LINGUIST List 14.1548

Fri May 30 2003

Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Evans, Ann, RE: 14.1538, Disc: New: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Message 1: RE: 14.1538, Disc: New: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Fri, 30 May 2003 10:09:17 -0500
From: Evans, Ann <>
Subject: RE: 14.1538, Disc: New: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

I submitted the following letter to the editor to The New York TImes.
Knowing how these things go, it is probable that it own't be
published, but I hope a linguist of greater reputation than I have
will take exception to their publishing something which is so
superficial, filled with such misleading information, so out of tune
with current linguistic thinking. If someone with a recognizable name
as a linguist would like to use part of the letter below to send to
The Times, please feel free to do so.

Ann Evans

- ----------

Attached to every disappearing language is a culture -- a "Rockabye
Baby", a Bible, plays, stories, lyrics, swear words, terms of
endearment, and a lot more. If the author were a speaker of one of
the disappearing languages, he would not have to "work" very hard, as
he says scholars and political activisits of doing, to be upset at
their disappearance.

Languages, cultures, do not die a natural death. They are dispatched
in one way or another, often brutally. Children are spirited away
from their homes to be schooled far away and in a foreign tongue,
separating them from their languages, and from their cultures (see the
recent film "Rabbit Proof Fence."), languages are forbidden,
ridiculed, marginalized. Education in a language is not funded,
funneling students into the majority languages for advanced study.

The author suggests that languages can easily be resuscitated. How
can you resuscitate a language that nobody speaks? One of his
examples, Hebrew, never died, it just receded into specialized use. A
confluence of brutality, slaughter and despair brought Hebrew back
into everyday use.

Tok pisin, also mentioned by Mr. Berreby, is also a very special case.
It developed in Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse
country in the world, with around 850 languages spoken there (in the
U.S., a much more populous country, there are around 150). Papua New
Guineans often speak not only their mother tongue, one of the 850, but
also tok pisin, so they can communicate throughout their country. In
most countries of the world, bilingualism, even multilingualism, is
common and expected.

There is no such thing as a person who "doesn't care" that his or her
language is destroyed. There are only people who, struggling in other
ways in their lives, run out of the energy needed to personally keep
the language alive.
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