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
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.