language death and documentation

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

linguists gather to discuss language endangerment issues … the world cares less? The BBC covers the conference with a nice video (link may not persist).
We have heard a lot of this before but my interest is always with the comments of the non-linguists and quite frankly the (presumably) monolingual. Here for example is Troy …

Troy in Oz, Noosa, Australia

I rejoice when I hear of another language dying out. I’m sad for the person, but when you consider that the purpose of language is communication, then it is blindingly obvious that a universal language is the only viable option. People claim that some concepts cannot be expressed in other than the original language. Have they not come across the concept of stealing words from others. Ever heard of “le weekend” or that well known english word “schadenfreude”.

Troy must be a very happy man. So interesting that he chose to include schadenfreude in his comment.

Troy is communicating in English. A language he implies serves well for universal communication. What messages might we need that are universal? I am not sure they way I want to speak to my sisters or my partner is necessarily the way I want to speak to someone I have never met at the other end of the world. I might feel that the closeness I share with my family is different to a random stranger on the other side of the world why would a mesage encoded for my sister need to be interpretable to them.

The way we use language encodes intimacy and equally importantly power. What these arguments for languages gently into that good night are missing is a realisation of the power relations implicit in these arguments. The majority of languages that face extinction are not like Welsh or Irish. They are spoken in the worlds’s developing nations, mostly in multilingual settings where many tongues currently coexist. The shift to more dominant and usually more international languages is often conceived by speakers as a move to participate in more global economies. Even then participation is not on equal footing.  If all languages are capable of sending these universal languages, Troy, surely won’t mind foregoing English and taking up one of the few remaining languages of South East Queensland as a global tongue.

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