Revisiting Language Death

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

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2 Responses to Revisiting Language Death

  1. Jan says:

    Yeah, good point. Preserving goes a long way, and recording would only be the first step of it. Forcing the language onto people may not be the wisest decision, but it worked for the British in India, didn’t it?
    With regard to Gaelic, I assume it is a question of how connected you feel to the language as a part of your heritage. I know Irish people who are particularly proud of their Gaelic, so I guess it depends.
    Interestingly, the Sorbic language in the Southeastern part of East Germany is one more time under threat because some bureaucratic idiots messed up the dates when people could apply for funding. Unfortunately, language schools and other related institutes also missed their chance, so once the funds have run out, they will simply have to close. I think this is a good example for the fragility of languages on the brink of extinction that could be saved (enough native speakers / bilingual speakers around, willingness to speak, et cetera…). It doesn’t have to be a “large-scale” project, but support needs to be there, otherwise it will die out.
    I think, also in regard to our former discussion, that the scariest thing about language death is not necessarily the loss of the language itself, but the loss of the culture connected to it. Granted, specific art or tool-making may survive (although a bit soulless), but traditions, rituals and little peculiarities? They will vanish with the language, never to return. A richness that goes way beyond linguistic treasure completely lost? That’s pretty sad, if you ask me.

  2. Dana says:

    Jan, that’s a good point about the connection between culture and language. It’s one that probably hasn’t been explored enough. Are there ways groups can concentrate on continuing their heritage and culture even if they have lost the native speaking of their language? In some cases, disconnecting the culture from the language might help, because it will become more accessible to others. (As an example from the post I wrote on shakuhachi flute playing, there are now more interested international students than there are students natively from Japan, so the people adopting this cultural art form from outside the culture are likely the ones who will keep it alive.) But you’re right that they do tend to be tied together.

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