LINGUIST List 13.878

Fri Mar 29 2002

Disc: Econonmic Value of Lang Diversity

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Geoffrey Sampson, Re: 13.871, Disc: New: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

Message 1: Re: 13.871, Disc: New: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

Date: Fri, 29 Mar 2002 11:58:34 +0000
From: Geoffrey Sampson <>
Subject: Re: 13.871, Disc: New: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

Stirling Newberry's open letter on the economic value of language diversity
expresses views with which I have great instinctive sympathy, but alas, I
just do not believe they are correct. I have spent much of my life studying
languages other than my native language of English, and I find the prospect
of moving towards a linguistic monoculture immensely depressing. Culturally
and psychologically it will be a crippling impoverishment of human life,
but in narrow economic terms I cannot see how to disagree with the
views that Newberry attributes to a _Wall Street Journal_ article by 
John W. Miller. English is taking over everywhere because people are
choosing to let it take over, and they are doing that because it pays to
go down that route.

Newberry focuses mainly on small minority languages such as the Celtic languages
of the British Isles (he says "Gaelic languages", actually Gaelic is usually
used as the name of one of these languages). The prospect of them dying out
is bad enough; what bothers me even more is the way in which major culture
languages such as French, German, or Russian are shifting from
being communication systems that, a few decades ago, ranked as "sovereign"
languages fully on a par in terms of status with English, to being
subordinate systems of local relevance only. It will be a long time before
languages like these die out, but already one is beginning to see them
starting to feel like quaint local colour, on a par with traditional
national costumes. One example: when I visited Russia in the 1970s,
if you went into a museum or art gallery and couldn't read the Russian
labels, you were out of luck. That seemed to me exactly as it should be:
I could only read a little Russian, but puzzling out that a series of
Cyrillic letters underneath an impressionist painting in the Hermitage stood
for Derain, say, was part of the fun, and more important, foreign countries
should be foreign. Recently, a wealthy American visited that or a comparable
leading Russian gallery and was shocked that exhibits were not labelled
in English; the authorities agreed that it was a problem, and were glad to
accept funds from him to bilingualize the labelling. Another example:
in France, there are laws limiting the ways in which foreign languages can
be used in public without French back-up; one might question whether such
things should be governed by law, but I was quite shocked to hear three
or four years ago that the law has now been modified so that English is
no longer ranked as a foreign language in France.

If one doubts that this trend is economically rational, though, consider
the counterarguments Newberry offers. John Miller uses "Big Mac" as
a symbol of the globalization of American culture, and Newberry points
out that the name MacDonald derives from Scots Gaelic, "son of Donald".
Perfectly true, but so what? Even if the day comes when English is the
native language of every human on the planet, that doesn't mean that there
won't be thousands of bits and pieces of other languages embedded in 
English vocabulary -- but that won't stop the situation being a linguistic
monoculture. Latin is not a living language today, though
English vocabulary contains an enormous number of Latin-derived words.
Then Newberry refers to the well-known case when Navajo speakers were used
by US forces in the Second World War for secure radio communication, because
nobody on the other side was likely to be able to understand spoken Navajo.
A fascinating episode, but hardly a serious argument for the economic value
of keeping minority languages alive, surely. Could Americans really
see themselves telling their Red Indian populations, or we in Britain tell
our Welsh-speaking or Gaelic-speaking compatriots, "You may be inclined to
switch to English, but you mustn't -- you must keep up
your ancestral tongue, and make your children keep it up and they must
make their children keep it up, in case one day there's another world war
where it could come in handy for security purposes"?

Language is not the only area where the free market seems to be wiping out
cultural differences. I remember when Soviet Communism collapsed in the
1980s, I was exhilarated at the prospect of a new dawn when Russians would
be free to develop Russian cultural traditions, released from the constraints
of dictatorship. Then to my great depression it very quickly emerged that
all that most Russians seemed to want from their new freedom was denim
jeans and mindless American pop songs -- and Big Macs, I suppose. Here in
Britain the generations younger than mine seem to be junking all distinctive
features of British culture wholesale, without even debating whether some of
them might be preferable to what replaces them. These trends are happening
mainly through individual choices in a free market; which makes it very
hard to argue that they should not be happening.

Geoffrey Sampson

G.R. Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing

School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

tel. +44 1273 678525
fax +44 1273 671320
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