Arabs and Italians: Do we actually care about language death?

Fight for every member of the ecosystem--even for the less beautiful or "exotic"
Fight for every member of the ecosystem–even for the more plain and less “exotic.”

People talk about the tragedy of language death, but much of the worry focuses on losing the “exotic.” We worry terribly about indigenous Canadian and Australian languages, but not about other languages.

Recently I read about the dialect(s) of Arabic spoken in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which encouraged me to reflect on the potential death of the dialect of a major language. English is becoming so pervasive that children and even young adults cannot speak Arabic comfortably. The nonchalant attitude of the interviewees towards Arabic made me sad.

Also, I learned about the endangered Milanese dialect of Italian. The heart of a folk-music scene in the 1960s, it is spoken by only 2% of the population today.

Italian and Arabic: two well-known languages, not terribly exotic. No money is going into preserving these dialects.

Why do we care about indigenous languages dying, but not about other, less exotic, deaths?

We live in a society that allows languages to die. Our methods of keeping languages alive do not work effectively, and we don’t know how many generations those languages will survive after our efforts—even successful ones—end.

Those who desire to keep vulnerable languages alive and viable must work on the exotic and the unexotic, just as the ecologist must care as much for the fungus as for the orchid. The environment needs diversity for everything to function well, so does the linguasphere.

Those dialects die the same way as any language dies. The academic definition of a language vs. a dialect is not relevant. English-speaking developers and engineers, along with workers from the British Commonwealth, came to the UAE in the 1970s and 80s. Their language represented progress, knowledge, and success. Arabic began to represent the opposite: conservatism, ignorance, and failure.

In Milan, post-war industrial growth enticed immigrants from throughout Italy and beyond. The dialect became more “standard,” to the extent that today addressing someone in the local dialect in public will get you accused of being rude.

You can find a dialect teacher in Milan, and one entrepreneur has started Arabic preschools in Dubai, but one doubts they can turn the tide.

The problem is that people follow the power. English and Standard Italian brought money and power with them, so one who hoped for either gave up their tie to their ancestors for personal gain. They built a society which could no longer afford space for these “poor,” “backwards” dialects.

The mechanism for keeping dying languages alive is the same for keeping these dialects: make space for them. We must find a way to reach out to their speakers and reverse the cycle of shame that continues to reduce their numbers. We all have a duty to connect with others in their languages.

As an English-speaker, I can give away my power. I can insist on speaking Arabic in Abu Dhabi. If I come to Milan as an Italian-learner, I can choose to learn the local dialect rather than the Standard. I can help create space for more languages.

Do you know of dying languages that don’t enjoy the perks of being “exotic”? How do we protect those ones, too?

By Bureau of Land Management [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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