LINGUIST List 14.1555

Mon Jun 2 2003

Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Ella Earp-Lynch, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages
  2. rtroike, 14.1553, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages
  3. joseph tomei, 14.1553, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Message 1: Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Sun, 01 Jun 2003 21:18:14 -0400
From: Ella Earp-Lynch <>
Subject: Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Tom Pullman wrote:

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

While I expect that Mr. Pullman is probably correct on his first point
(that dead languages cannot be revived in their 'pure' original form),
I strongly suspect that Messers Pullman and Dalby might be gravely
mistaken on this second issue. The idea that creolization is
dependent on colonization or superstrate influence of all things! Why
on earth should this be the case: a three year old is indifferent as
to the reason why his teacher speaks a different language from his
mother, is he not? In my hometown of Montreal, Quebequois and English
are spoken with almost the same frequency, other languages are
frequently spoken, and 'Franglais' is the mother tongue of most people
<20-25 native to the island of Montreal. While I would wish to gather
more evidence (or perhaps wait another 25 years) before calling this a
creole I think it's already showing a lot of character independent of
its parents (English and Quebequois)

so, far out, man, j'en ai besoin d'aller renouveller mon ticket de 
parking alors je m'en va.

- -----------------------------------
Ella Earp-Lynch
contractual linguist, Speech Sciences

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: 14.1553, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Mon, 2 Jun 2003 00:13:50 -0700 (MST)
From: rtroike <>
Subject: 14.1553, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

The biological and linguistic parallels are valid if one considers
that each species and each language represent the end result of
millennia of evolution, in the case of languages perhaps as much as
60,000 years. Just as one could not predict beforehand the incredible
diversity of biological forms, so no one could have imagined the
differences that have evolved among different languages within the
presumed universal constraints of syntax and phonology. Add to that
the richness of uses that human groups have made of their linguistic
codes, such that for example certain American Indian groups can no
longer practice certain religious rituals because no one any longer
possesses the required linguistic knowledge, or the plaintive
statement by one elder lamenting the fact that the younger generation
is not learning the language, that there are certain things that
cannot be expressed in English. Even if regional varieties of English
were to diversify as Latin did in the past, we cannot wait 60,000 or
even 10,000 years to determine whether the outcomes might parallel the
diversity that has developed down to the present, just as we cannot
bulldoze the Amazon rainforest and wait another million years to see
if the same degree of biodiversity re-evolves. The present diversity
of languages provides a natural laboratory for understanding the
possible design alternatives and limits for this most central of human
characteristics, knowledge that we could gain in no other way. Every
time a language disappears from use without being adequately
documented, we are all permanently and irretrievably impoverished in
our potential for understanding Language.

	Rudy Troike
	University of Arizona
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: 14.1553, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Mon, 2 Jun 2003 17:47:23 +0900
From: joseph tomei <>
Subject: 14.1553, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

John Limber suggests that the disappearance of Ubykh is related to
questions of evolutionary fitness. Given in the context of the NYTimes
article, the point could be taken that all languages that are
endangered could be simply 'unfit'. Besides the fact that such lines
of argument have, in the past, led to any number of problems, this
suggests that all other things are equal. However, this is not the
case. As the link that is provided in the post notes: "The fate of
Ubykh is particularly sad...because its extinction is the final result
of a genocide of the Ubykh people. Until 1864 they lived along the
eastern shore of the Black Sea in the area of Sochi (north-west of
Abkhazia). When Russia subjugated the Muslim northern Caucasus in the
1860s, tens of thousands of people were expelled and had to flee to
Turkey, no doubt with heavy loss of life. The entire Ubykh population
left its homeland, and the survivors were scattered over Turkey."

When it is suggested that there is some sort of evolutionary fitness
test, I wonder how other languages would fare under the same
conditions. I think that the result would be the similar, regardless
of their consonant inventory.

The suggestion also ignores the fact that cultures/societies, when not
under threat, will often develop means of support. The example of the
presumed absence of an alphabet song in Ubykh makes the point
clearly. In Japanese, there is no 'alphabet' song because the alphabet
is a syllabary and memorization of it is trivial, yet we don't go
around decrying that English is less evolutionarily fit because there
is more cognitive overhead for young learners.

I'm sure that Ubykh culture had any number of interesting ways for
children to learn the ins and outs of the language, but we are
certainly never going to be able to ever learn what they are
now. Preaching to the choir, I wonder if we would have discovered
something about syllabification or feature trees through that, but of
course, we will never know.

While not about 'linguistics' per se, I think it important to remember
the social context that has created the situation we have today. This
article is from the Washington Post.

> In 1963, One Star was 6, and still spoke only Lakota. "One day here 
> comes a car, my father gets out and talks to my grandmother, and off 
> I went," he recalled recently...
> "That's when my ordeal started," he said.
> When One Star got to the school, his braid was cut off and he was 
> forbidden to speak Lakota. When he was caught speaking anyway, he 
> said, he was spanked on his bare buttocks with an inch-thick paddle. 
> "Three of us at a time," he said. "It happened on a regular basis.

Joseph Tomei
Kumamoto Gakuen Daigaku
Department of Foreign Languages
Oe 2 chome, 5-1, Kumamoto 862-8680 JAPAN
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue