The people question, Hagège answers

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It seems you can't swing a dead cat in a bookstore these days without hitting a recent book on language endangerment and language death. One of the newer entries is Claude Hagège's On the Death and Life of Languages (Yale University Press, 2009). Schott's Vocab (at the NYT) recently invited people to ask Hagège questions about language endangerment and death; and some of them (plus answers, of course) were published yesterday. Check 'em out.


  1. Stephen Jones said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    Coincidentally, there was an article in the Independent about threatened languages today.

  2. David Fried said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

    Am I the only person who thinks that this endless handwringing about dying languages gets the relationship between language and culture exactly backwards? Languages die with the death of the traditional cultures in which they were spoken. Those cultures cannot be maintained by preserving, and still less by reviving, the attached languages. People leading modern lives need to express the concepts associated with those lives, and so they take on the languages that are already well-suited to expressing those concepts. Conversely, reviving a dead or dying language does not–cannot–result in reviving the cultural attitudes of its original speakers. Even the native idioms and traditional modes of expression are unlikely to be revived. Hebrew is a terrific example. People who speak modern Israeli have only a marginal advantage over native speakers of other languages in understanding, say, Talmudic texts, which require, as they always did, long study and specialist knowledge best acquired in childhood. They do a little better with the Bible, but not much. Modern Israeli is completely "unidiomatic," in the sense that the characteristic modes of expression of speakers of, say, vernacular Mishnaic Hebrew have been superseded by calques of European idioms. Traditional Jewish culture was far better embodied in Yiddish, but those now struggling to revive that language don't thereby begin to think like traditional Jews. In fact, they can only understand traditional Yiddish texts by independent study of the culture to which they refer.

    For these reasons, attempts to preserve dying languages and revive dead ones are not only hopeless. They cannot succeed in attaining their real objective, which is the preservation of traditional cultures, now moribund or dead. The new speakers of these languages will still be prisoners of the cultures in which they were raised, and the old languages will be just the vessels of their existing thoughts. There is no reason to manufacture replicas of old bottles, if only new wine can be poured therein.

    I'm no linguist or anthropologist, so I don't quite have the language to make this clear. Do you folks see what I mean?

  3. J. Goard said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 1:03 am

    Overall, an interesting piece on a vital topic. This, however, is a frustrating piece of sloppy reasoning:

    However, there exists an important activity which clearly shows that even though the ways languages grasp the world may vary widely from one language to another, they all build, in fact, the same contents, and equivalent conceptions of the world. This activity is translation. Any text in any language can be translated into a text in another language. These two texts express the same meaning. We can therefore conclude that despite the differences between the ways languages grasp the world, all languages are easily convertible into one another, because humans interpret the world along the same, or comparable, semantic lines.

    Breaking it down:
    (1) Any text in any language can be translated into a text in another language.
    (2) These two texts express the same meaning.
    (3) Humans interpret the world along the same, or comparable, semantic lines.
    (4) All languages are easily convertible into one another.

    It's unclear whether he intends (2) to follow from (1), or to be a tautological restatement of the relevant sense of "translated". The former (using a general sense of "translated") is obviously a bad inference; the world is filled with bad translations that really do not express the same meaning as the original. In the latter case, where expressing the same meaning is a necessary criterion for something to be a translation, the road is fraught with peril with respect to the words "express" and "meaning". What's particularly egregious, though, is the temptation for the reader to equivocate between the two, i.e. to use the broad definition of "translate" to establish that, sure, anything can be translated (in some form) into any language, but subtly switch to the narrow definition in order to derive (2).

    It is unclear whether (3) is an independent premise, or is supposed to follow from (2). The move from (2) to (3) might seem reasonable at first, but it's not. Even if it were true that every meaning expressed in one language could be expressed in any other, it would not follow that other languages' speakers ever actually use those constructions in practice, or tend to use them with anything like similar frequencies. Absent some story about how worldview is influenced only by "linguistic competence" and never by "performance" or frequency factors, (3) does not follow at all.

    "Comparable" in (3) is a slippery word. There's a lot to compare between humans' and rats' models of the world, too.

    In (4), where did "easily" suddenly come from? I'm not a professional translator, but I was under the impression that it's f***ing hard. It's certainly hard when I do it, even with languages I know well. Why do people study translation for many years, and write books about how to teach it? Clearly, most bilingual speakers can't simply process a text's meaning and then immediately replicate it in their other language.

    This argument, coming on the heels of a good explanation of semantic differences between languages, is full of holes and doesn't even begin to answer the question actually asked, which seemingly amounts to: what are the best candidates for the status of semantic universals?

  4. slobone said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 2:36 am

    @David Fried, do people who revive dead languages actually think that by doing so they'll be reviving an extinct culture? Are they that naive? Surely the folks who re-introduced Hebrew in Israel were just as interested in providing a lingua franca for Jewish settlers from all over the world.

    And I just read something interesting about Welsh, in Trevelyan's English Social History. He says that Welsh was brought back from near-extinction in the 18th century by charity schools that had a decidedly evangelical bent, and where the Welsh translation of the Bible was the most important book. As a result Welsh-language culture ever since has had a more pious tone than the aristocratic and poetic traditions of the Middle Ages.

  5. Barbara Partee said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 4:11 am

    @J. Goard — Emmon Bach has put it nicely: The best argument in favor of the universality of natural language expressive power is the possibility of translation. The best argument against universality is the impossibility of translation (i.e. that we often can't really translate exactly).

  6. J. Goard said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    @Dr. Partee,

    Nice line.

    Of course, many have argued much better than I could that things are more to one side or another. My problem with the above quote is that it plays fast and loose with its terms, and almost no step of the apparent argument holds together.

    It seems like he inserted it as a corrective against readers taking his above examples too far. Instead, I think he should have answered the reader's question, and given some real examples of likely semantic universals (or widespread similarities).

  7. Nick Lamb said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 7:13 am

    “A one language world would be an unbearable world, in which people would be bored to death.”

    I think in one line we find out everything we need to know about this writer. Like a senator stood up in front of his peers explaining that the negro race is inherently unsuited for governance, we don't need to know whether he actually believes this or not for his stating it to reduce him in our estimation.

    Did your ancestors live on an island where only one language was spoken and outsiders were rare or non-existent for generations? According to Hagège' that existence was unbearable and it must be some fluke (perhaps your ancestors were especially dimwitted) that allowed them survive what would otherwise have surely bored any normal person to death.

    Is this man actually considered authoritative on his subject? Do linguists actually listen to this stuff with interest? Or was this posting and the NYT article a joke, "Haha, look at the silly man with his ignorant opinions" ?

  8. Carl said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    I am not sure that the desire to strengthen an endangered language is necessarily predicated on a desire to preserve a traditional culture associated with it — or, at least, this need not be the case. Much, however, probably depends on what we mean by "preserve a culture" (or a language). I feel that many (doubtless well-meaning) efforts have an explicitly "preservationist" ideology underlying them; that is to say, that people are attempting to preserve some snapshot of a culture and its associated language like a fly in amber. Such (romantically inpsired?) efforts would, indeed, be fairly well doomed to failure largely because they are unrealistic. No living — even if endangered — culture (or language) can be consigned to a museum; it is the product of processes of evolution and change, and *must* continue to evolve and change if it is to survive. Probably few would argue that (if I may make a consciously simplistic example) the 19th-century Japanese should have given up their language and culture and become Anglophone Britons or North Americans. And, indeed, today both Japanese culture and language are alive and well — it is just that its members/users had to go through a process of accomodation: "How can we be, and speak, Japanese in a changed world?" If we accept that linguistic and cultural diversity is inherently to be desired (which, admittedly, perhaps not everyone does), then our desire to strengthen endangered languages and cultures is surely reasonable — but it can only be *successful* if we treat still-living (if endangered) cultures/languages as *living* cultures/languages — that is, as entities which should be naturally expected to change and evolve — and help them find an accomodation with their current circumstances that they may no longer have the time/strength to find on their own.

  9. N said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    Maybe a more knowledgeable linguist can clear up my confusion.

    1. When people complain that the loss of a language means loss of useful information to future generations. I can understand this when they mean, say, a history written in an undecipherable script, but not when all that is lost is the linguistic data (morphology, syntax, phono. information…). MANY languages have died since humans obtained the faculty of speech, yet we seem to know a lot more now in spite of the above prediction. Granted, as a linguist, I want the data, but we cannot expect to have ALL of it if languages come, change, and go.

    2. What is with the rampant Whorf Hypothesis stuff? The effects of language on cognition can be researched empirically, so it just seems silly to hammer away at the connection when it is tenuous really.

    3. Learning languages is fun, and learning about different cultures is fun. But, why is it so frequently said that having more languages necessarily enriches your life? Me being able to speak some French means I can survive in a different area of the world, not that I have extra insight into it. This ties into the comments on translation. Machine translation is making wonderful progress, and it seems we will not be living in a truly-multilingual world for much longer. I can discuss something (through writing) in their native language (assuming there is a large enough corpus of text to build a decent translation system) which I have no knowledge of. Is this a bad thing? Does it truly harm me, not knowing another language but still being able to communicate?

  10. Ed said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    I agree with David Fried and the other above comments.

    Actually I hestitate as an English speaker to say that languages going extinct doesn't bother me. If there was a candidate language for the only language left in the world, it would be English. But in fact, like humans, languages seem to have natural life cycles and all die at some point. Dominant languages split up, like Latin. In fact, becoming a lingua franca, as Latin was and English is, seems to shorten the life cycle of a language, a better guarantee of longevity seems to be to become the dominant language in just one area of the world that happens to have a high birth rate. Languages can be spread too thin.

    Maybe I'm not bothered by langauges going extinct because they have primarily a utilitarian function, of letting people communicate? I like learning new languages so I can go to other countries and speak to the people there. I was happy to learn Latin because the process gave me insight into my native language, English, and I'm sure learning Frisian would be fascinating for the same reason. I'm not quite sure about the advantages of learning a current language spoken only in a country where I'll never go, or the ancient language of a culture I'll never study.

    Going back to the Latin example, how bothered are we that ancient Egyptian (except to the extent it lives on in Coptic), Punic, Phrygian and various Celtic related langauges no longer exist? They were killed as part of some fairly nasty exercises in empire building by Latin and Greek speakers.

  11. TB said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 4:49 am

    It's always interesting to me that the comments here seem to usually come down on the "who cares" side about language death. This seems to go along with the idea of a language as just a tool for communication, which can be replaced by any other language. (I hope I'm not totally mischaracterizing people's opinions here.)

    To me a language is a sort of art object as much as a tool. Like a beautiful Medieval chalice made of crystal and gold and emeralds. As far as drinking water goes, it is no better than any other cup, and different people may prefer different ones from an aesthetic standpoint. But it just seems a shame to therefore let it rust away (or whatever, my metaphor doesn't really go that far.) You can call me sentimental, I've been called names before.

    It's not that I would force people to speak a dying language or whatever, but I do think it's worth it to try to make it possible for them to speak it, and to document it as much as possible before it goes. Not for some "insight" it will give us or "useful information" or anything, but just for itself.

  12. Arjan said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    @ David Fried: the goal of language preservation is not to preserve 'traditional cultures' – although in general, language is indeed important to one's (cultural) identity. But any language is perfectly capable of communicating anything about the physical world, including technological introductions (or anything relating to the modern world). Some languages use loan words to describe such items, others don't. The modern world is really a bad argument in favor of abandoning a language. In many cases, there are socio-economic reasons for switching to a more generally accepted language (read: discrimination).

    And apart from a linguistic community's feelings, there are other good reasons why language death is a loss: linguistic history relates very closely to human history. I.e. the linguistic picture can inform us about such topics as migration patterns (e.g. combined with archeological findings). And many of those disappearing languages have unique linguistic features; when the language has gone (undocumented), there is no way to account for such features in general linguistic theories.

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