Friday, January 05, 2007

Dying Languages

John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute argues that languages dying out is not really a huge crisis. I tend to agree -- lamentable, but inevitable. Dying Languages
In the rush of the holiday season you may have missed that a white buffalo was born at a small zoo in Pennsylvania. Only one in 10 million buffalo is born white, and local Native Americans gave him a name in the Lenape language: kenahkihinen, which means "watch over us."

They found that in a book, however. No one has actually spoken Lenape for a very long time. It was once the language of what is now known as the tristate area, but its speakers gradually switched to English, as happened to the vast majority of the hundreds of languages Native Americans once spoke in North America.

The death of languages is typically described in a rueful tone. There are a number of books treating the death of languages as a crisis equal to endangered species and global warming. However, I'm not sure it's the crisis we are taught that it is.
If people truly come together, then they speak a common language. We can muse upon a "salad bowl" ideal in which people go home and use their nice "diverse" language with "their own." But in reality, almost always the survival of that "diverse" language means that the people are segregated in some way, which in turn is almost always due to an unequal power relationship — i.e., precisely what "diversity" fans otherwise consider such a scourge.

Jews in shtetls, for example, spoke Yiddish at home and Russian elsewhere because they lived under an apartheid system, not because they delighted in being bilingual. The Amish still speak German only because they live in isolation from modern life, which few of us would consider an ideal for indigenous groups to strive for.

In the end, the proliferation of languages is an accident: a single original language morphed into 6,000 when different groups of people emerged. I hope that dying languages can be recorded and described. I hope that many persist as hobbies, taught in schools and given space in the press, as Irish, Welsh, and Hawaiian have.
(I had no idea that a common universal "Ur-language" is accepted theory among linguists. Not that I dispute it ... just, wasn't aware of it. Pritcher, any comments?)


assiniboine said...

Well, Nicholas Ostler in his magisterial Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (London: HarperCollins, 2005) doesn't deign even to mention the notion: "Languages have been been the currency of human communities for hundreds of thousands of years," he says (p.9) -- and that's really quite a while, and is self-evidently more than a little speculative given that the earliest human settlement of Australia and New Guinea was only some 40-60,000 years ago, and that modern humans are only in fossil record in Africa from some 130,000 years ago; he also briefly and elliptically reflects on the question of the interaction between Homo sapiens sapiens, our fellow genus-Homo species Homo neanderthalensis and earlier hominids, and suggests that once we were all in this together, in terms of being one species, it was speech that defined human communities (p.8). This too is surely somewhat speculative: it hasn't, after all, categorically been determined that Homo neanderthalensis was indeed a separate species rather than merely a separate subspecies of Homo sapiens, and that they literally died out as opposed to interbreeding with and disappearing into Homo sapiens sapiens. (I have known a fair number of Neanderthals myself.) Or that the various groups of modern man to migrate out of the Great Rift even had a language in common before and when they did so.

Perhaps McWhorter is speaking metaphorically.

St. Izzy said...

There is no agreement, but there are some facinating reads. There have now been a couple of articles comparing the structure of various pidgins (trade languages formed by a combination of three or more mother tongues) and the grammatical "mistakes" that infants make. A few people out there think there may be a meta-grammar hard-wired into our brains.

Not addressing your question about the current state of Ur-language studies, but much more fun, is which runs through the Late Medieval / Early Renaissance speculation about the Edenic Language. Great fun, but not to be left until the wee hours; read it while your brain is fresh.

pritcher said...

I had no idea that a common universal "Ur-language" is accepted theory among linguists.

It isn't.

Linguists can clearly identify several language families (like Indo-European, which we can trace back roughly 6,000 years). Some try to group families farther back into super-families, but the evidence that's usually produced in favor of such "super-families" isn't statistically meaningful. And those linguistics who try to reconstruct "Proto-World," the language that all others descend from, are pretty much laughed at by most scholars.

This, of course, says nothing about whether there was a proto-world language; linguistics just don't like to talk about things they don't have data for (we have enough trouble at coctail parties as it is, answering over and over again the question about how many languages we speak). So most linguists are pretty agnostic on the question.

Of course, when you get into the whole question of monogenesis, you pretty much have to say that there was a proto-world language.

(But we all know Adam spoke English....)

All that said, I do agree with the assessment of dying languages. As artifacts of history and culture, they should be respected, studied, and even mourned when they die, but that's just how life works. It's misguided to fret overly about natural processes. For instance, this trend toward using words from dead languages as word identification tests in the comments...that's just annoying.

assiniboine said...

Can you direct me to the literature on pidgins and baby talk, Lizzy?

New Guinea Pidgin (in which I am fluent enough that indigenous Papua New Guineans laugh when they hear me speak it -- generally the only mastas who speak it well are geriatric long-retired Australian patrol officers) plainly has a grammatical infrastructure derived substantially from Kuanua on the Gazelle Peninsula. I'm not familiar enough with Solomons Pijin or Vanuatu Bislama to say, and I haven't read a great deal in the literature on them, but given the common origins of all three in the canefields of Queensland among blackbirded indentured Melanesian labourers in the 19th century it stands to reason that it is the same with them.

(Grammar aside, New Guinea Pidgin -- formerly generally called Pidgin English, and which academics rather fussily nowadays call "Tok Pisin," as though one referred in English to "français" and "Deutsche"; the late Father Frank Mihalic, SVD, its Dr Johnson, tried on "Neo-Melanesian" but it never took -- was the lingua franca of German New Guinea, but picked up remarkably little German vocabulary from the government officers and plantation managers. It's something like 80% English in lexical derivation, with a bit of Malay thrown in, picked up from Malaytown in Rabaul. Hence the same perplexity of Hindi- and Urdu-speakers in Papua New Guinea as in Indonesia and Malaysia if they would like susu -- milk, that is -- in their tea. Hence also the extreme solecisms committed by native-English speakers who assume that any old English word with a Pidgin ending or pronunciation will do the trick, and hence suppose they are saying "go up" when they say "goap" -- which is to have, shall we say, carnal knowledge of, instead of "go antap."

St. Izzy said...

1) I hate when the coding gets fritzed and a close-the-format tag gets ignored. Earlier today that comment above looked much prettier, and I suppose it will again one day. Oh, well.

2) Assiniboine, I think you're confusing the O'Cayces; the wife is Lizzy; I'm Izzy. Be that as it may....

3) The only name that comes securely to mind is Derek Bekerson or Bikerson or something like that. His were the first articles I read on the subject, back in the early 80s (two articles in the 81 - 83 range, I think) in Scientific American. His ideas had a brief moment of popular light, being repeated in the news weeklies & such. And he may have actually worked with creoles rather than pidgins. By the end of the 80s, I had jumped from linguistics to classical antiquities and so, while I read the occasional article with interest, I wasn't paying professional interest and filing names and dates for later reference. But if you have JSTOR access or such (I don't these days), a perusal of a few years of SciAm should get you a name to search and to follow into bibliography.

who loves the stories from PNG

assiniboine said...

Well, probably the same. Pidgins are arbitrarily deemed to be lingua franche the moment anyone speaks one of them as a first language.

Hence perhaps the hilarity of my oldest friend's now-6'3" sons whom I had carried about on my shoulders some years previous: When they had recovered their composure (I was negotiating the purchase of a number of salad bowls and vases and lampstands with a potter in their recently re-acquainted presence): "This is uncle Mac? But [bouts of hilarity] he speaks INCREDIBLY good Pidgin!" And their father - the best man at my wedding many years before: "Yeah, just when DID you get so good at it?" "Well, I was hardly going to display my half-learned Pidgin to you, was I, when I was chitchatting with the old guys from the villages -- you who would ridicule my grammar and lexis to a faretheewell!" (Actually I have on my bookshelf a sizeable dictionary of the four Non-Austronesian South Bougainvillean languages that my students and their extremely enthusiastic parents provided me with, once I had determined in conversation with an SIL translator that this was the way to get started in fluency.)

I have this continuing issue, you see. Black faces on the streets of Brisbane: I don't look all THAT different from how I looked at, oh, say 22. Paunchy, bald, or busty middle aged people whom I last saw when they were little kids, don't look quite the same. "Don't you recognise me, Mr Robb? I'm Matt." "Ahhhh...Methuselah! But how would I ever have recognised you, looking as you now do, and now having changed your name?"
So much easier with the brownskins, whose brown skin seems so much thicker.

(Though when my black constituency bring their children down to see me (and incidentally pay a visit to Borders for books -- I do not complain: when these folk started naming their children after me, the Catholic brothers sharpened their fingers at me and said, "Aha! School fees for life for you!") they DO get me to take them off with their children, who bear my family names, to Borders. And they DO insist that I show off my knowledge of their respective tok ples. "Hahahaha! Dad, you were right! Uncle Mac DOES speak Pidgin. Not so impressed with his knowledge of Korokoro Motuna..."

Gashwin said...

Wow a real conversation going on in the comments! Yay!

Empires of the Word is still on my "to read" list. One of these days. At least it's out in paperback now.

Thanks for the clarifications on the "ur-language" theories!