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LINGUIST List 17.100

Fri Jan 13 2006

Disc: New: Prestige and Language Maintenance

Editor for this issue: Susan Smith <ssmithlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Stan Anonby, Prestige and Language Maintenance

Message 1: Prestige and Language Maintenance
Date: 26-Dec-2005
From: Stan Anonby <stan-sandy_anonbysil.org>
Subject: Prestige and Language Maintenance

Re: http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-3542.html

I'd like to comment on a posting on Dec 14th, a review of Batibo's book
''Language Decline and Death in Africa''. Batibo says, ''As long as
speakers see some social status or socio-economic value in their languages,
they will certainly wish to maintain them.''

I'd like to address the idea that social status helps maintain languages.
While this may be true in places like Africa and Europe, it doesn't seem to
be so in the Americas.

I have surveyed various indigenous languages in Canada and Brazil, and in
fact, the opposite seems to be true. The individuals with lowest social
status usually are the people who speak their the indigenous language the
best. The villages with the lowest prestige are more often than not the
ones in which the language is spoken most vigorously. The tribes who
retain their language the longest are usually the ones with the lowest
social standing. The opposite is also true. The higher prestige
individuals, villages, and tribes are the ones who shift more quickly to
the language of wider communication.

Why? Maybe the lower status folks avoid contact with the majority culture
out of shame. Possibly higher status gives people more confidence to
interact with the members of the majority culture. This facilitates
language learning and cross-cultural marriages.

I think part of the answer may also lie in the size of the group. Maybe the
statement that prestige helps maintain languages is true for Africa because
the languages there are of roughly the same size and status. The languages
I'm thinking of in the Americas are drops in the bucket compared to super
languages like English, French and Portuguese.

If you have a language that is as big as Catalan, say, the statement is
probably true as well. Even though Catalan is small compared to Castilian,
it is large enough that prestige can help maintain it.

However, in languages as vulnerable as those in the Americas, it isn't that
simple. You can't just assume that prestige will help maintain the
language. Maybe it is because they just don't have the critical mass
relative to the language of wider communication.

I'd welcome any comments.

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics

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