Archive for September, 2011

Q&A Time: Why not let languages die?

And I know I just posted, but I wanted to respond to a question Andy asked in response to the post before that. It’s a question I get a lot, so I may as well make the answer accessible.

Andreo :

Why are you opposed to language death? I haven’t given it much thought, so I’m not sure how I feel about it. Languages change all the time, right? So what’s the big deal? Maybe we’ll all end up speaking major languages, minority ones will die out, and then in a few centuries, it’ll all split up again. Unless you’re into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Then I could see the argument for preserving linguistic diversity.

I’m not into Sapir-Whorf, but linguistic diversity is still worth preserving.  There are linguistic phenomena which exist in only a few languages–if we allow them to die, we don’t get the opportunity to study those phenomena which could be key to helping us understand language as a whole.

I’m also opposed to language death because language is a big part of culture.  When a community loses its language, it’s never something they do by choice, and it’s not something they can give back. Sure, there’s economic power in speaking a national tongue, but is that worth losing the ability to appreciate your culture’s stories, poetry, songs, jokes, etc.? You’re always going to lose something in translation.

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But people from Missouri never incensed me

Lately I’ve been working to put myself in some situations that make me uncomfortable.  Not a bad sort of uncomfortable (there’s a good kind?) but the kind that allows for personal growth. I’m terribly shy, which most people either already know about me or won’t believe when I say. So I’m doing things like reading aloud and taking courses which will require me to put a little more of myself on the line.  I’ve started communicating my thoughts and beliefs a little more.  But if I’m not sure of something–especially if it seems like I should be sure of it–I panic a little.  I’m working on this–partly just by being as prepared as possible.  But re-reading everything a hundred times to make sure I didn’t miss something is not practical. Nor is spending hours on every littlest written assignment. So I’m also working on being okay with being wrong or occasionally sounding silly.  Last semester was really the first time I’ve started communicating with professors–asking for clarification or an opportunity to discuss a point of interest.  Partially I think it was finding a field that met my interests better and having a group of professors who are more approachable.  But I’ll take a little credit too.  And because of those little things, I’m now working on this thesis project (in brief, I’m looking at yes/no questions in which the fronted auxiliary verb and sometimes the pronoun are dropped e.g. “Still reading this?” versus “Are you still reading this?”) which is a good challenge both in that it involves a lot of research and thought and in that I’m going to have to present my thoughts.  It’s pretty exciting, and I think that that, along with a few other activities I’ve fallen into when I dove headfirst into this new department are going to be outrageously beneficial for confidence building, and overcoming a bit of that anxiety.

The title of this post, by the way, is a line from a song (They all laughed) printed at the end of an economics paper I just read.  (Aside: ending a really boring paper with a song doesn’t make it less boring.  But it does mean that there’s a page less really boring paper to read than expected, which is nice.)  It’s kind of an odd line, and I have no idea why it’s in there.  Of course, as someone from Missouri, I think it would be great if you have a high opinion of folks from Missouri.  But people from the Show Me State have incensed even me, so I won’t be too sad if the line doesn’t ring true for you.  In fact, it may be better if it doesn’t.  If you happen to be a word buff, you may know that incense also at one point meant  to “offer flattering homage or adulation to; to flatter.”  Of course, since that doesn’t reflect modern day usage, I’m honor-bound to throw it out, only to be brought up as an interesting example of historical semantic variation (I’m pretty sure that’s how you prove you’re not a prescriptivist–linguists, back me up?).  But I am willing to spin a positive interpretation on the more common “make angry” meaning of the verb.

I’m terribly inclined–as I think many folks are–to allow the status quo to remain unchallenged.  It’s an instinct I do my best to resist.  My closest friends often infuriate me, but that’s a good thing.  It’s a challenge for improvement.  If they agreed with everything I did, I’d remain stagnant.

Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. -St. Augustine

I don’t mean to say that I want to be angry.  Just that it’s good to be incensed by something or someone so that progress can occur.

num sola lingua bona est lingua mortua?

Well, I made my decision. I’m taking Polish. Again. Still. Some of you are wondering why on earth I’d do such a thing to myself. Others why on earth it was even a question. Mostly you’re probably glad that I’ll stop complaining about having to make the decision.

I’m an economist, so I know better than a lot of people how awful decisions are. For every dollar I spend, I don’t think about how I’ll have a dollar less in my pocket, I think about how I can now spend a dollar less on every other good in existence. It’s not so much that learning is finite–not even language learning. I fully intend to always be working on a language in some capacity until the day I die. But I can only work on so much at once. I had intended to go to Poland this summer, but I decided that putting myself in a better position to get into grad school was more important. It probably was, but I still regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to actually use this language that gives me such grief, and that so many people have given me grief over taking. It’s a hard language–one of the more different languages (from English) you could pick out of the Indo-European family. I can’t pronounce things very well (I still feel like I’m choking myself as I force out the retroflex fricatives, not to mention all those consonant clusters!), I can’t understand rapid speech save a few isolated words, and the word stock is largely foreign to me. But the grammar has just the right combination of natural chaos and logic and when spoken by a native the language is fully beautiful.

Maybe it’s not as useful as a handful of other national languages I could be learning, but that’s the trap that the world is falling into that causes language endangerment and death. If you don’t already know this about me, I’m kind of opposed to language death.

the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

Remember that one time when I had a blog that I occasionally updated? I think I’ll do that again. I thought about doing so on a new blog name (I even reserved one), but I’ve moved so many times this summer, I don’t want to do so again, even electronically. Sorry to those for the pause–don’t worry, I didn’t die. I don’t have much excuse other than that I was busy living, which is really probably the best excuse I could have.

Yesterday was the first day of classes for the semester, and I’m so excited for this semester that I can hardly believe it myself. The summer was absolutely wonderful–I met a lot of awesome people, I had a great job, I had some firsts (granola making, apartment finding, et cetera), I learned a little of two languages that round out my linguistic experience a little more (Indonesian and ASL), and I generally enjoyed myself, having found some places/groups/et cetera where I fit well. I’ll miss lots of things–hanging out in Ecohouse, the walk home (very cool houses and friendly neighbors), and the general flexibility that comes with summer. But I know that progress is inevitable, and I really do want to move on with my life. A little taste of research has made me hungry for grad school (GRE got taken care of this summer too!) and this last school year is going to be used preparing for that, but also taking advantage of this place and working with these people as much as possible while I’m here.

I’ve only been to one MW class so far (normally I’d have 3, but the professor of 2/3 of those is away for a conference this week so those two will start next week), but I have every reason to believe that all the courses will be great.  I know all the professors (and they know me), and they’re all topics I’m interested in. 4 linguistics courses and one economics course. Once they get going a little more, I’ll probably report on them. I’ll also be working on a senior honors thesis in linguistics. I hadn’t planned on it, but I chatted about it with a professor, and we worked out a topic that I’m very excited about. Look out for a report on that soon too.

For now, I’ll leave a list of some (but not all) goals for the coming year.

  • Complete all assignments. That sounds pretty obvious, but can become tough when my hesitance to turn in less-than-perfect meets not enough time to make it perfect
  • Work on learning Indonesian.  I may or may not be taking language courses this semester, but I’ll go crazy if I’m not actively working on one.
  • Read for fun.  Right now I’m working my way through every Sherlock Holmes story ever (well, that’s a lie. I’m just working through the canon stories).
  • Apply to grad school. I don’t that needs any explanation. But I guess I’m still figuring out what would make a grad school right for me, so there’s that to do too.