Last month The Independent ran a story profiling linguist Mark Turin and his work documenting “endangered” languages (“The beckoning silence: Why half of the world’s languages are in serious danger of dying out”).
Despite Turin's enthusiasm for his subject, he is baffled by many linguists' refusal to engage in the issue he is working on. "Of the 6,500 languages spoken on Earth, many do not have written traditions and many of these spoken forms are endangered," he says. "There are more linguists in universities around the world than there are spoken languages but most of them aren't working on this issue. To me it's amazing that in this day and age, we still have an entirely incomplete image of the world's linguistic diversity. People do PhDs on the apostrophe in French, yet we still don't know how many languages are spoken.
Well, I don’t think it should be every linguist’s mission. I question whether individuals are really better off maintaining these languages, even if cultures can’t survive without them. Cultures are creations of the mind, and people shouldn’t maintain them unless they benefit from them. Language barriers can maintain cultures, but they can also imprison people, especially women, blocking opportunities.
But I agree that there is a tremendous opportunity to learn about languages from this disappearing diversity. It seems like in the Internet age, it should be possible to get these tools out to more people, recording the languages around them.