Endangered Languages: The Metaphor

Old Blog Import

I recently came across an article in the NY Times that discusses the concept of endangered languages.” It is an intelligent, well written article that is ultimately fundamentally flawed and highly conservative. The article, by David Berreby, is titled Fading Species and Dying Tongues: When the Two Part Ways.” The article takes as its starting point, a Nature article which provides statistics showing that human tongues come out even more endangered than the animals”.

Berreby then ruminates upon the analogy, stating:

How, really, are the panda and Ubykh equivalent? The panda, once gone, is gone forever. If the information and political will are present, Ubykh can be revived 500 years from now. Hebrew, after all, was brought back from ancient texts into daily use after 2,000 years.

So far, so good, (although see below about the question of language revival). But then he starts to slip:

It would be a terrible thing to run out of languages. But there is no danger of that, because the reserve of language, unlike the gas tank, is refueled every day, as ordinary people engage in the creative and ingenious act of talking. Old words, constructions and pronunciations drop away, new ones are taken up, and, relentlessly, the language changes.

Already he has moved from criticizing the endangered species metaphor to imposing his own metaphor, that of language as an endless, renewable, human resource. But this new metaphor deliberately obscures the issues at the heart of language endangerment. It isn’t language” in the abstract that is in danger, or even simply the diversity of languages (although I would debate his implied claim that new languages are emerging at anywhere near the rate that old ones are disappearing). The concern is with specific languages, spoken by specific groups of people.

He attempts to address that concern by claiming that languages, like Ubykh can be revived 500 years from now” — just as Hebrew was. But that is simply wrong. First of all, the Hebrew spoken now is not the same as that spoken 500 years ago, and secondly, the people speaking Hebrew now live in a very different world with very different social and political implications to speaking Hebrew. Moreover, the rebirth of Hebrew has come, to a certain extent, at the cost of the Yiddish and Ladino as living languages.

Then he goes on to say something sensible, only once again to seek to undermine it. Here is the sensible bit.

James Crawford, a thoughtful writer about language and a preservationist, notes that language death does not happen in privileged communities.”

“It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered, peoples who most need their cultural resources to survive,” he continues.

This is certainly true; many of the dying languages were systematically attacked by missionaries and governments in cruel, despicable ways. The game they lost was rigged. Abuses continue to be committed in the name of education, modernization and national identity, so the preservationists do good work in noting and protesting such practices.

This could be a great critique of the endangered language” metaphor — pointing out how it is not a natural phenomenon, but a social and political one. But this is not what Berreby is interested in doing. Instead, he attacks those who try to preserve dying languages by teaching them to the next generation:

Language bullies who try to shame a child into learning his grandfather’s language are not morally different from the language bullies who tried to shame the grandfather into learning English.

Are such language bullies” really a problem? It might be if you believed that learning languages was a zero-sum game, that learning one language restricts your ability to learn another one. Many monolingual Americans seem to believe this, as has been shown by the English-only movement, but elsewhere in the world people grow up learning three or four languages without any difficulty!

Berreby is correct to question the metaphor — but he comes to the wrong conclusion. Although he gives lip service to the political nature of language decline, he ultimately treats it as a natural phenomenon that we shouldn’t be concerned about, because new languages will naturally replace the old. Any interference with this natural process is bad because it is just as political” as the past wrongs that were committed against the speakers of these languages. He fails to grasp that the process of language death only seems natural if you accept the power inequalities that cause it in the first place.

Although I would be the last to argue that reviving a language can, by itself, reverse such power inequalities — that does not mean that we should simply avoid dealing with these issues altogether. Environmentalists have long known that one of the best ways to preserve the environment is to protect the rights of those whose lives depend upon it. Even nature is political!


For those who read the whole article, here is a bonus link, to the origin of the phrase a language is a dialect with an army.”