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?
Choosing survivors

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¡Euskara es una patria! Language as homeland

The Basque people continue to use their language to define themselves.
The Basque people continue to use their language to define themselves.

When I visited the Basque country this July, I was amazed at how this minority language had survived centuries as a minority language. At a historical moment when people declare with gloom the end to most languages on earth, Basque is spoken by fewer than a million people, and this number is growing.

I spoke to a Basque teacher for adults in the Basque country. He told me that the Basques have always fought to keep their language alive in the face of competing languages. The language survives, he believes, because of the way that Basques conceive of their language. While many peoples consider their territory, religion, or bloodline as the foundation of their home, the Basques consider their language itself as their homeland or, in Spanish, their patria.
Language as homeland

I saw language loss happen

Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?
Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?

I can see language loss happening under my nose. It’s a process that takes years, but when you see it, you despair for the health of a language.

This week I took my kids to get yogurt, and the young cashier was Somali-American. She had an American look to her, even though she wore a hijab. My daughter thought she might go to her school. I greeted her in Somali.

Maalin wanaagsan! “Good day!”

She gave me a blank look.

That’s when I saw it happen.
Language death

What can language-preservation accomplish?

What do we learn when we open unknown languages to others?
What can we teach when we open unknown languages to others?

Last week I met a local Anyuak gentleman from Ethiopia, a people numbering about 200,000-300,000. He is excited about documenting more of his language on-line, and our conversation thrilled me while it made me think deeply about language-preservation and its goals.

I have always been a fan of less well-known languages. When I was looking at universities, I remember thinking about the University of Oklahoma because of their Native American linguistics studies. I especially loved my college course in linguistics field methods that taught us how to study a language in its native habitat. Language death makes me sad and frustrated. At the Polyglot Conference in October I got to meet the founders of Wikitongues, an exciting project striving to document all living human languages.

But last week I was giving this line of thinking a second thought. Am I just acting precious about languages? Languages have been dying for millennia, and but we only noticed it about a hundred years ago. Just like animals species have been going extinct since the dinosaurs, languages don’t last forever.

We learned, though, that when we affect the ecosphere so quickly that species die off very quickly, humanity harms itself. In the same way, studying the linguistic ecosphere—“ecolinguism” as I’ve called it—brings to our attention lesser-known languages. By noticing those languages, we challenge ourselves and our assumptions, while we learn from those on the margins.
Why preserve languages?