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Endangered languages: Efforts to save them sometimes involve questionable claims

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The many, probably doomed, efforts to save minority languages are sparking new interest in the origin of language: Also in making statements about language that are well-meaning but questionable:

And sadly, just because the linguistic community has only recently identified a language does not mean it’s invulnerable. Recently identified languages can disappear just as easily as those recognized for decades. Koro Aka, for instance, may already be at risk of slipping away, since there are few Koro Aka speakers under the age of 20. “A process of language shift is underway,” Harrison says. “Younger generations are using it only sporadically. It’s definitely in decline.” Even so, he reports, a small group of young Koro Aka speakers is putting up a valiant fight to save the language. Some even appeared on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., recently to share the Koro Aka language and culture with visitors around the world. The youthful Koro Aka speakers on the mall may have grasped something many of us do not: the rewards of keeping a rare language alive even if a more common tongue would suffice. Languages supply the very framework on which our thoughts coalesce—a framework that is completely distinct in each language and gives rise to distinctive modes of thinking and expression.Elizabeth Svoboda, “Where Do “New” Languages Come From?” at Sapiens

“Distinct modes of thinking”? This reminds me of a story I once did for a Canadian magazine on translating the Bible into Inuit, an official language of the Canadian Territory of Nunavut:

I remember once being introduced to three Inuit clergy — two Inuit priests and their bishop. They were engaged in a process called “back translation” of passages from the Bible into English from Inuktitut. To ensure that the meaning of the text is preserved, the translated text is then translated back into English by third parties (in this case, themselves), and later checked by the original translator.

I happened to overhear one of the priests turn to his bishop and say, “It’s hard sometimes to work with this text. It feels alive.”

Compared to the latest missives from a northern government bureau, I’m sure it certainly does feel alive. I was tempted to shout into the room, “Yes, because the person who wrote it WAS once alive, and meant what he said.” More.

On major human issues, there are many personal histories and philosophies but no distinct rational mode of thinking that absolutely evades conversion to another language.

Reality check: A current factoid is that more than 40% of the world’s estimated 6000 languages are endangered. But languages are like species; where the line is drawn usually involves political, social, and economic considerations. And saving minority languages is bound to be a source of clean, government-funded jobs in remote places. One hesitates to argue with that. And it also offers opportunities for software (cue software developers). Expect the number of newly discovered threatened languages to grow, irrespective of the tide of other events.

The main reason minority languages die out (think Cornish, Welsh, and Irish, for example) is that language is the business end of consciousness. People gravitate toward majority languages because they offer the maximum number of opportunities (usually those with the largest number of speakers).

Take medicine as an example: If only 6000 people speak a language, the speakers can have a physician or two who grew up speaking it but not necessarily an endocrine specialist. And knowledge of endocrine systems is not typically transmitted in languages with only 6000 speakers. Spread over many areas of life, this process gradually marginalizes the minority language further and further, without anyone intending to create that effect.

People want their kids to know languages in which they can get ahead, not ones in which they are trapped. Thus, saving minority languages is a fine cause if it doesn’t interfere with reality. Not if, for example, it means enforced schooling in a dying language.

The reality is that humans develop and discard languages all the time, as we do fashions. Preservation is worthwhile but it is the job of museums.

Children frequently make up (and discard) languages, if they have co-operative playmates. Here is the example that attracted the attention of the researchers noted above:

See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

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2 Replies to “Endangered languages: Efforts to save them sometimes involve questionable claims

  1. 1
    EDTA says:

    Novel idea: Write them down. Use a popular language like English or Mandarin, and write down the various words and sentence structures and so on from the dying language, describing the pronunciations as best you can in the archival language. Translate a large book (I can think of a particular one that would work well here) into the dying language, and let that live as the canonical example of the language. If matching pronunciations are not available in the archival language (which is the case with some dying languages), find a way to record the muscular movements being made by the speaker and document those. There should be plenty of out-of-work language majors who could tackle this project…

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    EDTA @ 1: Wycliffe (and other) Bible translators do as you suggest, translating scripture into other, often endangered languages. In so doing, they create an alphabet and writing for that language, if none already exists. In that way they help “save” many languages from going extinct. Having the Bible in your native tongue is great for spreading the good news. Teaching people to read and write their native language also helps their culture survive, raises their education level, and improves their self esteem. The translators use local speakers heavily to advise on, test and check the translations, as mentioned in the OP. Everybody wins!

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