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Are dying languages worth saving?

15 September 10 01:59
Montage of people putting finger to lips

Language experts are gathering at a university in the UK to discuss saving the world's endangered languages. But is it worth keeping alive dialects that are sometimes only spoken by a handful of people, asks Tom de Castella?

"Language is the dress of thought," Samuel Johnson once said.

About 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. But the Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of those are spoken by only a handful of people. And every year the world loses around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade - a sad prospect for some.

This week a conference in Carmarthen, west Wales, organised by the foundation, is being attended by about 100 academics. They are discussing indigenous languages in Ireland, China, Australia and Spain.

"Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human," says Nicholas Ostler, the foundation's chairman.

"And when languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays we want access to everything but we don't want to be thought of as no more than people on the other side of the world."

Apart from English, the United Kingdom has a number of other languages. Mr Ostler estimates that half a million people speak Welsh, a few thousand Scots are fluent in Gaelic, about 400 people speak Cornish, while the number of Manx speakers - the language of the Isle of Man - is perhaps as small as 100. But is there any point in learning the really minor languages?

Last speaker dies

"I do think it's a good thing for a child on the Isle of Man to learn Manx. I value continuity in a community."

In Europe, Mr Ostler's view seems to command official support. There is a European Charter for Regional Languages, which every European Union member has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme, designed to protect the most threatened native tongues. At the end of last year the project received 2.7m euros to identify those languages most at risk.

But for some this is not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of how language works. The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is "irrational" to try to preserve all the world's languages.

Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died.

While it may seem sad that the language expired, says Mr Malik, cultural change is driving the process.

"In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous." And when governments try to prop languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards, he says.

If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them - it shouldn't be backed by government subsidy, he argues.

"To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don't see why it's in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter." In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. "If a language is one that people don't participate in, it's not a language anymore."

Wicked words

The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. "Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It's not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using 'wicked' to mean terrific then that has a big effect."

The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation's regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular.

And Mr Howard says politicians make a "category mistake" when they try to interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he says is doomed to fail. "Offering Gaelic to children of people who don't speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It's very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense."

But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. "Some people take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish the fastest growing."

There are competing forces at work that decide whether smaller languages survive, Howard argues. On the one hand globalisation will mean that many languages disappear. But some communities will always live apart, separated by sea, distance or other barriers and will therefore keep their own language. With modern communications and popular culture "you find that if enough people want to speak a language they can".

In short, there is no need for handwringing.

"Language is not a plant that rises and falls, lives and decays. It's a tool that's perfectly adapted by the people using it. Get on with living and talking."

Below is a selection of your comments

What a relief to hear this! Please stop cutting funding to modern languages departments at universities. Learn a language everyone. "Get on living and talking". Well said Mr Howard.

Sarah Appleby, Matlock, Derbyshire

Efforts should be taken to "conserve" at the very least. Otherwise our descendants in the mists of time may have the same problems understand us as we did the ancient Egyptians (until we uncovered the Rosetta stone). Languages do not need to be kept alive - but what does need to be kept alive is the knowledge on how to speak (and write) these languages so future generations are able to understand where we came from.

Dave Morgan, Sydney, Australia

I recall an adage: "even if you do not want to assist a good cause, do not cause trouble". This'll apply to many a policy-maker in India and perhaps in many other places, which is my guess. I guess the route to integration of like-minded people is via common genuine interests: if a language helps to preserve a culture or tradition there is no reason not to protect such a language,

KV Iyer, Trichy, Indian Union

s an English Language student, my view is if a language is dying out naturally, it should not be saved. It should however be recorded. It's always nice to have records of a language to see where progressive languages link in and where certain words come from. No language is more beautiful, abbrassive or any other arbitrary quality than any other and no language (even English if it were to naturally die out) should be saved. As languages are systems of communication, what is the use of saving one if it is easier/more useful to use another?

Tom Geddes, Barnsley

This article seems to suggest that language death is a "natural" occurrence and is merely "romantic". One hundred years or slightly more ago the Native American people were still speaking their own languages. They did not choose to shift to English. Their children were forced to go to government boarding schools where their hair was shaved and they were beaten if they were caught talking in their mother tongue. So many lost their own language. There was nothing natural or voluntary about it. It depresses me that Catalan and Basque are cited as examples of the deliberate suppression of language failing but Sauk, Salish, Blackfoot or any of the other 150 odd languages that are about to die are not cited as examples of the opposite.

Neil Mungeam, Arundel

International opinion seems to be that Irish has all but disappeared. Foras na Gaeilge (Institute of Irish) however, has taken a more optimistic approach; in my home town, it tells us, half of the population will have 'some' Irish. That statement may not have the air of command about it but I feel, in a way, that the grip of the old tongue is something that keeps the people connected and proud. We will often use phrases or sentences to 'enhance' English.

Aine Marie, Dubai

Official' interfering with languages does not work. Look at the Norwegian Nynorsk (New Norwegian), they force people to learn it and have to provide all official literature in it, but hardly anyone wants to speak it. We all use Bokmal, the 'other' language.

Ian Anderson, Asker, Norway

Although the disappearance of regional languages and dialects is probably inevitable, it might be a good idea to bear in mind that certain cultures have ways of expressing precise thoughts that do not exist in other cultures. These can include things as far apart as an emotion or the colour or texture of nature. We might do well to try and understand these facets of expression before dismissing languages as "useless" just because they are only spoken by a handful of people. Let's not forget that the language of Shakespeare and indeed of Chaucer is not in everyday use but is still flaunted by so-called erudites when they want to put one over on people they consider as lesser mortals. Should we then update and/or abolish old English / French / German etc because it is only usefulto a handful of people on a planetary scale?

Stuart, Mulhouse, France

Mr. Malik is absolutely right - if people want to speak a language, let them do so, but without any external support. It is ill-conceived to spend tax money keeping every vanishing language in use. Some will die out anyway, without coercive levels of support. Moreover, who actually decides whether a dialect is a language? It's a slippery slope to preserving all sorts of dialects which are "sufficiently different" from the mainstream of a language. Languages and dialects are all dynamic, and should be allowed to change or expire, giving birth to new dialects and languages in the process.

John, Kuopio, Finland

Mr Malik probably doesn't speak a second language. If he did, he would understand that language isn't just a collection of words, interchangeable from language to language. Rather, language carries within it the structure of thought. Recently, I was asked to translate from English to French - the woman for whom I translated thought I was having her on when I told her that I couldn't translate something because "You can't think that thought in French."

Troy in Oz, Noosa, Australia

I rejoice when I hear of another language dying out. I'm sad for the person, but when you consider that the purpose of language is communication, then it is blindingly obvious that a universal language is the only viable option. People claim that some concepts cannot be expressed in other than the original language. Have they not come across the concept of stealing words from others. Ever heard of "le weekend" or that well known english word "schadenfreude".

Simon J , Newport IW UK

My family on my mother's side came from the Basque region in Spain and would speak Basque amongst themselves but only Spanish to us children, It is a matter of pride to me that I have this heritage but also one of sadness that I never learnt to speak the Basque language as without language, culture is lost along with individual histories. I have every intention of learning Basque as a matter of pride in my background and as defiance against Franco and all he stood for which even today, has influence over the region and Spain as a whole!

Cristina, Nottingham

Comments: Katja Grace, in her blog Meteuphoric, has recently compared raising children in a language spoken by few people to intentionally disabling them by having their ears pierced. While you can always try to learn another language later, native speakers of an international language, such as English, are at an inherent advantage to others who only try to learn such a language later. Most later learners will only partially succeed. They will not be able to comfortably read the international language and benefit from ideas and information available in it.

Denis Bider, St. Kitts & Nevis

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