Tag Archives: robert-lane-green

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