1. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Languages worth saving?

    Discussion in 'The Lounge' started by Eunoia, Sep 15, 2010.

    I read this BBC article about languages today. Basically, the Foundation of Endangered Languages has estimated that between 500 and 1000 languages are only spoken by a handful of people, and that we lose around 25 mother tongues every year equating to losing 250 languages over a decade. The foundation has organised a conference, at a UK university, so language experts can discuss whether endangered languages should be saved.

    I think these quotes from the article sum up most of the arguments:

    "Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human" - Nicholas Ostler, the foundation's chairman.

    "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." - Philip Howard.

    "It's very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense." - Philip Howard

    '"With modern communications and popular culture "you find that if enough people want to speak a language they can".'

    Anyway, I was wondering what you thought about it. Should we save languages that only a handful speak? Should it be in the hands of politicians, or is it up to us to keep languages alive?
     
  2. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's good to preserve languages if only so that no human knowledge can be lost forever - if someone doesn't keep at least enough of it going to make sense of anything written in that language, then there's another blank out there of things that we don't know - another thing that future historians will look blankly at and be like, "But what does it say!?"

    I dunno... Languages may not be important like saving endangered animals, but they still are a part of culture and society... The world's shrinking, and with everyone wanting to talk to everyone else it's natural that people will try to speak in whatever will get them the most attention.

    Hmm. I think I need to think on this before I can come up with an opinion if it's good or bad yet. :p
     
  3. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it is important to preserve them but not at the expense of language evolving. Without language moving on we would all be speaking ancient latin or Anglo Saxon or whatever the language of Adam was:)

    The UK is really rich we are lucky to have so much language diversity in such a tiny space. The area I live in is truly amazing although it is more diluted with basic things like cars allowing greater travel, larger schools and the closesure of the village school.
     
  4. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    There will never be peace until we share a common language.

    A language has a deep cultural importance; it touches all disciplines and is as changing as long lived. However, language is just too important to care for its cultural implications or history. Language is simply our main form of communication, and without communication we're below certain animals.

    If we have to choose between preserving languages and improving human communications, any doubt is rooted in a lack of perspective.

    Human communication! It's just too important to stop for cultural reasons.

    The sooner we all share a single language, the better. The sooner we join in a single nation, the better. Only then we'll be able to join our efforts and spread through the galaxy, multiplying mankind's chances of survival.



    [EDIT: Of course I mean artificially keeping them as "live" langauges. Forgetting dead languages would be as stupid (and suicidal) as forgetting history.]
     
  5. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Without language moving on we would all be speaking ancient latin or Anglo Saxon or whatever the language of Adam was"

    Hmm. . .Charlotte, that is good food for thought :). I should look that up sometime and see what that language actually was. I'm pretty certain that with the "Babel" incident in Biblical times a lot of dialects and other languages came to the world scene. Possibly some of those are the ones that are dying at the moment.

    Eunoia, I agree this is a sad development. Some part of me wishes the languages could be preserved, but I don't know if that's possible in this day and age. Everything is changing, unfortunately, and even the isolated people in the Arctic or in the outermost reaches of the African jungles are succumbing to the modern world.
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most violent nationally related incidents in the UK have been about the removal of language and culture not the sharing of a common language.
     
  7. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Suppression of local languages certainly leads to resistance - I don't think I need provide examples, but that is not really what this article is about. At its heart, this article is about resentment from some for goverment monies (procured through taxes) being used to the benefit of others when they'd prefer it goes elsewhere.

    As a modern languages and linguistics graduate my heart lies with languages, and agree with the article that efforts should be made to try to conserve threatened local languages. Others disagree with the amounts and methods being used to do so. There are few, if any, calling for the extinction of local languages. With that, I feel, a lot of the world's colour would drain away.

    Forcing children to learn (or at least be exposed to) a local language that their parents don't speak - as the article suggests - does seem a little unnecessary in terms of conservation but adequate provision ought to be in place to support those that actively wish a language to remain extant.

    It's not the case that in the future we won't be able to read these languages as the majority of those threatened have no written form any way, rather just that failing to at least chart these languages loses us a piece of wonderfully idiosyncratic history and culture - and there are few so blasé as to dismiss that.
     
  8. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    The kids here enjoy it though, my daughter knows all about puddocks, maukins, coos (frogs, hares and cows)- I was surprised how similar Scots is to old Lancastrian. Maukin is Malkin in Lancastrian etc Fly was Flee all over the place it is still pronounced Flee here.

    It will also make English easier as they get older if I'd have had these lessons my love of Burns, Grassic Gibbon etc wouldn't be so hard won.
     
  9. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    I disagree. Yes, it's good that we can share languages to communicate better but do we really want to be all the same? Speaking the exact same language? Where's the diversity?

    I find this sad. It's great they can reach out to the modern world and not be so isolated but, to me at least, that's almost like partially sacrificing their culture. On the other hand, we wouldn't know so much about them and they wouldn't enrich our culture if they didn't find today's modern world appealing. Then again, I'm no expert.

    Exactly. To lose so many languages, particularly without any record, would make the world a less cultural and historic place. I'm not sure what the best way is to deal with preserving the vast amount of languages there are, but by being aware of so many languages and trying to make languages accessible helps.
     
  10. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    I am from a country where people speak a different language every 500/600 kms if you travel along the highway. It can be frustrating sometimes, and fascinating at times.

    We have to be able to speak at least three languages-- mother tongue, Hindi, and English. Except the north Indians nobody likes Hindi, yet we have to speak it to survive, literally. About 40 percent of the people I come in contact with at work have to be communicated in Hindi, 20 percent in English, and the remaining in local language.

    Do I think local languages need to be preserved? Yes, because it enrich and help the evolution of so called "popular language". They add cultural flavour, if you will. But I also agree that a common language can only help the world. So, how do we preserve languages? The only way is to become proud multilingual.
     
  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Removing the political/economic element from the topic and simply focusing on the actual preservation of languages on the brink of of going under...

    Some changes have their own momentum, their own energy to move them, and linguistic flux or the adoption of languages foreign to a given area is one of those. There are few examples of a forced save of a language really working well (Hebrew being a famous exception) just as, looking in the opposite direction, those languages which have 'academies' to 'guide' their change very rarely pay any mind in real life to this concept of language by committee. Languages are as close a parallel to living organism as I can think of. They change in accord to changes in their environment, and when that environment is no longer conducive to their continued existence, they die out. It seems sad, just as the extinction of a living species of animal is sad, but the fight is too often a futile one. Just attempting to teach a dead language to children is not enough to resuscitate it. There are other factors - many other factors - that will bring the effort to nothing. As a fellow linguist with Gannon, it does hurt me in a personal place to know that the last speaker of a given language has died on a given day, but this is as natural as anything. It happens. It has happened since the beginning of language.

    One thing that is different in the modern world is that mass communication has slowed the rate of linguistic flux in any given language. Physical isolation of groups of people is no longer as strong a factor as it once was in the creation of first new accents, then dialects, then distinct languages. This means that as languages die out, there is no longer an equal force to replace them with new languages, thus keeping the balance of linguistic variation. But who is to say that as a species progresses technologically, that this is not also a natural part of the evolution of language as a concept.

    The flip side of the loss of linguistic variation is the ability to communicate with more individual humans. Look how many people on this forum alone hail from countries that are not English speaking countries, and yet here they are, giving us the gift of a different cultural perspective. That is wonderful! That is excellent in the extreme.

    Now I realize the fact that a forum member from India chatting to me in English across the internet is not really the point of this thread - please put away the brickbats - but it does highlight the fact that sometimes something that seems terrible has a flipside, has another way of looking at the subject and gives another perspective to balance benefits versus loss.
     
  12. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agreed, that is wonderful.

    By the way, thank you for your replies, it's been interesting reading your perspectives.
     
  13. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    The corner of the Andes that I come from, our variant of Quechua is very degraded in some regions, especially the closer one gets to the cities. Most children do not know how to speak it fluently, and most adults know some phrases and bits, but it is mixed with the more dominant Spanish language in some semblance of code switching. However the tongue as a whole is quite alive with some official reorganization and institutionalization. Such is the evolution and progress of any organism.
     
  14. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    Well, my problem with language preservation starts when children are forced to learn a language that nobody speaks, just because it'd be lost otherwise.

    Then, for reasons more political than cultural, all universities in the region are forced to teach their classes in that very language that 80% of the region's population never speak and that nobody outside of that region speaks at all.

    So, the local youth is forced to either receive their high level teachings in the regional language they never use or to migrate to a different region. And, at the same time, while all universities in the country are open to any citizen, that region's are useless, as nobody speaks the regional language.

    Then, you go to that region, have to do some paperwork and you encounter a bureaucrat who, again for political reasons, has decided that won't speak the national language, which is (obviously) forced by law. So, you speak to him in the national language and, even though he understands you perfectly, he only replies "I won't speak in that language".

    Also, to get a public job in that region you must speak the regional language, which is quite useless, as everybody speaks the national language perfectly. But the effect of that law is that people from that language can get a public job anywhere in the country while people from out of the region can't get a job inside.


    So, I'm all for the preservation of languages and I support the existence of academies for those who want to learn it. However what I don't want is to have languages whose only use is as political weapon and to differentiate people between "regionals" and "outsiders".
     
  15. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have yet to know a child from a Gaelic (Gallic not Gaylick) or Welsh nursery that feels 'forced.' or someone in the Highland council that won't speak English. As well as Gaelic and English all our local leaflets also include Urdu, Polish, Russian and Mandarin Chinese being the major languages spoken here.

    Guess I have always managed with people of a foreign language even when I haven't spoken it (my friend's Mum only spoke Mandarin Chinese and kept forgetting her name at school was Wendy), there are plenty of Polish speakers in the playground and my kids manage to play with them fine. When I went on holiday as a child often had French or German speaking children.

    Bad manners and ignorance aren't going to change when someone changes the language they speak. Plus unless we do away with spoken language entirely we can't all speak the same language.
     
  16. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    As you said, the tongue is quite alive which is good. I guess if you live closer to the cities you're bound to be exposed more to the most dominant language and therefore feel you should speak it mostly too.

    Agreed.


    I think that if you're going to live somewhere where there's a regional language, you should learn that language as well as the national one.

    Precisely.

    Personally, I like the range of languages we have because it enriches our culture, communication and history so I'd like to preserve the vast amount of languages we have. Also, just because there are languages that only a handful speak doesn't mean that those people won't speak the dominant languages as well.
     
  17. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    Even if the region has an extension of barely 7500 square km and only one in four of the region's inhabitants actually speak the language?

    What if you would like to get a public job in the region and live in the region next to it?

    I wouldn't mind if private jobs required people to speak the langauge but public jobs are supposed to be for everyone. What would Americans think if anyone could be a public worker everywhere except in a region a thousand times smaller than Texas, that would only take locals?

    Oh, and it's not like they require English or French, languages that you could use internationally. No, that language is spoken by a quarter of the region's population and nobody else in the world.

    So, if you want to live there and get a public job, you must learn a language that you'll proudly share with a quarter of the people around you who all speak a language you already know.


    Other than ridiculous (and mainly political) cases like that one, I'm all for the preservation of the knowledge of all languages. As long as they aren't forced down unwilling people's throats.
     
  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree I find the preservation and the number of people that have kept their language alive in the UK even just the old dialects is amazing.

    Even when i was a kid I was sent to speech lessons to remove the 'common' accent.

    EDIT:

    Scottish Highlands and Wales aren't that much bigger, don't see why it is an issue I know if I want to get a job with the highland council then taking Gaelic lessons improves my chances. Don't see why it is any different than having to qualify for a job by having the right exams etc. However being able to communicate in Polish is also a good one. It's great my kids get to learn and practice a variety of foreign languages without me having to travel.
     
  19. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    I assume by 'public jobs' you mean jobs in shops and such? Doesn't it make sense to be able to speak the language regionals do if you're serving the public i.e. regionals? Also, if they can speak the more dominant language too then if people don't speak the regional language then they can still communicate. It's like whenever I go to say France, I try to speak French but they often see me struggling or can tell I'm English so try and speak English to me instead.
     
  20. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I think we are confusing the issue of an individual having the desire to know a given language(s) and the concerted effort of others in the attempt to save a language by creating a dynamic to foster its use.

    These are two very different takes on the subject and we are mixing epistemologies at this point.

    If I wish to learn Spanish as it was used in the time of Cervantes writing of the orginal Don Quixote, then bully for me, but if the country/region/area I live in suddenly decides that "Cervantes Spanish" will now and forever be the Spanish used in commerce, public affairs, schools, and general discourse, then the group attempting to create that change has an immensely multifaceted task ahead of it. It really is not so simple as simply start teaching it this way in school. The existing paradigm of which Modern Spanish (Castellano) is just one piece is vast and interconnected.

    I give this example because this is the very thing that is happening in Spanish today. This is not a pretend exercise. La Real Academia Espanola in Spain tasks itself with this very endeavor. In fact, "So that our children's children will still be able to read Cervantas" is their credo. This organization attempts to control and regulate the change and use of the Spanish language wherever it is spoken. And it is a waste of time and money because - allow me to assure you - Spanish as it is spoken across the globe is amazingly variable despite the RAE's best efforts to maintain some kind of homogeny. In fact, it is more variable than English across the globe, a language which does not have a governing body to regulate it.

    Spanish + Attempted Control = Bewildering Variation

    English - Attempted Control = Relative Homogeny


    It doesn't seem intuitive, but that's how it is. Spanish even has variants of the language where different pronouns are used in one country than are used in another. Pronouns, for anyone not trained in linguistics, are an incredibly robust group of words that resist even the most sweeping of changes in a language. Same thing goes for the words we use to denote family members. Very robust. But why? Most linguists will prattle off something about the frequency of use of these words giving them their staying power, but that's a load of horse apples. Compared to articles, prepositions, and conjunctions, pronouns only make rare cameo appearances.

    *deep breath*

    /ramblink
     
  21. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, there are a lot of varieties of Spanish. I don't think we can preserve languages by forcing particular languages on people. Governments can't control the languages people speak in. It's up to the people themselves to maintain the preservation of languages.
     
  22. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    Sorry. I meant government jobs.

    I agree that "open to the public" jobs are pretty much required to have people who speak the local dialects and langauges.
     
  23. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, okay. I understand what you're saying now.
     
  24. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    That guy sounds like a hoot. Pure Monty Python.
    Do you mind me asking where you live, Thanshin?

    The last speaker of a dying tongue may take no small consolation in knowing that the death is - up to a point - evidence of his culture's benignity.

    English dominates, in no small part, because England was very adept at killing people some couple of hundred years ago etc etc

    Every cloud.
     
  25. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    I currently live in sunny Spain. Land of cloudless skies and long beaches bathed in warm light except when all the year's water falls the same night, as it's just happened.
     

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