Wednesday, November 16, 2005

When languages die

What is the right attitude to have when faced with a language dying?

The main value of a language comes from lots of other people speaking it. The more people who speak a language, the more valuable it becomes, but I do not think this means that the world will gradually be reduced to a single language because there are countervailing forces as well.

Firstly, I there is some value in having a language be very obscure. It lets you can speak in public to your friends and family without other people understanding what you are saying. Secondly, some language may be tied to past works that are useful -- although no one speaks ancient greek or latin any more, a few people still study it to translate old texts.

I do *not* beleive that languages have instrinsic value because they encapsulate some special thought or idea that can only be expressed in that language and will be lost forever without it. While a *precise* idea may only exist in one language, I'm sure there are plenty of close-enough substitutes that we'll make do. And even if those close-enough substitutes aren't all that close, in this world of terrorism, global warming, and burning cars, I'm not sure we will notice.

2Blowhards dismiss regret at dying languages as a "romantic fantasy", and I agree with them, but I also have some sympathy towards "romantic fantasies". Romantic fantasies appeal to a very human part of our nature, they make us feel better about ourselves, superior to others in terms fo sensitivity, insight, and knowledge. And while a language is not some rare, beautiful rainforest beetle, we can certainly pretend that the two are similar on some metaphysical level, especially since many of the dying languages come from places well stocked with the aforementioned beetles.

The call to force a dying languages final speakers to not abandon that language is wrong. It imposes the cost of the maintaining that language on those individuals, for benefits that are either thinly dispersed or entirely in the romantic imagination of the person trying to "save" the language.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home