Why Preserve Endangered Languages?

With his book on “the polit­ics of lan­guage” due to be pub­lished next year, inter­na­tion­al cor­res­pond­ent for The Eco­nom­ist, Robert Lane Green, is inter­viewed in More Intel­li­gent Life.

The dis­cus­sion I find most intriguing is this on the sav­ing of threatened world lan­guages:

Half of today’s lan­guages may be gone in a cen­tury. Is there a book that explains why we should care?

Unfor­tu­nately, I’ve tried and failed to find a util­it­ari­an argu­ment for pre­serving tiny lan­guages. Daniel Nettle and Suz­anne Romaine failed to con­vince me with “Vanishing Voices”, which tied biod­iversity to the pre­ser­va­tion of endangered lan­guages. They’re right in that small groups that speak threatened lan­guages often know things about plant and anim­al spe­cies that are lost when their lands are “developed” and they are absorbed into the lar­ger com­munity. But that know­ledge isn’t lost because the lan­guage is lost. It’s lost because the way of life is lost. If a mod­est tribe moved to the city and took urb­an jobs, their know­ledge of rare plants and so on would dis­ap­pear even if they kept their lan­guage. By con­trast, if their tra­di­tion­al way of life were pre­served, they could start speak­ing the big­ger met­ro­pol­it­an lan­guage and keep their know­ledge. (Con­trary to a com­mon belief, most things are per­fectly trans­lat­able.)

So the reas­on to keep lan­guages alive is really just because they are an irre­place­able part of our com­mon human her­it­age. […] The thought of a plan­et a thou­sand years from now where every­one speaks just a few lan­guages, or just one, depresses me

1 thought on “Why Preserve Endangered Languages?

  1. Simon Bostock

    Hmmm. I’m not sure that ‘most things are per­fectly trans­lat­able’ even between speak­ers of the same lan­guage. But this may be my post-mod­ern­ist upbring­ing. There are, def­in­itely, some oddit­ies in oth­er lan­guages. And they aren’t just lim­ited to loc­al-know­ledge-embed­ded-in-names.


    I’m the same, though. I can­’t often get that excited about lan­guage pre­ser­va­tion for ‘util­it­ari­an reas­ons’. It does­n’t seem like enough to say we should save lan­guages because diversity is good. We all know that diversity is good, but we don’t know how much we should spend on it. There are loads of good things in danger, after all.

    As usu­al, though, we have the example of Welsh to chal­lenge all of this lin­guist­ic com­pla­cency. The size/health of ‘tiny lan­guages’ are often a good proxy for crypto-neo-colo­ni­al-hege­mon­ic-now-we-see-the-viol­ence-inher­ent-in-the-sys­tem beast­li­ness – and tiny lan­guages don’t neces­sar­ily stay tiny.

    Here’s a ran­dom util­it­ari­an argu­ment for the pre­ser­va­tion of lin­guist­ic diversity: Ice­land.

    It’s a tiny place but not so small it’s silly (like, say, Liecht­en­stein). And being a ‘nation­al cham­pi­on’ prob­ably still means some­thing (weak evid­ence: there are some fam­ous people from Ice­land that I’ve heard of where­as I don’t know any­body fam­ous from, erm, Lin­colnshire in the UK. Pop­u­la­tion = a bit more than Ice­land.) This spurs people to achieve more than they nor­mally would if they lived in, say, Bel­gi­um (invok­ing the ‘name 10 fam­ous Bel­gians meme).

    Ergo, more nations (and lan­guages is a good proxy for ‘nations’ – bet­ter than, say, UN seats or ‘armies, at any rate) is good for human­ity.

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