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?

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