LINGUIST List 11.386

Wed Feb 23 2000

Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

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


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  1. Larry Trask, Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction
  2. A.F. GUPTA, Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Message 1: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Mon, 21 Feb 2000 08:58:29 +0000
From: Larry Trask <larrytcogs.susx.ac.uk>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction


> In a message dated 2/16/00 7:07:07 PM Pacific Standard Time,
> linguistlinguistlist.org 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.

Remarkable. Of course it is true that individual languages are not, in general,
like cut and polished diamonds, with hard, glittering edges. But it is going too
far to conclude that therefore individual languages do not exist at all.

Compare baseball. Before the 1850s, there was no set of agreed rules for playing
baseball. Instead, each town played the game with somewhat different rules from
every other town, and games between towns required a certain amount of negotiation
before they could be played. Only in the 1850s did a widely agreed set of rules
emerge.

The view above would therefore have us believe that, before the 1850s, at least,
no such game as baseball existed, but only people performing baseball and people
creating abstract notions of baseball. Is this plausible?

In fact, the National League and the American League play the game by slightly
different rules today. Should we therefore conclude that Major League Baseball
does not exist, at least as a game? Is the game no more than a fantasy born of
Commissioner Selig's fevered brow? ;-)


Larry Trask
COGS
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
UK

larrytcogs.susx.ac.uk
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Message 2: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Date: Mon, 21 Feb 2000 11:19:41 GMT
From: A.F. GUPTA <engafgARTS-01.NOVELL.LEEDS.AC.UK>
Subject: Re: 11.366, Disc: Species Extinction vs Language Extinction

Nitti45aol.com (Richard S. Kaminski) wrote:

> 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; 

This is the kind of argument that worries me in the extinction 
debate. I see culture as inherently protean, diffuse and inevitably 
changing. The culture I have now is not the same culture as that of 
any of my grandparents. I also do not make a firm bond between 
language and culture. We see that people can share 'a language' and 
have 'different' cultures. Language also changes as culture changes, 
perhaps more so than culture being changed by language. So this is 
not a valid reason for mourning,

>2) The lost opportunity to gather
> corporeal data for linguistic research.

I think this is definitely NOT a valid reason. Historians might well 
want to travel back in time too but I don't think we should look on 
people as living data banks. We have to take on board what another 
correspondent called the fact of language change.


> Less valid are political
> considerations, and then there is sheer sentiment ... in the long view of
> evolutionary history, be it biological or sociological, it will be
> seen that extinctions must needs occur. ... 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. 

But the thing to regret here is the dreadfulness of the human 
behaviour, and what it implied about British culture. It's hard to 
say what constitutes 'natural' vs 'unnatural' change. In Singapore, 
for example, there has been a gradual process of language shift, 
especially a shift from varieties of Chinese other than Mandarin to 
Mandarin and to English. This shift has been encouraged by 
government and by changes in the wider world -- it has elements of 
the 'natural' and the 'unnatural'. My personal regret in the shift 
has been that there are children who cannot speak to their 
grandparents, but that is a loss at the human, individual, level. 

What about the gains? The dreadfulness of slavery gave
rise to the glory of creoles. So that it is possible to celebrate 
creoles without implying praise for the system that alllowed them to 
emerge.

Dear me, this is getting very philosophical for a poor sociolinguist.

Anthea
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Anthea Fraser GUPTA : http://www.leeds.ac.uk/english/$staff/afg
School of English
University of Leeds
LEEDS LS2 9JT
UK
 * * * * * * * * * * * *
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