A quick response to Bradford Hatcher:
“I’d launch a huge dictionary program, on the scale of the unabridged Oxford dictionary, to collect all of these gems and preserve them in one place that could be accessed online.”
This has been done for literally centuries (Thomas Jefferson sent out word lists across the continent with the same aim), and it continues to be done now, not only by external academics but by community members. You are calling for something that is happening all the time. It’s also not an either/or situation – this is happening simultaneously with language pedagogy, use, and creation. There is a ton of work going on beyond the (predominantly non-Indigenous) media’s eye.
I’ve seen this topic a lot lately, and I’ve angered a lot of people with my response, but nobody else seems to be proposing any viable, practical, or realistic solution to the problem. It’s mostly just pointless hand-wringing. Saving each language is a huge volunteer effort, multiplied 6000 times over, and even then, most would wind up alive only in museums. At the very least, people should be spending their efforts in collecting and cataloguing the elements of vocabulary and idiomatic expressions that capture the human experience and endangered ecoliteracy that all the other languages miss. This is a much simpler effort, and the meanings or lexical contents (like idioms and metaphors) have a way to live on and be useful. They can even be incorporated into or adopted by living languages. Forgetting these meanings is the greatest loss when a language dies. A dying culture’s stories can survive well enough, though not perfectly, in translation. And if a culture really is going to die, this will be all that survives anyway. If it were up to me, I’d launch a huge dictionary program, on the scale of the unabridged Oxford dictionary, to collect all of these gems and preserve them in one place that could be accessed online. This is more of a sure thing than keeping 6000 dying languages alive. That’s not to say people couldn’t try, but this would be a great safety net.
This piece was media criticism, not criticism of linguistics or any academic work. There is a vast iceberg of scholarly work into numerous aspects of language, but only some of it manages to poke out of the top of the water into public view, and the numerous stories about endangered language is one, and the question is why? Of course I wanted to get editors and journalists and consumers of these stories to think about what they’re pitching, assigning, and reading — to take it as a criticism of linguistics or of the communities affected by language loss seems like a deliberate misread.
As a Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) learner, this article is rather pitiful in its lack of interest in communities which are actively working for advancement of their voices. I am an American of Scottish heritage and I will continue to be vigorously involved in support of the mother tongue of the Scottish people, both here and in Scotland itself. There is a very strong cultural community in North America and in Scotland which will persist and resist the perceived decline.
As a linguistic anthropologist who has done work on endangered languages, I was annoyed by several things about this article. There aregood reasons why endangered languages get more media coverage than emerging/hybrid languages: 1) language extinction is happening at a much faster rate than “emergence,” so there are many more such stories to tell; 2) only the former is a scientific and human rights catastrophe. Also, no linguist “loves” those stories — they’re almost uniformly tragic — and they certainly don’t mean anything like what the author says (languages being “unsuited for the times”).
Re. Rivenburgh’s study, the fact that all the articles reviewed were in English says more about the outlets Rivenburgh looked at (and the status of English as the “language of science” in the west), than it does about the field itself. There’s a large literature in Spanish (which I have contributed to), and a small literature in various endangered languages themselves, as well as some media coverage in French as well (referring to African languages).
Later, Erard writes: “it’s clear that the “news” of language extinction has long since ceased to be truly new. This coverage can’t be about calling people to any sort of action.” Of course, articles written by linguists and language advocates can, and should be, and often ARE. But he’s talking about news articles for a general public, who aren’t really in a position to take any kind of effective action.
I’m surprised that Erard doesn’t mention the essential works/scholars in the area of Reversing Language Shift (Fishman, Crystal, Hinton & Hale, Skutnabb-Kangas). If Erard wants to change the ways that journalists write about these issues, he may be tilting at windmills. I hope he’s also TEACHING STUDENTS about it, and advocating more effective;y ways for the survival of small languages.
I agree revitalization efforts may not be about language at all, but about culture-making. Lewis and Simons (2016) EGIDS scale has two levels of language use that can last. (6a) Sustainable orality (when everyone uses the language for communication), and (9) Sustainable identity (when people memorize a few words or phrases of the language to mark their identity). So, when you say revitalization is not about language, but about culture-making, you may be affirming Lewis and Simons’ theory. In other words, we are saying these “language revitalization” efforts help people sustain their identity, not their language.
Dear Michael Erard, your last sentence is the single most bizarre conclusion anyone could come to, mixing the cause and the effect. The conventions of journalism are what they are because the communities _are_ going away, see e.g. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0077056. For getting closer to digital vitality they sure as hell need outsiders’ help. These facts are evident to most journalists, hence the conventions. The conventions are not making the facts, the facts are making the conventions.
The comments on this are pretty ridiculous but unsurprising somehow … very self assured and confident with their conviction, but I wonder do those who wrote them even want to be challenged. Sure they can find so much academic and journalistic endeavors to support their pre existing ideas … so why listen, am I right?
But maybe they would do well to think back and read again and consider what they might be missing earlier … or what relevance their point has – it might be true or what they think is important but such opinions and understandings are far from universal …
Firstly the funding is a clearly relevant factor to how academics and journalists frame their articles to further their careers.. but we have to also ask if this is ethical ? Are universities, media publishers and individual writers using their powers to merely exploit people, cultures and languages for their own gain. They may be convinced that they are helping, that awareness raising is good, that they care, that there is a need to report on this tragic news, but we do need to consider (I believe) what the cost is for communities and languages themselves- ESPECIALLY when these tropes are repeated en mass ..making them become our default understanding and therefore creating a cycle of misunderstanding and belief in this being the norm and tragic conclusion of endangered languages…
In reality I see some languages being spoken again after practical extinction like the language of Kaurna people whose land I am on as I write this. Or the efforts and achievements of Maori people as they go from strength to strength in pushing back after over 100 years of extreme policy and laws which had banned them from speaking their own language and had separated ppl from their lands and support systems within their culture. My friends are in their 20s and 30s and learning Te Reo Maori alongside their 4yo who teach them after school and it’s beautiful to see. And some migrants are learning Te Reo and finding connections between their cultures and first languages in ways that English has failed to provide good translations for… so I think there are many stories to report here… but I do agree that overall there is not an interest in such stories because people are looking for dying language story ..
I think Europeans have connected to others thru pity for too long. That’s how we are taught to feel compassion.. like “oh u know some ppl are sad and hungry..if only they could live like us…we try to help them but we can’t help all of them …it’s inevitable and sad but some ways of life and living don’t make enough money and so they won’t survive”
As a sex worker I know damn well that’s not true, its not that zome of us arenr meant to survive its that we have been actively atracked and killed and deported and our collective memories and knowledge of our place has been wiped out from mainstream records … we are told we don’t belong in future ..like that’s a threat.. when we’ve been told that for 2000+years
And for colonial governments that have tried to kill off or assimilate Indigenous populations since invasion…language death is the latest way of spreading an idea that authentic Indigenous people have died off now… or to prove their myth that Indigenous cultures really aren’t compatible with progress…
Mm governments and policies and attitudes have killed off languages by such apathetic belief as well as self centered belief all should operate around supposed universal progressive values.
Digital vitality isn’t only vitality lolz
And seriously omg outsiders usually aren’t needed…not in the ways u think anyway … maybe just needed to stand up for basic justice and self determination…not to write nostalgic tragedy pieces with underlying assumption that tragic demise is near and definitely not needed when it ends with conclusions being made as to meaning of that
Valid point – we need more discussion on emerging and ‘hybridized’ languages than is currently available.
But I suspect that one of the biggest reasons that the vast majority of linguists who write on language shift tend to romanticize endangered languages and the role of revitalization is that this is one of the few ‘hot’ topics in linguistics that still ‘sells’. Funding can be had for ‘revitalization at-all-costs’ efforts much more easily than for more objective studies which could conclude that revitalization might not be possible in language community X, at least not in a way that moves a language up the vitality scale. And funded research of course helps academics survive in their careers. So it is possible that an emphasis on revitalization may be more the result of a simple desire for academic survival than anything else (which of course brings up the larger academic culture that perpetuates such values).
What is needed is for those interested in this topic to not only ask the diversity question:
-what is lost when an L1 is lost?
but also its complement
– What is gained when an L2 is gained?
Local speech communities are certainly forced to deal with both of these questions every day, choosing the codes that are most beneficial to them in their various social contexts.
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