At the beginning of each semester, Lise Dobrin asks the undergraduates who take her Languages of the World class at the University of Virginia if they’ve ever heard or read about endangered languages. Fifteen years ago, only a few had; nowadays everyone raises a hand.
Why the shift? Because the popular media has done so many stories about the extinction of thousands of minority languages. In mid-December, Google News listed 3,870 articles containing the phrase “endangered languages” — and only about 130 with “emerging languages” or “hybrid languages,” a term that refers to emerging tongues. Clearly extinction and death are the more popular topic.
What does this popularity say about us? (By “us,” I mean people in industrialized countries who consume media in languages that aren’t endangered.) We love stories about dying languages and their last speakers for the same reasons that we love stories about the last buffalo, the last passenger pigeon, or the last cowboy: They confirm an evolutionary story we tell ourselves about what’s fit for the modern world. Sure, we might seem to be mourning the passing of these worlds gone by, but the eulogies implicitly tell a social Darwinist story in which minority languages succumb to modernity because they’re unsuited for the times.
The literature of “Last Things,” in which the modern civilization and its imperatives are unquestioned, is not a recent phenomenon. As the anthropologist Genese Marie Sodikoff writes in the foreword to the 2011 book “The Anthropology of Extinction,” a “discourse of nostalgia” reigned among Europeans of the 19th century, who “waxed nostalgic over the ‘primitive races’ killed by firearms and foreign germs” and “elegized what they perceived to be living relics of their evolutionary past and regretted the violence done to cultural diversity.” We fetishize vanishing species or cultural forms, even as we’re complicit in their demise. The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo called this an “imperialist nostalgia:” “A person kills somebody, then mourns the victim.”
When I entered graduate school for linguistics in the early 1990s, linguists were already starting to raise the alarm about language extinction. In “The World’s Languages in Crisis,” an academic piece for the discipline’s flagship journal, Language, Michael Krauss wrote, “The Eyak language of Alaska now has two aged speakers; Mandan has six, Osage five, Abenaki-Penobscot 20, and Iowa has five fluent speakers.” Krauss, who has since retired from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, urgently addressed his fellow linguists: “We must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90 percent of the very field to which it is dedicated.”
A decade later, I had finished my degrees and was writing about language and linguistics for magazines and newspapers, but I never did a straight-up story about endangered languages because I couldn’t bear to repeat the usual tropes: the magical indigene, a wrinkled elder sitting by a fire, the last living repository of cultural knowledge encoded in the language that was about to vanish forever; the heroic linguist who made sacrifices to capture the last shreds of the language with dictionaries, grammars, video, and audio; and the divided youth from the community who knows he or she should speak the language but still doesn’t.
You would be hard-pressed to find a piece of journalism about endangered languages that doesn’t invoke these tropes. In a 2011 paper in the journal Public Understanding of Science, the media studies scholar Nancy Rivenburgh at the University of Washington looked at 595 news articles about endangered languages to analyze how the issue had been presented or framed. The articles appeared between 1971 and 2006 in outlets in 15 western industrialized countries (and all were written in English). Nearly 40 percent began with a personal story about last speakers, and only half of the articles viewed language extinction sympathetically.
Throughout the articles, three frames predominated, Rivenburgh found. One placed the roots of the problem with speakers of the language. If they didn’t want to speak their language anymore, that was depicted as their choice. A second frame put language endangerment in the context of intractable global forces, such as modernization or pressure from major languages like English, Spanish, or Chinese. This suggested that extinction was inevitable. And the third frame concerned the role of historical forces, like governments refusing to provide education in mother tongues or even punishing people for speaking them.
To be sure, these framings may have changed; media tropes are durable but they can also shift. In recent years, more stories have focused on technologies — apps, websites, fonts, Unicode — that aid revitalization and increase a language’s online presence. Still, 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. In fact, Rivenburgh concluded from her study that media coverage “treat[s] the radical disappearance of languages in a way that would promote public complacency.”
In August, New York magazine ran a story called “The Race to Study a Dying Sign Language Before It Disappears.” This one was about the al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, or ABSL, which spontaneously arose several generations ago in a community in the Negev desert. What makes ABSL fascinating is that scientists are able to see the evolution of a new language as it happens. (I know because I wrote about ABSL for New Scientist and also about young sign languages in Oaxaca, Mexico, for Al Jazeera America.)
Then, about two-thirds of the way through, the New York magazine story pivots to the Last Things tropes: “But as globalization corrodes the borders that once insulated these small communities, their languages are vanishing.” In quick succession, here they come: the threatened way of life, the pragmatic native speaker (“We can’t preserve everything”), the languages as precious treasures. (“But, he adds, when ABSL dies, so too will an opportunity to understand ‘everything that comes with it.’”)
I’m not saying that language endangerment and extinction shouldn’t be deeply significant to native communities and to linguistic science, or that threatened languages aren’t important to celebrate and sustain. But when issues like these are so visible in mainstream publications whose audiences don’t or didn’t speak minority languages — and when there are real advances in scientific understanding other than death and extinction — something else has to be going on. Shaylih Muehlmann, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of British Columbia, articulated what that might be in a paper about the countdown of last things — speakers, birds, fish, water resources — in a Mexican indigenous community she studies: “It is hard to avoid the impression that there is a certain pleasure with this spectacle of extinction, or at the least a powerful anticipation,” she writes.
As another linguistic anthropologist, Alexandra Jaffe of California State University, Long Beach, recently told me, “Expressing support for endangered languages is ‘cheap.’” These speaker populations are so small that they do not represent a real threat to any cultural or political agendas. Contrast this, she says, with how little journalism is done about how languages of cultural heritage, such as Spanish, are spoken less often. Such reportage might explore the impact of that decline from the community’s perspective. “These groups of speakers are larger and more troublesome, and supporting them raises real budgetary issues,” she wrote in an email.
So what new frames and tropes could journalists use for telling stories about minority languages? One possibility lies in asking the question “For whom does it matter?” Linguists and anthropologists generally object to portrayals of languages and cultures as having some natural essence that looks the same for all users and observers. All languages are changing and aren’t somehow magically frozen in time. So don’t portray them as immutable, priceless treasures that will be lost forever when the last speaker goes. Those looking for models might also look at this article from a newsletter from Listuguj First Nation in Quebec. The writer interviewed many people actively engaged in learning Mi’gmaq and didn’t use the tropes of endangerment, extinction, or death.
Rather than focusing on death, journalists might also write about resilience: What is it that helped a community’s language survive as long as it did? Stories of linguistic and cultural resilience might be useful to audiences outside of indigenous communities.
Dobrin, the linguistic anthropologist at the University of Virginia, pointed out that language revitalization projects often fail to increase the use of the language. So if their success is measured by how much more a language is spoken, then the story has to be that these projects shouldn’t be undertaken.
Still, from another perspective, they are very much worth it, Dobrin said — if language revitalization is seen as something people do because they like to do it together, whether or not a large group of native speakers end up with more of the language. “These efforts may not be about language at all,” she said. “They are about drawing upon the past to make a satisfying present.” In fact, it’s about culture-making. As the conventions of journalism seem to be currently arranged, such a story would be an affront, because it says that indigenous communities aren’t going away, and that they don’t need outsiders’ help.
Michael Erard has written about language and linguistics for Science, The New York Times, Aeon, and other publications. He is the author of “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.”