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When Languages Die

The Colbert Nation

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Sep 26, 2007, 1:34pm Top

I thought When Languages Die sounded fascinating in last night's episode. After checking several library catalogs, I finally found that my old university has it, so I think I'm going to go pick that up after I catch up a little more on my TBR pile.

Sep 28, 2007, 7:56pm Top

Would love to hear what you have to say about it - very interested in this issue!

Sep 28, 2007, 8:45pm Top

I'm hugely in favor keeping languages alive, but I think a lot of this talk is inaccurate and alarmist. I saw a list of dying languages recently and the unique features that would be lost. Over and over the article listed features which, however strange to most Americans, they simply shared with other members of their language family.

As I said, I'm in perpetual mourning over this situation. It's terrible. But I'm not quite sure why I feel that way. I guess its just the simple loss, not a loss adorned with justification.

I suppose I feel the same way about animal extinction. Sometimes all sorts of ecological justifications are trotted forth which, while certainly true in some cases, aren't true in all. The Chinese river dolphin, the baiji, has been teetering on the brink of extinction for decades, even centuries, and it's final demise is ecologically insignificant next to all the other damage being done to Chinese rivers. But what a loss. The Yangtze used to have its own species of dolphin. Now it doesn't. And it never will again.

Sep 28, 2007, 10:39pm Top

The interesting thing about language death is that conversations about it always include some mention of the fact that languages encapsulate ways of looking at the world and when a language dies, that way of seeing dies with it.

And while I think that is true to a certain extent, I also remember, from my dabbling in linguistics, that a big chunk of what makes up any language is simply random 'garbage,' if you will. Errors of spelling, grammar, word choice, etc. that became standard, chance 'mutations,' importing of foreign words, and other things. (Obviously the original author gave examples a lot more authoritatively...) So that it is also true that a great deal of any given language is random and doesn't necessarily express anything that is unique to a certain culture.

I mean, really, what cultural differences can be observed between speakers of languages that have verb conjugations that make the actor clear without the use of pronouns, emphasize noun and adjective declension, and flexible word order within a sentence and speakers of languages that have a smaller variety of conjugations, specify pronouns, have no declension of cases, and strict word order within a sentence?

Like Tim said, it is as though we need to justify our desire to preserve these languages - if they are not 'doing' something for society, there might not be a reason to preserve them. No one would buy it if we just said that we think its cool that there are so many different languages and it makes us sad to think of them being lost.

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