LINGUIST List 14.1619

Mon Jun 9 2003

Disc: NYT Essay on Endangered Languages

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. P. Kerim friedman, endangered languages

Message 1: endangered languages

Date: Sat, 7 Jun 2003 19:44:53 -0400
From: P. Kerim friedman <>
Subject: endangered languages

Re: Linguist 14.1538
	I just posted an extended critique of the NY Times article
about endangered languages on my web site:
I include the full text below:

I recently came across an article in the NY Times that discusses the
concept of "endangered languages." It is an intelligent, well written
article that is ultimately fundamentally flawed and highly
conservative. The article, by David Berreby, is titled "Fading Species
and Dying Tongues: When the Two Part Ways." The article takes as its
starting point, a Nature article which provides statistics showing
that "human tongues come out even more endangered than the animals".

Berreby then ruminates upon the analogy, stating: 

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 years.

So far, so good, (although see below about the question of language
revival). But then he starts to slip:

It would be a terrible thing to run out of languages. But there is no
danger of that, because the reserve of language, unlike the gas tank,
is refueled every day, as ordinary people engage in the creative and
ingenious act of talking. Old words, constructions and pronunciations
drop away, new ones are taken up, and, relentlessly, the language

Already he has moved from criticizing the endangered species metaphor
to imposing his own metaphor, that of language as an endless,
renewable, human resource. But this new metaphor deliberately obscures
the issues at the heart of language endangerment. It isn't "language"
in the abstract that is in danger, or even simply the diversity of
languages (although I would debate his implied claim that new
languages are emerging at anywhere near the rate that old ones are
disappearing). The concern is with specific languages, spoken by
specific groups of people.

He attempts to address that concern by claiming that languages, like
Ubykh "can be revived 500 years from now" - just as Hebrew was. But
that is simply wrong. First of all, the Hebrew spoken now is not the
same as that spoken 500 years ago, and secondly, the people speaking
Hebrew now live in a very different world with very different social
and political implications to speaking Hebrew. Moreover, the rebirth
of Hebrew has come, to a certain extent, at the cost of the Yiddish
and Ladino as living languages.

Then he goes on to say something sensible, only once again to seek to
undermine it. Here is the sensible bit.

James Crawford, a thoughtful writer about language and a
preservationist, notes that "language death does not happen in
privileged communities."

"It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered, peoples who most
need their cultural resources to survive," he continues.

This is certainly true; many of the dying languages were
systematically attacked by missionaries and governments in cruel,
despicable ways. The game they lost was rigged. Abuses continue to be
committed in the name of education, modernization and national
identity, so the preservationists do good work in noting and
protesting such practices.

This could be a great critique of the "endangered language" metaphor -
pointing out how it is not a natural phenomenon, but a social and
political one. But this is not what Berreby is interested in
doing. Instead, he attacks those who try to preserve dying languages
by teaching them to the next generation:

Language bullies who try to shame a child into learning his
grandfather's language are not morally different from the language
bullies who tried to shame the grandfather into learning English.

Are such "language bullies" really a problem? It might be if you
believed that learning languages was a zero-sum game, that learning
one language restricts your ability to learn another one. Many
monolingual Americans seem to believe this, as has been shown by the
English-only movement, but elsewhere in the world people grow up
learning three or four languages without any difficulty!

Berreby is correct to question the metaphor - but he comes to the
wrong conclusion. Although he gives lip service to the political
nature of language decline, he ultimately treats it as a natural
phenomenon that we shouldn't be concerned about, because new languages
will naturally replace the old. Any interference with this natural
process is bad because it is just as "political" as the past wrongs
that were committed against the speakers of these languages. He fails
to grasp that the process of language death only seems natural if you
accept the power inequalities that cause it in the first place.

Although I would be the last to argue that reviving a language can, by
itself, reverse such power inequalities - that does not mean that we
should simply avoid dealing with these issues
altogether. Environmentalists have long known that one of the best
ways to preserve the environment is to protect the rights of those
whose lives depend upon it. Even nature is political!

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