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.

    http://bfchirpy.amplify.com/2010/06/12/naming-cognitive-bias-tames-cognitive-bias-no-answers-here-only-a-question-with-evidence/

    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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