According to UNESCO it is estimated that “if nothing is done, half of the 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century. With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages”.
But UNESCO also states that “this process is neither inevitable nor irreversible: well-planned and implemented language policies can bolster the ongoing efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalize their mother tongues and pass them on to younger generations.” (UNESCO: Endangered Languages, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/ )
But how much can really be implemented on language saving policies and what can really be done? Is it worth saving languages? On 15th September 2010 the following discussion took place at the BBC:
Languages, which every European Union member has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme, designed to protect the most threatened native tongues. At the end of last year the project received 2.7m euros to identify those languages most at risk.
But for some this is not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of how language works. The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is “irrational” to try to preserve all the world’s languages.
Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died.
While it may seem sad that the language expired, says Mr Malik, cultural change is driving the process.
“In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous.” And when governments try to prop languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards, he says.
If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them – it shouldn’t be backed by government subsidy, he argues.
“To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t see why it’s in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter.” In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. “If a language is one that people don’t participate in, it’s not a language anymore.”
The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. “Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It’s not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using ‘wicked’ to mean terrific then that has a big effect.”
Minority language translators at work at the National People’s Congress Minority language translators at work at the National People’s Congress
The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation’s regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular.
And Mr Howard says politicians make a “category mistake” when they try to interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he says is doomed to fail. “Offering Gaelic to children of people who don’t speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It’s very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense.”
But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. “Some people take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish the fastest growing.”
There are competing forces at work that decide whether smaller languages survive, Howard argues. On the one hand globalisation will mean that many languages disappear. But some communities will always live apart, separated by sea, distance or other barriers and will therefore keep their own language. With modern communications and popular culture “you find that if enough people want to speak a language they can”.
In short, there is no need for handwringing.
“Language is not a plant that rises and falls, lives and decays. It’s a tool that’s perfectly adapted by the people using it. Get on with living and talking.” (BBC, 15 September 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11304255 )
However, while there is some pragmatic truth in what Mr Malik and Howard say, fact is that all too often speaking, developing and promoting languages was not done by free choice. Promoting the use of one language was usually done by discriminating other ones, by denying them status and giving some languages an elitist and scientific reputation while demoting others as rural and backward (a “dialect”). Most languages died out not by democratic choice but much rather by force, Irish Gaelic is a good example here or look at all the native American languages.
Moreover, is saving those languages which are now marginalized and on the brink to die out really “nonsense”? Languages, even small ones and threatened ones are like an old piece of music or artwork and work the same way. They tell us something about our past, they include expressions which were designed to describe something important during that particular period which may not be important anymore just like Rembrandt’s Night Watch tells us something from the past. If we are to follow the arguments of Mr. Malik and Howard then the Night Watch is actually a valueless romantic peace of the past. But people are spending large sums of money to buy old paintings, preserve them and observe them. The same is valid for the music of J. S. Bach, it is been written in an old format with old instruments, the rhythm and chords are old and apply to tastes and dancing in a 17th century style so are we to accuse anyone listening to Bach as being romantic and unworldly? But how comes that millions of people still listen to his music and even spend large sums of money to acquire his music? There must be something which it is giving the people, something which is unwinding them and detaches them from their daily routine, may it only be by picturing themselves back into the 17th century. And how could we make an authentic film playing in the 17th century if we had not preserved the paintings and music of that period?
If we have a look at a small minority such as Gaelic, only a few thousand people still speak it but there are people travelling to the Hebrides to exactly listen to this language, it is for them like Bach or Rembrandt, there is something they associate with it, something they discover, they enjoy listening to the tales and folksongs in that language, just like enjoying the sunset on a beach in California. And they want the old folk songs to be sung in Gaelic, they are spending money to enjoy exactly that, if the songs would be sung in English to them it would be like recreating van Gogh’s sunflowers to them, maybe a very good copy but never be like the original. Listening to the old folk tales and songs on the Hebrides is still possible, thanks to the maintenance of previous generations but nowadays also thanks to schools who provide teaching in that language with financial support from the general public through taxes. But according to Malik and Howard this is a useless past time but then would not spending money on music schools who teach students to play Bach or art schools who study the techniques of Rembrandt also be a useless past time which the government should no longer financially support? The conclusion would also be that when preserving small minority language is useless and governments should not spend money on preserving them, they might also close down the National Gallery in London or the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Every language is a piece of art in itself, like a painting or a piece of music, rhymes and songs have been conducted in it, stories have been passed on over generations preserving old knowledge. Without this knowledge we would not know what place-names mean, which groups of people have settled there, the original functionality of the settlement, what distinguishes it from the neighbouring villages or towns etc., why certain localities grow better crops than others. If Mr. Malik is correct we might simply rename all our towns and cities to numeric numbers, would that not be much more functional? How popular would that be?
Whatever setbacks we experience with continuous warfare in e.g. the Middle East, poverty in many parts around the globe, etc., the general tendency is nevertheless one of increasing wealth which brings about more time for leisure, for travelling and an interest in culture of the various regions in the world. But all this would be meaningless if everything is uniform, the same standardized language everywhere, the same standardized music as background, the same standardized paintings as decoration. This would result in the colourless grey world George Orwell was once describing in his novel “1984”. So if we want to have differences, variations, different styles of music and paintings, we also need to preserve the different languages we have and in this context investment in the diversity of languages is like investing in an art school or a music academy.
Languages, of course, change and develop, just like art and music does and a lot of new expressions, forms of music and art works will appear each with a distinct value of itself but they are based on previous knowledge and skills and creating new expressions, art works and music must not mean to throw away the previous ones, they can happily co-exist. People can learn more than one language just like musicians can usually play old and new music and they learn the old music to create new music. Is it not like this how all languages also work and would it then not consequently make sense to preserve and learn old languages or minority languages and through this developed our modern languages?
You can review and download the whole article “A case for Endangered Languages” here:
© Helge Tietz 2014