LINGUIST List 11.271

Tue Feb 8 2000

Disc: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Robert Orr, Re:11.111, Disc: Species Extinctions

Message 1: Re:11.111, Disc: Species Extinctions

Date: Sun, 6 Feb 2000 16:57:31 -0500
From: Robert Orr <>
Subject: Re:11.111, Disc: Species Extinctions

I will take the liberty of sending in extracts from a work of my own in

LINGUIST List: Vol-11-111

"As pointed out by Laponce 1987: 64, one practical difference between
historical linguistics and evolutionary biology is that, however much one
might lament the loss of diversity entailed, humanity could still function
with only one common language, whereas evolutionary pressures would probably
make it impossible for only one species to monopolise the earth for any
length of time."

- -------------
HL = historical linguistics; EB = evolutionary biology

"Recently the concept of revival has been very prominent in both HL and EB.
Attempts are constantly being made to revive extinct species and languages,
or bring species and languages out of danger.

 In the case of extinct languages and species, very often the materials
needed for revival are incomplete. Inevitably, much essential material is
lost, probably for ever. One need only recall the use of frog DNA in
Jurassic Park to clone dinosaurs (only the best-known, and most glamorous
example, albeit fictional, of recent attempts to revive extinct species), or
the use of American Bison as breeding stock to bring the wisent back from
the brink of extinction (see Ley 1952: 187-189). In HL, less well known,
but providing an apt parallel are the liberties taken by Nance in the
revival of Cornish, see Price 1984: 142-144.

The last aurochs died in 1627, but in 1920 the Heck brothers attempted to
"re-create" the aurochs by back-breeding domestic cattle with aurochs-like
qualities. Heinz Heck, working at the Hellabrunn Zoological Gardens in
Munich managed to breed a race of cattle which might be seen as "aurochs",
see also Ley 1952: 192, Balouet 1990: 39-40. The Heck brothers also
recreated the tarpan, officially extinct since 1879, and thought to be the
ancestor of the domestic horse.

 The advent of cloning is opening up new vistas in the revival of extinct
animals. Currently attempts are underway to revive the mammoth and the
Tasmanian Tiger, both of which became extinct fairly recently, and for which
fairly large amounts of DNA are available. The case of the Tasmanian Tiger
is particularly promising in this context, as there are still some perfectly
preserved embryos in existence. A parallel from HL might be the recent
discoveries of palimpsests in Gothic, which are expanding our knowledge of
that language (cf. the confirmation of the existence of previously
hypothesised lexical items).,


 One phenomenon in HL which may be compared to the use of, e.g., frog DNA in
Jurassic Park is relexification, which involves situations where a language
preserves its original grammatical structure during a period of close
language contact while borrowing most of its lexicon from another language.
Examples may be provided from Welsh and Modern Hebrew, see Orr 1999: 133-134
and the references cited therein, and from South-East Asia, see Matisoff
(1990: 108-109). Of course, such filling in of gaps is not restricted to
the lexicon, nor indeed to dead or "revived' languages. Similar criticism
has been voiced of revived Cornish, which is mostly based on the language of
medieval miracle plays (Price 1984: 134-145). The examples of Hebrew (as
well as Cornish) show that even if language revivalists are successful in
persuading a critical mass of speakers to (re)learn and (re)use dead or
moribund languages, the revived languages often undergo massive structural
borrowings from the native or functional languages of the speakers who are
making the switch (would it be too unkind to refer to such material as
linguistic "frog DNA"?). This is all the more reason to heed the calls,
cited above, for as extensive as possible recording of languages currently
on the brink of extinction.

 For the Tasmanian language(s), M�hlh�usler 1998: 122-128 reports that there
are about 4,000 people in Tasmania who claim descent from the original
Tasmanians, and who are currently attempting to revive Tasmanian. The
amount of extant material is meagre, and what is attested is distorted.

Currently many people in the world seem to be haunted by an impending sense
of catastrophe. These worries often focus on specific areas, e.g. global
warming, massive economic collapse. The fields of linguistics and biology
are no exception.

 One fairly close parallel may be found in the phenomenon of "isolation".
In EB oceanic islands are often seen as "forcing houses for evolution"
(Fortey 1998:240), see also Ward (1994: 213-244). In recent years,
however, all forms of life on such islands have undergone catastrophic
levels of extinction, against a backdrop of extinction throughout the world.
A rapid overview of the relative amount of extinction that has taken place
on small isolated islands may be gained by glancing at the map in Day (1981:

 Similarly, for HL, the existence of small, isolated ("backward")
communities is of paramount importance. Trudgill (1992) illustrates this
point by contrasting linguistic developments in Faroese and Norwegian,
arguing that languages spoken in small isolated communities tend to manifest
all sorts of rare developments over the whole spectrum from phonetics to
syntax. He goes on to caution (1992: 209) that under modern conditions
such communities are becoming harder to find in the modern world, and
therefore languages such as Faroese will find it increasingly hard to
emerge, see also the discussions in Dixon (1997: 111-112), Diamond
(1997:265-292); Schmidt (1985:1-5, 228- 234). In a slightly different
context, a very pessimistic note is sounded by Domokos 1990: 354-355, who
suggests that many of the smaller Finno-Ugric peoples have already "`run out
of time'". Garzon 1998 points to ways in which numerically stronger
languages crowd out smaller ones within a framework of bilingualism. In a
discussion of the death of Cornish, Berresford Ellis 1974: 77, possibly
overly pessimistically, but one can see his point, suggests that "it is only
while a minority language retains a strong monoglot population that it will
exist alongside a major language" ... (1974: 95) "With the loss of the
monoglots in the seventeenth century ...the days of Cornish were clearly
numbered." For EB, such concerns are expressed on a much greater scale by
Ward 1994: 96-97, who points out that biological evolution may have come to
an end in an important sense. He suggests that currently humanity is a vast
reservoir of flesh, waiting to be eaten by predator, but that under normal
circumstances such predators would take about five million years to evolve,
and humanity would have exterminated them long before that, thus blocking
off the normal paths of evolution. Something similar may be happening with
linguistic development - Trudgill does not actually make this leap, but
seems to come fairly close to doing so.

 Several species have only just been recorded as they were becoming extinct.
This is also true of minority languages, sometimes with unique
constructions. One example might be provided by the contrasting
descriptions of Dyribal contributed by Dixon (1972) and Schmidt (1985). It
is clear from the accounts in Dixon (1972, 1983) and Schmidt (1985) that the
recording of Dyirbal was a close-run thing. Dixon's main informant for
Dyirbal passed away in 1975, about a dozen years after Dixon started work on
it, and the language was described as `dying' a decade later (Schmidt

 Using Hawaii, Madagascar, and New Zealand as examples, Ward 1994: 213-244
cites data to suggest that a massive extinction is already under way,
comparable to those at the end of the Permian and the Cretaceous. This
round of extinction has been flightless birds Later many of these species
became extinct, either through competition with introduced species, or
habitat destruction - both the latter factors being caused by humans.

 In EB humans are the "killer species" par excellence. It has also been
suggested, however, that "killer languages" also exist. These are mainly
European, although one might add Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin and Indonesian to
the lists given in Dixon 1997 and M�hlh�usler 1998: 18-21. It should be
noted, however, that not all the "victim languages" are non-European either,
cf. the example of Celtic.


Balouet, Jean-Christophe. 1990 Extinct Species of the World. Barrons: New

Berresford Ellis, Peter. 1974. The Cornish Language and Its Literature.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Day, David. 1981. The Doomsday Book of Animals. London: London Editions.

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton.

Dixon, Robert M. W. 1972. The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

- --------. 1983. Searching for Aboriginal Languages. St. Lucia: University
of Queensland Press.

- --------. 1997. The Rise and Fall of Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Domokos, P�ter. 1990. "Epics of the Eastern Uralic Peoples". Religion,
Myth, and Folklore in the World's Epics, ed. by Lauri Honko, 343-358.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Fortey, Richard.1998. Life. An Unauthorised Biography. A Natural History of
the First 4,000,000,000 Years on Earth. London: Flamingo.

Garzon, Susan, R. McKenna Brown, Julia Becker Richards & Wuqu' Ajpub'.
1998. The Life of Our Language: Kaqchikel Maya Maintenance, Shift and
Revitalisation. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Laponce J.A. 1987. Languages and Their Territories. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press.

Ley, Willy. 1952. The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn. New York:

Matisoff, James. 1990 "On Megalocomparison", Language 66:1: 106-120.

M�hlh�usler, Peter. 1998. Linguistic Ecology: Language Change and
Linguistic Imperialism in the Pacific Region. London & New York:

Orr, Robert. 1999. "Evolutionary Biology and Historical Linguistics",
Review of R.M.W. Dixon, The Rise and Fall of Languages, Diachronica XVI:1:

Price, Glanville. 1984. The Languages of Britain. Edward Arnold.

Schmidt, Anette. 1985. Young People's Dyirbal: An Example of Language Death
from Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 1992. "Dialect Typology and Social Structure", Language
Contact: Theoretical and empirical studies ed. by E.H. Jahr, 195-211,
Berlin & New York:
Mouton de Gruyter.

Ward, Peter. 1994. The End of Evolution. New York: Bantam.

Robert Orr
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue