Give language a chance

  • Jonathan Thompson

 

In mid-November, about 50 experts on the world's endangered languages gathered at the University of Utah. They were tasked with beginning an ambitious effort to catalog these languages and produce an online, updatable database where they can be stored. The goal is to keep the languages alive. If that doesn't work, they hope to at least preserve some sort of skeleton of them for posterity's sake. 

Arapaho is among many languages in the United States that will be included. As Emily Underwood documents in "The lost art of listening," one of this issue's two feature stories, only about 250 speakers of Northern Arapaho remain, and most of them are over the age of 55. Efforts to keep the tongue alive are under way, but struggling. Arapaho is in danger of joining a growing crowd: During the last 500 years, about half of the world's languages have died, and linguists agree that another 90 percent of today's 6,500 languages could disappear over the next 100 years.

It's a bleak vision: A flat, homogenous world whose diverse tongues have been smothered by just a few "big" languages, such as English and Chinese. It's only natural we'd want to hold onto any shred of culture we can, whether it be ethnic recipes or obscure languages. Still, I find myself wondering: Is it worth it? Does it really make sense to spend so much energy to keep languages just barely breathing, hooked up to intellectual ventilators in a vegetative state?

Proponents of language life support say that to lose a language is to lose much more than words: It's the extinction of culture, knowledge, thought itself. "Linguistics is a study of cognition," Lyle Campbell, a University of Utah professor of linguistics and one of the Utah conference organizers, recently told Science Daily, "what makes the mind tick, click and work. When we lose, say, 50 percent of languages, we're losing 50 percent of human cognitive ability. It's an unspeakable tragedy." He argues that linguists must do whatever they can, even if that means just saving the skeleton of a language -- sans people who speak it -- in an electronic database.

Others have a different take. John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist, argued in World Affairs Journal recently that letting languages die might not be such a bad thing. Languages, he says, are more an accident of geography than a fundamental building block of culture itself. "When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it," he writes. "The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. … Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully ‘Indian' simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue."

Which brings us back to the Northern Arapaho. Not all languages die out naturally; some are deliberately murdered. For decades, the federal government forced the tribe's children to speak only English because their native language was seen as integral to their identities as Indians. Somehow, the language survived that assault, only to face bigger threats today: high drug use, dropout rates and debilitating poverty among the tribe's youth. They could just let the language die. But after all it's been through, doesn't it deserve, at the least, a fighting chance?

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!