Language, Notable

Although the NY Times occasionally has excellent stories, I never expect much from it. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that neither does the staff at the Times:

The antipathy directed toward The Times Magazine by many of the daily paper’s writers and editors is decades old. Standards at the magazine are deficient, many say; at a meeting I attended recently with several dozen members of The Times’s Metro staff, one reporter said, No one in this room would have written that story.”

(The story they are referring to is this one.)

So, when last week’s Magazine ran an article on language loss, a subject close to my heart, I didn’t have very high expectations.

Nor did LanguageHat:

… I basically liked it. In this I part company from my fellow linguabloggers, Mark Liberman and Semantic Compositions, both of whom had serious bones to pick with it. It’s not that I disagree with them about the facts, it’s just that I have different standards for a long Magazine piece than I do for a news article. The latter, if it is about language, should get the facts right, just as a story about biology or politics should, and the Times seems to find that almost impossible. But since I know that to be true, I don’t expect any linguistic accuracy here, and the focus is not on the language … but on the human meaning of language loss, which Hitt (in my opinion) gives a moving account of. He’s a good and thoughtful writer, and that is more important in this venue than knowing one’s fricatives from one’s stops.

I agree that Hitt writes well, if you like that kind of writing (I don’t particularly), but I disagree that this article effectively conveys the human meaning of language loss.” If I were his editor and he told me that he wanted to go to some beautiful remote part of Patagonia where there are only two people left who speak a dying language, I would have turned the story down. Sure, it allows for beautiful passages like this one:

Every window here frames a magnificent photo op. Outside Gabriela’s is a curving line of shacks hugging the shore of a small bay, bright red-and-yellow fishing boats beached in front, and behind, a dramatic ascent of mountains capped in white — gushing here and there with little snow-melt waterfalls. Full-spectrum rainbows break out so frequently that no one notices but me and the tourists. They, too, are visible out the window, all wearing their orange cruise-ship-issue rain slickers, their cameras aimed aloft.

But it doesn’t really teach us much about what is at stake when a language dies. Why should we care that a language is dying? Why does it matter? The article makes an essentialist argument that every language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews.” Perhaps, but what does that mean? Does it mean that a second generation Chinese American who no longer speaks Chinese has lost touch with Chinese culture? Of course not. Being raised in a Chinese family is going to teach you something about Chinese culture whether you speak English, Mandarin, or Cantonese. Does it mean that a German student of Chinese as a second language will magically learn about Chinese culture through the syntax and phonology of Mandarin? Of course not. Knowing a Chinese language facilitates the process. It allows you to speak to your grandparents (if you are Chinese), it allows you to read Chinese books, it allows you to remove one more layer that separates you from people who are culturally different from you (if you are not Chinese), etc. At the heart of this article is a biological conception of language which obfuscates, rather than clarifies, what is at stake when a language dies.

This biological conception of language, when used in discussions of language loss, often takes one of two forms. In the Times article both are present. In an excellent article entitled Getting Language Rights: The Rhetorics of Language Endangerment and Loss” (American Anthropologist 105(4):723–732), Joseph Errington identifies the group Terralingua, mentioned in the Times article, with what he calls the localist” perspective of language loss:

At the same time that languages can be value-laden diacritics of local distinctiveness, their internal makeup — specifically, their lexicons — can be portrayed as symbolic embodiments of intimate, lived relations among speakers, communities, and environments. When knowledge of language is referred to a sense of place, these particulars of language structure are most readily mobilized as the concrete evidence and bearer of alternative values and types of being-in-the-world. . . [and] specific notions of an indigenous morality” (Muehlebach 2001:416).

This is exactly the kind of argument made by Hitt when he says that each language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews.” Errington traces this romantic notion of language to Herder’s Essay on the Origin of Language.” He also points out that this is the view of language loss most easily (and frequently) attacked by critics.

Like the Romanticist tradition that it invokes, localist rhetoric can be interpreted as involving totalistic linkage between language and identity, a point that has emerged as a leitmotif in criticisms of language activism made from otherwise differing points of view. … In different ways these observers all argue that language death” is a misnomer for what is actually language shift,” the sort of cumulative process of language change that results from the self-interested, rational decisions that individuals make in the course of their lives, which happen to include choices between and transmission of one language rather than another. These arguments, founded on the premise that speakers are autonomous, knowledgable social agents, can in turn be rebutted by calling into question easy distinctions between self-interested choice” and institutional coercion,” especially in circumstances of rapid sociolinguistic change…

The last point was essentially the one that I had made in my Anthropology News article. The earlier one about the difference between language death” and language shift” was also raised by LanguageHat, who usefully distinguishes between the death of languages like Latin, which don’t really die, but simply evolve over time until they are no longer recognizable, and languages like Kawesqar, discussed in the article, which run the risk of disappearing without a trace. As Hitt writes:

In two generations, a healthy language — even one with hundreds of thousands of speakers — can collapse entirely, sometimes without anyone noticing.

This brings us to the second argument made in the article, one that Errington calls the comparativist” approach. This is the perspective that when a language is lost it is a tragic lessening of the sum total of human knowledge. Errington points out that biological metaphors are as frequent in this rehtoric as they are in the localist” one. From Hitt’s article:

William Sutherland, the author of a study in Nature magazine last spring, compared the die-off to an environmental catastrophe. According to Sutherland, 438 languages are in the condition of Kawesqar, that is, with fewer than 50 speakers, making them critically endangered” — a category that in the animal world includes 182 birds and 180 mammals. Languages seem to follow the same patterns” as animals, Sutherland told a reporter for Bloomberg News. Stability and isolation seem to breed abundance in the number of bird and animal species, and they do the same for languages.” Conversely, the instability and homogenization of the global economy is creating a juggernaut of monoculture, threatening plants and animals. But, Sutherland makes clear, the one life form even more endangered is human culture.

The problem is that the only clear beneficiary of efforts to preserve linguistic diversity, when presented in this way, are the linguists who seek grants to document these languages before they die out.

In contrast to these two perspectives, Errington offers a third approach, grounded in the language of rights”:

A third, quite different sense of endangerment presupposes languages to be possessions of speakers, rather than natural phenomena. Under this profile, endangered languages’ values are linked to speakers’ shared social biographies and collective identities: They are not natural conditions to be maintained but, rather, rights to be recognized by sources of political authority.

I won’t go into the detailed and elegant defense of the rights” perspective as put forth by Errington. Instead I wish to focus on the first part of this statement, the claim that languages are possessions of speakers, rather than natural phenomena.” This point is so important it can’t be overemphasized. And it is because of this that I (if I had been sitting at the editor’s desk) would have rejected Hitt’s request to write this article. I simply don’t believe that it is possible to adequately capture the issues at stake in language loss by writing about a language which only has two speakers left. Such a language, in my mind, is already dead. Maybe not as something to be documented, and maybe not as something that might someday be revived, but it is dead as a living part of the social biographies and collective identities” of the community.

Language preservation is not something that happens in a vacuum. It is usually part and parcel of larger national, ethnic, or indigenous rights movements. Language preservation is one of many tools used to both shape and preserve collective identities — often in the face of oppression, persecution, or the erosion of a community by the forces of globalization. When an agricultural way of life disappears, and people are forced to migrate for work, language preservation can help keep a community together and strengthen social networks amongst scattered populations. A better article would have looked at communities which are actively involved in fighting to preserve their languages. Such an article would have shown that language loss, and language preservation, is a political, and not a natural phenomena.

UPDATE: Minor fixes.

UPDATE: Claire Bowern has the lost language genre down to a science.