In hearing the news today, from a variety of sources, that the last 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 “preserve” the language, and it hit me that what I really object to, aside from the usual melodrama from reporters who only superficially understand the issue, is the terminology that so often gets used, because it is misleading.
What the person in the news story had been working to do was not “preserve” the language, as I see it, but to “record” it. There’s perhaps only a slight difference here, and maybe it’s just in the way I’m defining the words for myself in this context, but I’ll explain why they seem different to me.
I have no problem with people working to record dying and endangered languages for study. Recording a language involves things like making audio and video recordings of native speakers, conducting extensive interviews, and gathering a large corpus of language samples that can be analyzed to understand the language structure and vocabulary. The last remaining speakers of a language may not be able to analyze their language the way linguists would like, but with a record of the language, linguists will be able to study it even after the speakers are gone, (albeit without the ability to ask those clarifying questions that only occur to someone to ask later.) I think this is a great, worthy, and necessary thing.
Unfortunately, I think when many people hear that linguists or cultural groups are working to “preserve” a language, I think what they hear is akin to the work nature conservationists do to preserve endangered species, namely, save it. It brings up visions of large-scale projects to heavily encourage, or perhaps require, people in the relevant ethnic group or community to learn the language and use it, whether it’s particularly useful to their lives anymore or not. Such programs are noble, but rarely work in the long term, and often inconvenience enough annoyed teenagers that they never want to deal with the language again. (I’m thinking of stories I heard from the person I knew from Ireland here.)
-posted by Dana