Language loss, diversity, etc.

“‘In Welsh, you can say the same thing in different ways,’ he added, ‘a lot more than in English'” –Sam, as quoted in Spoken Here

“‘Our language is our history'” –saying of the Arizona Tewa, as quoted in Endangered Languages

I think these two quotations allude to two aspects of language that reinforce the value of language diversity and preservation. The first, as discussed in relation to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is that each language reflects and supports particular ways of thinking or perceiving, due to the context–social organization, natural environment, etc.–in which the language developed. While it may not be catastrophic to lose one of these perspectives (depending on how that occurs!), it certainly seems preferable to have access to the richest, most nuanced assortment of lenses through which to see the world as is possible. The second, as especially addressed by this week’s readings, is that a language is inseparable from the identity, culture, and heritage of its speakers. Thus, the extinction of a language is often concomitant with such horrors as genocide, or at the very least, prejudice and discrimination.

However, that is not always the case. The nature of language is appears too complex to endorse diversity and preservation without some reservation. In some cases, such as Yuchi, a language may have remained nearly unchanged for a millennium, and for its last few speakers it almost functions as a time capsule preserving an nearly-forgotten way of life. On the other hand, Mistral, though he claims the people of Provencal can find their “great past” and “true character” in their language, actually changed the language to preserve it, such as updating spelling, and, according to the Abley, “standard Provencal grammar dates from 1952”. In this case, the connection between culture, language, and history seems more complicated; for example, were those arguing for old spellings the “real” preservationists? Efforts to preserve language is a tricky business. One could argue for extreme prescriptivism, to “freeze” a language in a traditional–and therefore “true”–form, or, contrariwise, one could accept gradual development and mixing with other languages, seeing a dynamic use of language as more “natural”. After all, most languages have changed dramatically over time; did Middle English “go extinct” or did it “evolve”? Did classical Latin or Sanskrit “survive”, even though they are not generally used as spoken languages?

I think the work of those like Bourdieu, Grenoble, Whaley, etc., is very useful in navigating such debates. That is, a deep understanding and strong awareness of the interdependence of power and language can be used to differentiate between a benign fading of a particular language tradition (which may be preserved academically) and more sinister loss due to “the ideology of contempt”. With that in mind, I cannot say how I would feel about the loss of English or how I would fight to preserve it, unless I knew the potential cause of death.

I have very much enjoyed this class. It was, happily, what I thought it would be. Although I was already familiar with many of the concepts in general, I feel I have definitely deepened my understanding, not only through the lectures and readings, but also through the insightful comments of my classmates. I am pursuing a career in psychology and think what I have learned in this class will be very useful in that field, in everything from appreciating the role of face-work in a therapeutic exchange, to recognizing the link between academic jargon and power relations, or exploring the relationship between failed speech acts and anxiety, and so on.

One thought on “Language loss, diversity, etc.

  1. “language is inseparable from the identity, culture, and heritage of its speakers”

    I think this quote here sums up everything perfectly for me. Welsh, Yachi, and many other languages are part of people’s identity. When that language is taken away from them, they are stripped. Violence has been used to take away language: in Wales, you’d be humiliated for speaking Welsh with “Welsh Not” sign; in Native boarding schools, children were physically and sexually abused to strip them of their language; for many native tribes there language was loss when the last of the people finally died. These losses of language were devastating, and I don’t believe the cause of death would make it any less so.

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