LINGUIST List 11.314

Tue Feb 15 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Alex V. Kravchenko, Species extinction vs. language extinction
  2. Marc Hamann, Re: 11.306, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions
  3. Jonathan Centner, Re: 11.306, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions

Message 1: Species extinction vs. language extinction

Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2000 09:11:10 -0600
From: Alex V. Kravchenko <kravchenkopanam.edu>
Subject: Species extinction vs. language extinction

The discussion seems to be very interesting inasmuch as the issue of
historical (evolutional) development of natural language is concerned.
However, this is exactly the point that appears to be missing, since the
inertia of tradition in linguistics resists treatment of language as a
biological cognitive environment in the sense of Maturana 1975. Were it not
the case, it would have become obvious a long time ago that what is
happening to "fringe" and other less resilient languages, is unavoidable,
historically justified, and beneficial for the "suffering" language
communities as it enables them to adapt to, and survive in, the
everchanging natural environment in which language plays a decisive part as
a system for storing, processing, retrieving, and exchanging information --
which, at least in one possible sense of the term, may be viewed as the
product of cognition as a biological function of a living organism. 
The two biological priorities of human existence are survival and
reproduction. These existential imperatives by and large depend on how well
man can adapt to the changing world around him, how flexible and effective
the adaptation mechanism is, that is, how well man can adjust to the
environment. The more relevant information he can access and process per
time unit, the better are his chances to survive and reproduce (which,
basically, explains the evolutional unavoidability of information
technology era the humanity has entered). 
Thus, there are no "killer" languages. There are languages that, at a
certain point in time, fail to provide an adequate environmental niche to
fit in the natural human spesies' environmental habitat, and the species'
drive for survival makes it "switch" to a different niche, or change the
existing niche to make it biologically functional again. 
Likewise, talk of "linguistic bacteria" is nothing but a vivid metaphor
(after all, "we live by metaphors"), unless someone tries to engineer an
alternative path for language development (and we have a good example of
that with the linguistic PC "craze" raging continent-wide), when an attempt
is made to adjust the environment to the species. If this happens in the
long run -- then talk of impeding disaster will be certainly justified, for
the species may find itself on the brink of extinction, and it may be too
late, even for a close escape. 
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Message 2: Re: 11.306, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions

Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2000 13:10:19 -0500
From: Marc Hamann <gmhberlove.com>
Subject: Re: 11.306, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions


>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.


The problem with this is that unlike biological systems, the "fitness" of a 
language has nothing to do with its structure, but rather is a function of 
the coincident economic, technological and political strength of the 
culture that speaks it. (Of course this assumes that the strong 
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is false.)

Therefore, it is unlikely that the actual structure of "supervirus" 
language would be any different than any other, except for those features 
which result from being learned by large numbers of non-native 
speakers. This latter process tends to resemble creolization (loss of 
inflection, tendency to SVO, etc) which rather than introducing novelty 
tends to "simplify" languages in similar ways regardless of the parents.
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Message 3: Re: 11.306, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions

Date: Mon, 14 Feb 2000 21:37:11 -0500
From: Jonathan Centner <tnerhamptons.com>
Subject: Re: 11.306, Disc: Species Extinctions vs Lang Extinctions

Sarah Castell wrote:

>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.

I could not follow you well enough to address you point by point; I just
want to admit of another deficiency of mine : I don't get how language
in general gives us any sort of fitness for survival, let alone
phylogenise into prey/ predator relationships among its possessors. I guess
English has a bigger dictionary than most; but that doesn't really get to
the point either. Isn't it something else we should be talking about? All
I have read about language suggest overwhelming commonality among the
instantiations of it.

If I have missed some wit, I'm sorry, I just don't understand what you are
talking about.

Jonathan Centner
Southampton, New York
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