The preservation of dying languages and cultures is pointless and reactionary. People want to join modernityby Kenan Malik / November 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
There are about 6,000 languages in the world today. Shortly there will be one fewer. Eighty-one-year-old Marie Smith Jones is the last living speaker of Eyak, an Alaskan language. When she dies, so will her language. Over the past few decades many languages have died in this fashion. In 1996, for example, Carlos Westez, known as Red Thunder, took a Native American language, Catawba, with him to his grave.
At least half of the world’s 6,000 languages are expected to disappear over the next century; some say that by the year 3000, just 600 languages will remain. According to the American Summer Institute of Linguistics, there are 51 languages with only one speaker left. Such accelerated disappearance has galvanised into action an increasingly vocal campaign to preserve “linguistic diversity.” In an obituary of Carlos Westez, the writer Peter Popham warned that “when a language dies” we lose “the possibility of a unique way of perceiving and describing the world.” Despairing of the “impact of a homogenising monoculture upon our way of life,” Popham worried about the “spread of English carried by American culture, delivered by Japanese technology” and “the hegemony of a few other transnational languages: Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Hindi.” The linguist David Crystal echoed these sentiments in a Prospect essay last year. “We should care about dying languages,” he argued, “for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.”
Now a new book, Vanishing Voices, by the anthropologist Daniel Nettle and linguist Suzanne Romaine, links the campaign to preserve languages to the efforts to protect minority cultures, in the face of what they regard as aggressive globalisation and cultural imperialism. Language death they say “is symptomatic of cultural death: a way of life disappears with the death of a language.” “Every people,” they add, “has a right to their own language, to preserve it as a cultural resource, and to transmit it to their children.”
Campaigners for linguistic diversity portray themselves as liberal defenders of minority rights, protecting the vulnerable against the forces of global capitalism. But their campaign has much more in common with reactionary, backward-looking visions, such as William Hague’s campaign to “save the pound” or Roger Scruton’s paean to a lost Englishness. All seek to preserve the unpreservable, and all are possessed of an impossibly nostalgic view of what constitutes a culture.