LINGUIST List 11.306

Mon Feb 14 2000

Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. S.A. Castell, Re: 11.271, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

Message 1: Re: 11.271, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2000 19:00:22 GMT
From: S.A. Castell <engsacARTS-01.NOVELL.LEEDS.AC.UK>
Subject: Re: 11.271, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Language Extinctions

This is a reply to Robert Orr's really interesting work on biology and 
linguistics. Just some first thoughts...

The parallels between the two areas of EB and HL are strong. 
However to be devil's advocate for a moment, how about a different 
way of looking at both - looking within the larger languages for the 
most exciting areas of change, looking within the human body for 
the fastest-evolving life forms. 

Perhaps as dispassionate linguists we should acknowledge the 
inevitable rise to power of certain killer languages? It seems we 
spend a lot of time whinging about the loss of fringe languages... (!) 
we all know that though they are beautiful and complex, they 
cannot be preserved alive (in their natural habitats) without a vast 
lifestyle change none of us are really prepared to make. The 
parallel is our worry about rainforest species extinction even as we 
tuck into our MacDonald's. 

In EB, why not watch the progress of super-bacteria, viruses and 
different sorts of cancers? Humans are increasingly subject to 
these kind of predators, often because of risks incurred by their 
lifestyles.(Western diet/medicine etc) They are new predators 
which bring down the hegemony of mankind from within and cause 
evolutionary changes in humanity. And serve us right. 

Similarly, in HL, though English for example is 'eating up' other 
languages in the same way that human development 'eats up' 
tigers, rainforest species, etc, it is itself mutating and evolving as a 
result of new sociolinguistic pressures; new evolutionary pressures 
if you will - upon it. 

I know there's more to language change than sociolinguistics, but I 
doubt it would take five million years to evolve whole new languages 
even if we were in the hypothetical position of starting with one.

The new languages we came out with, however, might have 
distinctly different profiles from the ones we are used to seeing 
disappearing. They'd have different features, just as the predators 
which can be considered fittest for the human-dominated 
environment of today are not highly evolved species of mammals 
insects or birds but tough strains of rapidly-evolving bacteria. 

Sarah Castell
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