LINGUIST List 14.1550

Sat May 31 2003

Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Tom Pullman, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Message 1: Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Sat, 31 May 2003 06:48:35 +0000
From: Tom Pullman <>
Subject: Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

David Berreby, the author of the NYT piece, writes:

''How, really, are the panda and Ubykh equivalent? The panda, once
gone, is gone forever. If the information and political will are
present, Ubykh can be revived 500 years from now. Hebrew, after all,
was brought back from ancient texts into daily use after 2,000

I would argue that Ubykh could not be brought back in its current
state any more than Hebrew was brought back as Biblical Hebrew. I
believe I am correct in saying that Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew
differ in multiple ways, from syntax (SVO and VSO, respectively) to
phonetics (loss of the distinction between epiglottal and glottal
stops in the language of speakers of European descent), due to the
influence of the first languages of those learning it. In other words,
some of what was lost when Biblical Hebrew ceased to be spoken as a
first language, in particular those features which made it unusual,
were lost precisely because the language had to be learned by people
whose first languages did not include them.

The same problem is noticeable with English-speaking learners of
Modern Irish, who frequently ignore all palatalization distinctions
save those mappable onto English phoneme pairs, and doubtless it would
also be true of Ubykh. This is not even to mention the many features,
such as intonation, which are rarely if ever recorded accurately and
completely. Such features will disappear without trace if a language
dies, and will not return if and when it is revived.

In a different point, Berreby writes:

''It would be a terrible thing to run out of languages. But there is
no danger of that... In an era when languages continue to change with
time, can't we expect the big languages, like Latin before them, to
blossom into families of related but distinct new tongues?''

I counter with the views of Andrew Dalby, as referred to in a recent
Times article
(,,175-697651,00.html) by Ben

''Unlike other, earlier world languages, modern English will never
split off into distinct parallel forms, as the Romance languages
evolved from Latin. For a new language to emerge requires a degree of
cultural isolation, or at least independence, that has become
impossible. The world is simply too interconnected, by global
technology and a global economy, to think in new words.''

So: we can't revive dead languages, and we won't get any new ones
except by creolization, which, in a world where little overt
colonization goes on and people who want to trade usually have a
common language, seems an unlikely occurrence.

Tom Pullman 
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