Why I’m a bad linguist

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


12 Responses to Why I’m a bad linguist

  1. Jan says:

    Bad Dana. Bad, bad, bad! After having taken a rather interesting course called “Politics of English” for which I wrote a neat little paper on Eco-Linguistics and people trying to save dying languages, I can understand your viewpoint to some extent. However, it is sad that some languages die simply because the big ones are taking over (fittingly, my prof delivered a paper titled “Is English A Killer Language?”). One cannot really compare teaching English (which undoubtedly is changing a lot) in a prescriptive way (very much not satisfying, I know) and trying to catch a least a glimpse of a vanishing little “species.” Granted, after they have been recorded, the two last speakers will eventually die and their language will forever disappear, but maybe we can learn something from that little dead language that, something we didn’t know before. Or maybe not. Who knows? But really, if you can’t admire dead languages much (even if lamenting seems a bit silly, but hey, that’s the ethos!), maybe you really should pursue a non-linguistic career. Or something.

  2. Dana says:

    Oy, Jan, I specifically did NOT say that I thought dying languages had nothing to offer. I do think they have a great deal to offer, but I don’t think that a lot can truly be done to prevent their eventual demise. And I did specifically say that I think dead languages have a valuable place in language study. (“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.”)

    I never meant to imply that teaching English = understanding dying languages. I did mean to imply that studying/teaching any living language will prove to a person that language is always changing.

    It is sad that languages die. But it is hardly a modern phenomenon, and it certainly can’t all be blamed entirely on English or any other major language. It’s been going on for as long as spoken language has existed, we’re just more aware of it now, and we’ve become obsessed with being able to preserve everything. My point is not that I don’t care at all, it’s that I just don’t find myself getting all panicky about it and fighting to “save the languages!” as some people seem to expect.

    As for whether English is a killer language, I would have to say it is as much as any other useful lingua franca that covers a large contiguous area of land. English kills languages in the US. Swahili kills languages in East Africa. Mandarin Chinese kills any number of dialects/languages (there’s a fight over what exactly they are) in China. Eventually, some other language may come along and kill them, much like the demise of Latin and Old English.

  3. sonetka says:

    I’m always sad when I hear of a language that has five remaining native speakers who are all in their eighties, and I’m all for preserving every possible aspect of them, if nothing else as a sort of cold storage for revival. (Hard to do, but possible – look at Hebrew. If people *really* want them back, they’ll make the effort without having to guilt others into with “but it’s cultural!” I mean, a lot of things are “cultural” which I’d rather not see revived). But it’s true that this isn’t some sort of new phenomenon; I think the advent of mass communications has helped to *speed up* the extinction/change process, but it wasn’t as if (to have a Battlestar Galactica moment) “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”

    Have you studied Anglo-Saxon or some other phase of Old English? I haven’t “studied” it so much as “carried around a copy of Sweet’s Primer in my purse for perusal during my many doctor’s appointments” but I’ve gotten decent at pronunciation and am in reverential awe of all its permutations. (Knowing German probably helps in terms of getting a vague idea of a lot of the vocab). I wish we still had the dual – so much said with just one word :). But for now I’ll stick to trying to read the Bible selections in Anglo-Saxon.

  4. sonetka says:

    I wasn’t clear there at the end of the first paragraph. I mean that it *is* an “All of this has happened before …” situation, not that it *isn’t*.

  5. TheGnat says:

    Languages change, languages die, this is normal. But it’s more depressing when a language dies without fully being recorded. You can’t study that. English is the new lingua franca, which means it isn’t obliterating languages just in the U.S. and England, but in places like, well, Japan or China. Most work to “save the languages” is more to simply get a proper record of the languages down. In the case of languages where the death is very recent phenomena brought about by say, colonialism and patriarchy in our modern world, it’s sort of a bandage to help with some of the many wrongs aboriginal peoples have suffered (such as the situation in New Zealand with Maori)

    As someone who loves language better than I like most people, I love the diversity of expression and sound that all those thousands of languages provide. I don’t understand why people end up speaking only one language to begin with, never mind ditching their first language for say, English. As someone who’s working on her sixth and seventh languages, I long ago discovered there are things I simply can’t say in certain languages. English frequently borrows French for French concepts that just aren’t properly conveyed with a literal translation. There are times when I’d much rather switch to Japanese in the middle of a conversation to get the right idea across.

  6. Jan says:

    Sorry Dana, this was not at all intended to make you look bad, and the final sentence was rather tongue-in-cheek, which I hoped you would notice.
    I do NOT agree with extreme eco-linguistics, nor did my prof really argue that English was a killer language (thus the question mark in the title!). I think we all agree that the downfall and disappearance of languages is normal, just as intralingual change is normal. However, the problem that TheGnat describes is very real: how do you save a language when it is threatened to disappear forever due to modern colonialism (meaning globalization), e.g. the language that is spoken (and only spoken) by a tribe of about 50 people somewhere in the jungle of Papua-New Guinea and that is under threat because the modern world is rolling in? Can we see this as just another normal language disappearance or not?
    Do we try to save that language by teaching those 50 people to read and write, taking the risk that the language will die even faster because of the immediate contact with the outside world?
    The other sad thing is that a lot of Native American languages are dying out because of the legislation in the US a couple of years ago. It is shocking to see three 60-year-old grandmothers trying to teach their native language to a 15-year-old boy at school on their reservation, just because a whole generation was not allowed to speak their own language (it’s Umonhon, by the way, of the more commonly known Omaha nation). A statement like, “We have to be willing to admit that language users are ultimately the ones who have control over the fate of their languages” could easily be read as white supremacist or just very arrogant. I know you didn’t mean it like that (thus the tongue-in-cheek statement), but I still wanted to point out that you missed a certain perspective on the problem.

  7. I have a fellow linguist friend that has been at the language death writing for a spell now:


    So much to respond to:

    Jan – If we teach those 50 how to read and write, their language will change greatly and we won’t be recording the original language we wanted to save. I would love to see a broad study on the topic, but you see lots of references in the psycholinguistics literature about some process being a side-effect of writing, reading, or orthography.

    Also, either Colbert or Stewart has a great series on using the question mark to soften an otherwise pure propaganda point. I actually read your prof’s article along the lines of a “Bush: Best President Ever?” headline, as seen on Fox.

    sonetka – From what I’ve read about the revival of Hebrew, it’s not really a revival. Well, it’s a revival in the sense that the clones were revivals in Dune before Duncan triggered his memories or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Yeah, Hebrew is alive and well now, but some of the more unique and cooler structures such as odd verbal reduplication exist only in the Biblical forms. The crazy stuff, exactly because it was so crazy, just didn’t make it through the sieve.

    There was a lot to say on the first reading, but now I’m pooped.

  8. Dana says:

    – Paul: Excellent link! Thank you. He says many of the things I was thinking.

    – Jan: I don’t think that stating that language users control the fate of their own language is arrogant or supremacist. To think that outsiders need to come in and “encourage” said language speakers to save/use their language just for the sake of being cultural and quaint, even after the people of the language group no longer find it communicatively useful seems more arrogant to me. If the people themselves want to make an effort to revive the language, fine, but as Paul pointed out to Sonetka, those efforts rarely result in a “pure” version of the langauge, but a changed and often simplified version. Arguably, that it better than the language ending up dead, but it will still be different.

    I don’t think that you can save a language that has a limited number of speakers and is in contact with a much more prevalent lingua franca, other than to record it before it dies to study it later. Whether this is the result of colonialism, or simply outward expansion of a people already in the more populated areas of the region is immaterial. If the small language becomes surrounded by a bigger one and no longer has an isolated core of small-language-only speakers, the likelihood of survival is slim.

    US Native American reservations have a whole host of issues dealing with cultural preservation, including language learning and teaching. However, I think you’re being a bit misleading by saying that there was legislation against the use of native languages “a couple of years ago.” The vast majority of all off-reservation boarding schools, at which the students were not allowed to use their native languages, were closed by the 1930s. In December 2006 the Native American Languages Preservation Act was passed, and if that is what you are referring to as being shocking, I’m not sure why, since it is legislation that provides support for language teaching and immersion programs, which seems like exactly what you are arguing for.

    – Gnat: I hardly think you can really make a case that English is “killing” either Chinese or Japanese in their home countries. It may be contributing loanwords, which you say you enjoy using yourself in and from a variety of languages, but it is not changing grammar, replacing a significant amount of vocabulary, or being adopted fluently by a particularly significant number of people.

    In addition, while it is great that you enjoy learning languages and are in favor of multilingualism for all, the truth is that true bi/multilingualism is very hard to maintain in a population that has one main language, whose speakers rarely encounter speakers of other languages on a daily basis. Only in settings where everyone has an actual communicative need to interact in several distinct languages regularly do you find regular and maintained multilingualism (some parts of Europe and Africa being the best examples.) Immigrants to the US may have first generation children who are bilingual, particularly if the parents or resident grandparents do not speak English, but in 2-3 generations, the family’s original native language is often gone, because there was no reason to maintain bilingualism in the face of one common language. In populations where everyone speaks the same two languages, you end up with codified code-switching => mixed language. In any case, most people aren’t thinking about a love of language, they’re just thinking about the need to communicate effectively with the people around them.

  9. Jan says:

    Dana, the example of outside foreign people moving in to teach the limited number of native speakers how to preserve their orally-based language was an example that is discussed in eco-linguistics. I just wanted to point out the difficulties of such an enterprise. Nowhere in my previous posts have I supported such a strategy; in fact, I believe it is doomed to fail.

    Native American languages and the struggle to preserve many of them is a pressing issue in the US. Maybe the 1930s mark the time of the closing of mission schools. I remember watching interviews with members of the Navajo tribe who worked for the US government in the 2nd World War, saying that they had been forced to abandon their language and culture for years, until they were taken into service as translators. I do not know when exactly the practice of suppressing Native American languages stopped. However, the long years where it had been in place left a deep impact. When I say that it happened “a couple of years ago,” it may seem wrong, but I don’t think that 60-70 years are such a long time in this context. Japanese are still struggling with the longterm effects of American nuclear bombs on two of their cities; Chinese and Korean women still try to receive as little as an apology from the Japanese government for their treatment during WWII; survivors of concentration camps still try to receive compensation for their suffering from the German government; the Mossad is still looking for German War criminals in Southamerican countries. All related events happened more than 60 years ago, but do we ignore them?
    What I am trying to say here is that there is a moral obligation to right the wrong, and that – at least in my opinion – includes the systematic destruction of Native American heritage, culture and language that happened. It is good to see that with the 2006 act (among other things) the American government finally gives a positive signal in that regard.

    We clearly have different opinions on the issue of language preservation in general and in particular on the efforts concerning Native American language preservation. I guess I do have a less matter-of-fact-based, more ethic-influenced view on things.

  10. Dana says:

    Jan, I don’t think we disagree as much as you think we do. I don’t want the languages to die, I just don’t think there’s as much hope for them remaining living languages as many people would like. I wasn’t trying to look at this from an ethical perspective; instead I was looking at it from a language acquisition perspective, and noting that once a language isn’t used as a main form of communication by its population anymore, it is well on the way to “extinction.”

    I am not saying that we should ignore events that happened 60 or more years ago, I just wanted to clarify your statement, because it made it sound like people in the US were still systematically suppressing the use of Native American languages. I also think it is going to be very difficult for Native American tribes to keep their languages alive if they have a whole generation who don’t speak the language, esp. if the current day children learning the language from their grandparents know that those grandparents also speak English. That’s how a lot of Chinese-American kids lose their Chinese; they know their parents speak English, and when they become teens, they may listen to their parents speaking to them in Chinese, but only answer in English, etc. Unnecessary true bilingualism is very hard to maintain.

  11. Jan says:

    Okay, I think I may have misread your musings as (too) cynical comments (which you are very much capable of – dare to deny it!). Sorry ’bout that.
    I think the topic of unnecessary true bilingualism needs to be exploited more in a separate entry. Maybe I’ll get my act together during the x-mas holdidays…

  12. […] native speaker of the Native Alaskan language of Eyak has died, I had some time to ponder where my previous explanation of my feelings about language death stories had broken down. One of the stories spoke of a person who had been working to […]

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