January 13, 2008

Quickly, before they're gone, or else...?

At the water cooler earlier, Ben Zimmer told me about this NYT A&E article on the documentary The Linguists, which I mentioned last month. The focus of the NYT article is on documentary filmmaker Jeremy Newberger, but the urgency suggested by the article's title ("Racing to Capture Vanishing Languages") requires some explanation:

"We're trying to capture a story in a limited amount of time, and the linguists are trying to recover a language before it dies, which might even happen while we are there," Mr. Miller said. "Everyone was on edge."

Dr. Anderson and Dr. Harrison worked on a report issued in September indicating that out of the world's 7,000 languages, one is lost every few weeks. It is a human rights issue, Dr. Anderson said, as many native languages are silenced because of colonialism. Dying languages could also hold the key to finding native treatments for disease.

And then there are the less tangible reasons. "Language is essentially a historical library of information about a people and a culture," Dr. Anderson said. "There are a lot of people who intrinsically value the search for knowledge."

This summarizes much of K. David Harrison's argument in his book When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (which I announced here), though of course I think it's still worth reading the book for more details (and seeing the documentary whenever it's distributed).

Coincidentally, there is an interestingly relevant book review in the most recent issue of Language (Vol. 83, No. 4; Dec. 2007), the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. The review (pp. 883-886) is by Ron Butters, Professor of English and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, and the book under review is Language in the USA: Themes for the twenty-first century, edited by Edward Finegan and John Rickford, with a foreword by Language Log's own Geoff Nunberg.

I was eager to read the review because I used a few chapters of this book last year as background reading for a large, lower-division undergraduate course at UCSD called Languages and Cultures of America, and I'm currently considering requiring the entire book when I next teach the course. Overall, the review is not very positive -- you can get a sense from the concluding, single-sentence paragraph: "In the end, the virtues of this book as 'textbook' may outweigh the lapses." Many of the criticisms either do not apply to my reasons for using the book in my class, or are things I think I can make up for with other readings or in class discussion. But the severest (and most extensive) criticism that Butters offers concerns the book's overall take on the kind of topic addressed by Harrison and Anderson in their work. I quote most of it here, leaving out some specifics where I feel it's appropriate:

This is [an] important aspect of this book that students [...] will find perplexing: the muddied, contradictory, and sometimes seemingly arrogant political center of parts of the book with respect to the complex issues surrounding linguistic discrimination, multiculturalism, language death, and the hegemony of English (particularly those varieties spoken and written by the rich and powerful). [There is an] all-too-characteristic polemical approach to political issues involving language: the linguistic cognoscenti know what is right and wrong when it comes to language issues, and the public is blind and ignorant and selfish, and they'd better shape up. The linguists in this book for the most part take it as unquestionable and in need of no rational argument that [quoting Nunberg's preface] 'ongoing efforts to preserve Native American languages' are always a simple social good; that 'a drift towards bilingualism' is not at all 'dangerous' in any important way; that 'common sense' notions about language 'usually amount to no more than myths and folklore ... hardly the grounds that you would want to rely on for making policy'.

Linguists have now hammered many generations of American students with our contrary opinions about normal people's linguistic beliefs, without notable success. The most pliant undergraduates may parrot such ideas in response to exam questions because they know their grades depnd on pleasing the linguist. For the most part, though, they go right on believing what the general culture and 'common sense' leads them to believe. Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves why this is the case.

Much of the problem is apparent in the rhetorical stances of many of the authors in this volume. They are preaching to the choir in a church full of dull-witted pagans from another, very wicked planet. [...] Apart from a few asides about the necessity for Americans to know second languages in the global village, [one author] nowhere explains to his readers WHY the USA would be a better place if the primacy of English were less than it is today, or WHY the apparent gradual death of Yiddish (his example) is such a great national loss [...] Students--and liberal humanities professors, for that matter--know in their hearts that the linguistic melting pot has always been the great American tradition, and that it has been viewed almost totally positively by everybody but linguists, and that there are powerful common-sense arguments in its favor. Dismissive scolding has little effect against such engrained ideologies.

[Another pair of authors] note with alarm that the number of speakers of the indigenous [Native American] languages is decreasing, and that many are 'in extreme danger of extinction' [...]. What they do not really explain is why this is necessarily anything other than a rather good thing. Shouldn't we WANT to 'integrate'--read 'absorb'--these worthy people into mainstream economic and cultural life? Isn't it just inevitable? [The authors'] answer [...], to someone who believes in the prevalent American linguistic ideologies, seems both effetely romantic and hideously self-serving: (a) 'When we lose a language, it means a "tremendous loss to the cultural richness and distinctness of the native communities" (Goddard 1996:3)'; and (b) 'the loss of linguistic diversity is a loss to scholarship and science'. [Note the parallel with the quoted passage from the NYT article above--EB.] Most of the students and other naifs who may be forced to read this book come from families who wear nice clothes and live in nice houses with numerous electronic appliances and good foreign cars in the driveway; most of the rest come from families who are struggling to find the means to live that way. Should people really be forced to 'preserve' languages if to do so might stand in their way of achieving middle-class comforts--even if they get some vague additional promise of 'cultural richness'--simply because linguists want to be able to study the living languages? As the two young men from Jalisco who have been doing my landscaping might put it, 'distinctness of the native community' won't buy me no iPod.

This is emphatically NOT to say that the public myths are simply 'right' nor even that all the authors in the volume are thus lacking in nuance and tact. [...]

Don't know about you, but this has certainly made me think hard about how I will approach these 'complex issues' in my future courses.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at January 13, 2008 08:50 PM