Wednesday, September 26, 2007

talking about language death

it seems like the spot in the NYTimes which focused on K. David Harrison's research has really grabbed people's attention.
i belong to the Indigenous Languages and Technology list and there has been a lot of discussion there regarding language death and the attention that this issue is getting in the media. the responses have been very positive over there and i share the excitement.
there have been some other responses on this topic, including that by the lousy linguist which began here. see also the language guy's response here.
i have mixed feelings about the issue at hand - language death and what we (humans, and especially linguists) should be doing about it.
while i personally am not a member of a community that speaks an endangered language, i do conduct fieldwork on an endangered language. my friends and language consultants in the community seem to be somewhat aware of the fact that spanish is quickly taking its hold on the younger generation of speakers, but it's still at the early stages so people do not see any immediate danger of their language "dying". i want people to keep on speaking their language, but does my opinion count? who am i to say what members of this community should or shouldn't do since i don't even belong to the community? what is my role in the discussion? will informing community members about the potential of language death do anything? what can i do, if anything, so that community members themselves fight to keep children speaking the language? these are the kinds of questions i ask myself on a regular basis.
and one thought just comes back into my head which was brought up by a friend and fellow linguist - this community has survived so much over time. the mexican government tried to kill them, they survived all kinds of illness and hardship and yet, they still speak their language and have maintained many aspects of their culture. so what is the biggest enemy to potential language loss - television.


Thr Language Guy said...

The problem with discussions on this topic is that there is nothing one can do to save a language. The best thing to do is figure out whether the language has anything to contribute to issues in linguistics. Sadly without a full community of speakers engaging in daily communication, one cannot get at the important socio-pragmatic issues.

Chris said...

I responded over at Language Log to their newest post on this topic, and none-other-than K. David Harrison himself responded back. He makes the point that "Some of that literature indeed uses the term “save” ... in reference to endangered languages, but I do not." Fair enough.

cko, you ask some great "big picture" questions about a linguist's role in this process. You have solid street cred in the world of field linguistics, and I do not (by choice). I am a linguist because I am interested in learning how the natural language system in the human brain works. Language evolution is part of that process. I'd like to know what role language death/extinction plays in that system and evolution.

I see this as similar to an evolutionary biologist wondering how species extinctions fits into general evolution and diversity.

My gut tells me there is a game-theoretic analysis to be had that predicts language death has at least some favorable outcomes for the evolution of language.

I suspect that recent work in language learning and evolution by Partha Niyogi and folks like him will bear greatly on this topic in the coming decade.