me sort of wonder just how sore this point is among linguists. The rest of Pullum's post emphasizes the diversity of attitudes attributed to linguists on this issue. He points out instances where linguists are painted as the "bad guys" because they have claimed that language extinction cannot possibly be stopped:

An odd coincidence is that in the week that this issue of Language reached me, the obituary of the week in The Economist (February 9th) was about Marie Smith, the last speaker of the now extinct language Eyak. But far from echoing anything like the tough-minded what-economic-benefit thinking that Butters alludes to, the Economist obituarist's discussion of the Eyak language, though well-written and interesting, is entirely devoted to sentimental musing about its many words for trees and roots and spruce needles and resin and abalone and nets and mixing bowls, and the way the word for "leaf" was the same as the word for "feather", as if that were the crucial thing we needed linguistic diversity for. It even adds, apropos of Marie Smith's dream of a future revival of the Eyak language: "impossible, scoffed the experts: in an age where perhaps half the planet's languages will disappear over the next century, killed by urban migration or the internet or the triumphal march of English, Eyak has no chance."

This post got picked up by Megan McArdle, guest-blogging at Instapundit, who added her own reflection:

LIKE MOST IRISH-AMERICANS, I have a sort of vague sentimental notion that the conversion of Ireland to an English-speaking nation is a linguistic and cultural tragedy. Like most Irish-Americans, I also would not want to actually live in a non-English-speaking nation. What I really want is to have learned Irish from my Grandmother, and be able to impress friends by ordering drinks in my ancestral tongue while on holiday. This is the sort of thing that makes my Irish friends complain--justly--that Irish-Americans would really like to see the whole country preserved as a sort of Colonial Williamsburg with shamrocks and twee wool caps.

Why is it that writing about linguistics brings out the witty language use? I guess I'm an exception, in not being especially inspired to write wittily about language. In fact, I have nothing original to say on this subject at all, but I think it's fascinating to read other peoples' takes on it.

McArdle's post got picked up by Confessions of a Language Addict:

Ironically, the French people whose culture is slowly destroying Breton culture are largely other people whose regional cultures were destroyed by the Paris-dominated version of French culture. If you root for the Bretons to make a comeback, do you also root for the Provençaux, the Alsatians, etc.? If you do, soon there's no such thing as French culture, and that prestigious world language you spent so much time learning is just the regional dialect of the middle of what Caesar called Gaul. That's no good!

It is true -- today's languages are inevitably the result of past language extinctions. Somehow people have an easier time imagining the complexity of the situation when they consider relict European languages -- but the issues are similar everywhere: power and economic participation favor strongly the adoption of already-common languages; tradition and community oppose the loss of distinctive dialects and languages. These forces interact in complicated ways: In some professions, a down-home southern accent may be a necessity; in others it's charming; in still others it's a career-killer.

We may say, "Sure, but the Normans, Bretons, and Burgundians got something much more for giving up their dialects than today's indigenous peoples are getting -- and those dialects and languages ultimately weren't nearly so distinctive as many native languages being lost today." But that's only obvious in hindsight, and is a highly selective view of history in any event. Did the Irish gain when Gaelic was suppressed? Sure, their descendants gained some things, but lost others -- including a degree of cultural isolation. More important, the things gained by the descendants were hardly the priorities of the ancestors.

But that's why our ancestors don't get to make our choices for us.