LINGUIST List 11.366

Sun Feb 20 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Hank Mooney, There are no languages
  2. Ronald Cosper, Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction
  3. Nitti45, Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Message 1: There are no languages

Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2000 15:08:43 -0800
From: Hank Mooney <>
Subject: There are no languages

Juan Uriagereka makes this point, obliquely, in his wonderful book
"Rhyme and Reason" when he has "The Linguist" (a thinly veiled Chomsky)
remark that the English Language doesn't actually exist...
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Message 2: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2000 16:47:10 -0400
From: Ronald Cosper <Ronald.CosperSTMARYS.CA>
Subject: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

A note on level of analysis in linguistics and the reality of language:

To reply to A.F. Gupta, it is true that on one level of analysis (a
micro-level), languages are constructs. However, it would be a
reductionist fallacy to conclude that only people exist. In a sense, any
analytical level is a construct, and that includes the level of the
individual. It is just that because of our ethical systems and our point
of view as humans that the individual seems more than a construct.

This is an important point to make in the context of linguistic theorizing,
due to the impact of the predominantly psychological bias of many brands of
contemporary theory, including formalism and functionalism, I believe one
can say. Although language does have a psychological reality, and this is
important to assert, especially for the study of micro-level phenomena,
such as language acquisition, cognitive aspects of language, and so on,
language is more than the individual. Language has an externality in
relation to the individual. For example, when an individual is acquiring a
language, the language presents itself as a macro-level phenomenon to the
individual for acquisition. Language has a history. It is only by
studying language on the macro-level, that we can learn about "things",
such as language change, language contact, and language maintenance. To
study language as psychological structure cannot explain why, for example,
Chinese is different from English. The individual level perspective could
only explain why individual speakers of Chinese might be confronted with
distinctive problems of acquisition.

I might go farther and suggest that it is the predominantly individualistic
bias of contemporary linguistic theory that accounts for the
marginalization of historical linguistics and the assignment of other
macro-level phenomena to other fields, such as anthropology or sociology.

Good linguistic theory should incorporate both a micro and a macro-level
perspective, to the extent possible. Grammaticalization theory is one
example of a line or work that involves a simultaneous consideration of
both change and structure. We should use special micro-level theories or
special macro-level theories only to extent necessary, after we have used
broader theories to explain as broad a range of phenomena as possible.

Dr. Ronald Cosper			Telephone 902-420-5874
Department of Sociology				 902-429-5871
Linguistics Program			FAX 902-420-5121
Saint Mary's University			E-mail
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Canada, B3H 3C3
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Message 3: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2000 08:01:02 EST
From: Nitti45 <>
Subject: Re: 11.338, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

In a message dated 2/16/00 7:07:07 PM Pacific Standard Time, writes:

 Just to say that we need to remember that languages are constructs.
 There are no languages. Only people performing language and people
 creating abstract notions of language.
 We might as well regret the loss of the crinoline or of penny
 farthing bicycles.
 Anthea Fraser GUPTA

 In response, I say, briefly, "What a view!" Just what was it that the 
writer used to formulate...and express...this thought on the alleged 
non-existence of languages, anyway?
 Having satisfied my visceral urge to let loose with flippant retorts, I 
should now like to proceed to a more serious and more detailed commentary on 
this subject.
 For sake of discussion, let us pose the following question: How can one 
claim that, because a thing is a 'construct,' it therefore does not exist? I 
assume that what is meant here is a *mental* construct. After all, my house 
is a (physical) constuct, but it certainly is a very real existent! Given 
the presumption of this dichotomy, does that mean that things that exist in 
the mind don't 'really' exist? What does this say about the writer's opinion 
of the human mind?
 So, there are "[o]nly people performing language..." and " 
languages." How does one 'perform' that which does not exist? Of course, 
there is also the fact that, to refer to the use of language as mere 
'performance' completely blanks out the crucial role of language as a means 
of concept formation, this being particularly important during the first few 
years of life.
 Oh, excuse me, there I go, "creating abstract notions of language" again! 
 How silly of me! But while I'm at it, I just can't resist the temptation to 
raise another issue, namely: Just what is meant by 'abstract,' anyway? 
Literally, it means, 'taken from.' These "abstract notions" must be 'taken 
from' something. What? I suspect that they are 'abstracted' from concrete 
referents of one sort or another. But how can this be, if "[t]here are no 
languages"? I don't know, but somehow the words of these 'non-existent' 
languages seem to refer to real things. Even more astonishing is the fact 
that these languages, although figments of our collective imagination, of 
course, nevertheless appear to have structures that allow its "performers" to 
make sense of the world they inhabit. 
 Now I should like to refer back to the third paragraph, above. I posed a 
question "for sake of discussion." The question assumed the validity of the 
'language *qua* construct' premise. As suggested above, this word 
'construct' can mean many different things to many different people, in many 
different contexts. One place wherein due caution should be exercised is the 
field of linguistics. Nowadays we speak of 'natural' languages as distinct 
from 'constructed' languages, Esperanto being a well-known example of the 
latter. If one says, "Languages are constructs," this could easily be 
misinterpreted to mean that 'natural' and 'constructed' languages came into 
existence by just the same means as one another. Obviously this cannot be 
the case. Whereas one can say with certainty, for example, "Esperanto was 
*constructed* by Dr. Zamenhof in 1887," no such statement could possibly be 
made about English, Spanish, Chinese, or any other 'natural' language. No, 
these languages *evolved.* No one person made a 'construct' and called it 
'English,' 'Spanish,' 'Chinese' or what have you.
 With regard to the issue of language extinction vs. species extinction, I 
will say that there are reasons to "mourn" the loss of languages, some of 
them more valid than others. As I see it, two of the more valid reasons are 
1) The loss of the culture, of which the extinct language had been a vehicle; 
2) The lost opportunity to gather corporeal data for linguistic research. 
Less valid are political considerations, and then there is sheer sentiment 
which, while we all have it to a greater or lesser extent, can claim no place 
whatever as the basis of scientific judgment. For what concerns biological 
evolution, we mourn the loss of such species as the passenger pigeon, the 
great auk, etc. But in the long view of evolutionary history, be it 
biological or sociological, it will be seen that extinctions must needs 
occur. Their being mourned is not always logical, however. Should we assert 
that every single language and species extinction that has ever come about is 
to be considered an aberration? I think not. Talking about a species' going 
extinct on account of having been wiped out by man is entirely different from 
talking about the extinction of, say, dinosaurs eons before the human species 
existed. So, too, is the systematic extermination of the speakers of 
Tasmanian in 1877 a different matter altogether from the natural dying out 
of, say, Hittite. In this, as in any field of endeavor, matters must be kept 
in context, and in perspective.
 In conclusion, allow me to congratulate the writer of the passage quoted 
at the head of this letter. Seldom have I seen so much thought brought about 
by so few words. Also, may I say that I find in the *Linguistlist* the 
world's finest online organization on the subject of linguistics. If only 
languages really existed, you'd have quite something here! 
Cordially yours,

Richard S. Kaminski

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