Let them die

The preservation of dying languages and cultures is pointless and reactionary. People want to join modernity
November 20, 2000

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.

The whole point of a language is to communicate. As the Mexican historian and translator Miguel Leon-Portilla has put it, "In order to survive, a language must have a function." A language spoken by one person, or even a few hundred, is not a language at all. It is like a child's secret code. It is, of course, enriching to learn other languages and delve into other cultures. But it is enriching not because different languages and cultures are unique, but because making contact across barriers of language and culture allows us to expand our own horizons and become more universal in outlook.

In bemoaning "cultural homogenisation," campaigners for linguistic diversity fail to understand what makes a culture dynamic and responsive. It is not the fracturing of the world into as many different tongues as possible; it is rather the overcoming of barriers to social interaction. The more universally we can communicate, the more dynamic our cultures will be, because they will be more open to new ways of thinking and doing.

At the core of the preservers' argument is the belief that a particular language is linked to a particular way of life and vision of the world. "Each language has its own window on the world," write Nettle and Romaine. It's an idea which derives from 19th century Romantic notions of cultural difference. "Each nation speaks in the manner it thinks," wrote the German poet Johann Gottfried Herder, "and thinks in the manner it speaks." For Herder, the nature of a people was expressed through its Volksgeist-the unchanging spirit of a people. Language was crucial to the delineation of a people because "in it dwell the world of tradition, history, religion, principles of existence; its heart and soul."

The human capacity for language certainly shapes our ways of thinking. But most linguists have long since given up on the idea that people's perceptions of the world, and the kinds of concepts they hold, are determined by the particular language they speak. It is absurd to suppose that all French speakers have a common view of the world, thanks to a common language.

But if the Romantic idea of language has little influence, the Romantic idea of human differences certainly does. The belief that different peoples have unique ways of understanding the world became, in the 19th century, the basis of a racial view of the world. Herder's Volksgeist developed into the notion of racial makeup, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential, and the basis for division and difference within humankind.

Today, biological notions of racial difference have fallen into disfavour, thanks to the experience of Nazism. But while racial science has been discredited, racial thinking has not. It has simply been re-expressed in cultural rather than biological terms. Cultural pluralism has refashioned the idea of race for the post-Holocaust world, with its claim that diversity is good in itself and that humanity can be parcelled up into discrete groups, each with its own particular way of life, mode of expression, and unique "window upon the world." The contemporary argument for the preservation of linguistic diversity, liberally framed though it may be, draws on the same philosophy which gave rise to ideas of racial difference. That is why the arguments of Popham, Crystal, Nettles and Romaine-on this issue at least-would have found favour with the late Enoch Powell. "Every society, every nation is unique," he wrote. "It has its own past, its own story, its own memories, its own ways, its own languages or ways of speaking." Language preservers may be acting from the best of intentions-but they are treading on dangerous ground.

The linguistic campaigners' debt to Romanticism has left them, like most multiculturalists, with a confused idea of rights. When Nettle and Romaine suggest, in Vanishing Voices, that "the right of people to exist, to practise and produce their own language and culture, should be inalienable," they are conflating two kinds of rights-individual rights and group rights. An individual certainly has the right to speak whatever language he or she wants, and to engage in whatever cultural practices they wish to, in private. But it is not incumbent on anyone to listen to them, nor to provide resources for the preservation of either their language or their culture. The reason that Eyak will soon be extinct is not because Marie Smith Jones has been denied her rights, but because no one else wants to, or is capable of, speaking the language. This might be tragic for Marie Smith Jones-and frustrating for professional linguists-but it is not a question of rights. Neither a culture, nor a way of life, nor yet a language, has a God-given "right to exist."

Language campaigners also confuse political oppression and the loss of cultural identity. Groups such as Turkish Kurds are banned from using their language as part of a wider campaign by the Turkish state to deny Kurds their rights. But most languages die out, not because they are suppressed, but because native speakers yearn for a better life. Speaking a language such as English or Spanish, and discarding traditional habits, is often a ticket to modernity. But Nettles and Romaine seem to disapprove of modernity. They want the peoples of the third world to follow "local ways of life" rather than receive a western education. This is tantamount to saying that such people should be excluded from the modern mainstream to which the rest of us belong. But there is nothing inherently noble or authentic about local ways of life; they are often simply degrading and backbreaking.

"Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial for a Breton or a Basque to be a member of the French nationality, admitted on equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship than to sulk on his own rocks, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world." So wrote John Stuart Mill more than 100 years ago. It would have astonished him that, in the 21st century, there are those who think that sulking on your own rock is a state worth preserving.

So what if half the world's languages are on the verge of extinction? Let them rest in peace. n