While perusing the news this morning, I came across this article: Split imperils Mexican language. The first paragraph sums up the issue nicely. (Actually, as is typical of BBC news articles, the opening paragraph is actually just a sentence. Why did I even bother to teach my ESL students that a paragraph should usually be at least three sentences?)
An indigenous language in southern Mexico is in danger of disappearing because its last two speakers have stopped talking to one another.
The situation itself is rather comedic, but of course the rest of the article goes on to highlight serious and somewhat hysterical facts, such as:
More than 20 of these [indigenous languages of Mexico] are under threat of extinction.
According to the UN, one language disappears across the world every two weeks.
As a person who has nearly gotten actual degrees in linguistics twice (and does at least have language and linguistic-related degrees), I get these kinds of articles forwarded to me a lot by friends wanting to know what I think about language death. I know that I am supposed to be horrified. All that knowledge we are losing! A whole language, gone, dead, never to return! And of course, some part of me is saddened by the situation.
But there’s another linguistic perspective on this, too, stemming from the undeniable fact that Languages Change. During my years teaching English, I hated having to teach prescriptivist rules for national exams when I knew they were no longer reflective of the way the language is actually used. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to answer the question, “Which one of these sentences is correct?,” with 5 different variations of the key phrase presented. More often than not, they’re all correct, but some sound antiquated because their usage is on the way out, and others sound too casual because their usage is so modern.
Changes happen gradually, so it’s unlikely that the speakers of the language are making conscious decisions along the lines of, “The case system is too confusing; let’s switch to a word order system instead.” I mean, I have to admit that the idea of holding a big meeting about it and taking a vote is funny, but it doesn’t happen. Just, over time, lesser-used verbs that had irregular past tense endings become regularized, because not enough people remember and use the irregular form, and then the new form becomes the “correct” one. And so forth.
Honestly, I think this kind of change is a good thing. I’ve tried to learn Old English, and, in my opinion, there’s a reason it’s a dead language. It’s freakin’ hard, man! It’s got all those complicated case rules that signaled whether the word was the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, possessive, or an instrument used to achieve something, and because the nouns then had markers on them, they could fall in any order in the sentence. Is it any wonder people moved toward a system that stabilized word order and almost completely forgot case markings?
I’m not saying that the many different and diverse languages of the world aren’t useful, interesting, and worthy of study. But I have a really hard time blaming people for letting a language die when it isn’t a useful form of communication for them anymore.
A living language is by definition used by people, and I don’t think we can justify limiting the communicative life of anyone in order to preserve a language. Look at the two men in the article. Researchers are desperate for them to talk to each other, to keep the language alive and allow it to be studied, but for the men? This language is just part of their lives, and it’s now a part that means the only other person in the world they can talk to is someone they greatly dislike. The impetus for communication is gone. We have to be willing to admit that language users are ultimately the ones who have control over the fate of their languages.
If the language no longer serves its purpose, it will become an artifact. There is a place for dead languages as subjects of study, and I’m all in favor of it. They might even be easier to study, now that they’re not subject to constant change. But I do have a hard time really getting behind projects to force more people to learn a language in order to keep it alive, and I don’t really actively lament the ones that are gone.
-posted by Dana