Posts Tagged ‘ language ’

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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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.