LINGUIST List 14.1575

Tue Jun 3 2003

Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Kiel Christianson, NYT Essay on Endangered Languages
  2. Neal Audenaert, Re: 14.1555, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Message 1: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Tue, 03 Jun 2003 07:52:04 -0400
From: Kiel Christianson <>
Subject: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Joseph Tomei is correct when he says:

"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

By John Limber's argument, Hawa'iian, with its small consonant inventory,
should have crushed the English language of those who invaded those

Kiel Christianson
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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Message 2: Re: 14.1555, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Date: Tue, 3 Jun 2003 09:36:50 -0700 (PDT)
From: Neal Audenaert <>
Subject: Re: 14.1555, Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

I would suggest that there is more at stake here than whether or not
linguistic diversity is necessary for scientific research. The
discussion here has hinted at, but I haven't noticed anyone say
explicitly, that we as linguists/anthropologists think that we have
some sort of obligation to preserve minority languages. This
obligation that we see is not, as Berreby observed, strictly a
scientific or academic pursuit. Berreby seems to claim that this then
should be outside of the realm of our study and consideration as
linguists, that we should stick to the science and leave our
policy/philosophy/ethical thoughts out of our research. Near the end
of his artical he commented:

"if the study of languages is a scientific enterprise, the effort to
preserve them is not. It is a political question: which voices
represent the communities whose languages are fading?"

In this statement is the implicit claim that since the "effort to
preserve them is not" scientific, that the linguistic community should
not address that issue. I am of the opinion that this implicit claim
is truly at the center of the debate. Should scholars be confined to
their dusty offices and scientific pursuits and be forbidden from
addressing the ramifications of their data? Berreby seems to imply
that they should be. It is on this point that he is most clearly
wrong, and dangerously so.

If he had challenged the 'preservationalist' claim that we have at
least some obligation to preserve endangered languages, then his
challenge would be in order and we could discuss why, on both academic
and non-accademic ground, we believe that we should work to preserve
langauges. But he did something more than this, he argued that science
should not engage itself in philosophical discussions. He demanded
that linguists get back to their dusty offices speech samples and out
of the real world. This, I think, is far more important, and far more
frightening, than his impressively long list of factual errors.

Neal Audenaert 
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