LINGUIST List 3.771

Wed 14 Oct 1992

Disc: Language Preservation

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace
  2. Richard Ogden, 'nationalism' and languages
  3. , 0000

Message 1: Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace

Date: Sat, 10 Oct 1992 15:11:38 Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace
From: <>
Subject: Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace

David M. W. Powers ( seems to suggest
that dying languages are better off dead, and that the speakers of those
languages, and their neighbors, are generally better off as monolingual
speakers of English (or Spanish or Russian or some other "world language"),
and that the Oaxaca Native Literacy Project (henceforth ONLP) is not worth
supporting. I disagree with all three points.

I must begin by pointing out that telling a linguist that languages should
be eliminated rather than preserved (because speakers of different
languages might not get along) is like telling a biologist that the rain
forest should be cut down (perhaps because of all the parasites and other
nasty bugs that live there). Biologists don't know whether one of the
countless unexamined forms of animal or plant life in the rain forest holds
a key to a cure for cancer (or for stupidity), and perhaps the possibility
is only remote, but if we let the forest be destroyed we will never know.
Similarly, linguists don't know whether there is a universal grammar
distinct from more general cognitive processes, or whether investigation of
language can lead to any insight about the mind, but if we destroy all the
other languages, we will never know. If everyone spoke English, there
would be no evidence that UG is not English, down to the individual lexical

Powers does not expressly deny this; but the basic force of his argument
must be that the benefits of having linguistic diversity in the world are
outweighed by the detriments. He seems to envision the ONLP as promoting
>Consider countries where no imposed or agreed national language
>has perculated down to the individual subgroups
But that is not the case at all; nobody is going to stop learning Spanish
or English as a result of the ONLP; it seems the most likely result will be
that a written record of some languages will be preserved for posterity,
which I see as absolutely desireable. If some groups of native Americans
are encouraged to continue using their language and to pass it on to their
children as a further result of the ONLP, this does not mean that they will
give up on Spanish or English. The use of those languages is far too
entrenched and widespread in the Americas to be endangered.

Powers goes on to cite current regional conflicts as if they supported his
point; but in fact, they betray it. The events in Yugoslavia, which he
mentions, have nothing to do with language; of course, the minor
differences in the dialects of Serbo-Croatian spoken in the different parts
of Yugoslavia are being exaggerated to nationalistic ends; but the conflict
arose DESPITE the fact that the Serbs and the Croats speak the same
language. His mention of the LA riots is particularly disturbing. Does
Powers think that the riots could have been avoided if blacks had been more
rigorously trained in "Standard" English?

Indeed, for every conflict in which the two sides speak different
languages, there is another in which they speak the same language. The
American civil war was unexceptional in this way; just to name a few more
current examples, the recent conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador;
Northern Ireland (there, as in Yugoslavia, language may be used to
nationalistic ends, but in fact the two sides speak the same language); the
Middle East (how different is the Arabic spoken in Iraq from that spoken in
Iran or in Kuwait?), or Southeast Asia (e.g. Vietnamese is essentially the
same in the north and south). Factors having nothing to do with language
differences caused all of these conflicts and many more.

Furthermore, there are plenty of cases where different language groups
peacefully coexist, as in Switzerland or India (obviously there are
conflicts in India; but they have more to do with religion and class than
with language); so I see no validity in the claim that monolingualism is
necessary for peace. Surely it is necessary to be able to communicate with
one's neighbor, and this is most efficiently achieved through use of a
"world language" (as for example English is used in India, or Spanish in
South and Central America), but this doesn't mean anyone should give up
their own language.

In short, picking on linguistic diversity as the cause for world conflicts
is as valid as picking on religion, or skin color, or dietary habits.
Perhaps if we removed all of these differences, there would be fewer
misunderstandings. But I for one think we gain more from diversity than
from uniformity, and that conflicts that arise from suspicion and
misunderstanding of different language groups can be avoided without
resorting to cultural imperialism.

Powers denies that he is a cultural imperialist:
> I certainly wouldn't want to be part of a uniform
>world, in which one couldn't detect any difference between
>Africa, South America and Europe.
But that is the world that his arguments lead to, in fact to a frightening
degree when one considers that he seems to target dialectal variation as a
source for conflict (in his mentioning German dialects, the riots in LA,
and Yugoslavia). I doubt that that homogenous, American English-speaking,
White, Christian world would be free from conflict anyway.

Peter Svenonius
Tromso, Norway
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Message 2: 'nationalism' and languages

Date: Fri, 9 Oct 92 15:27 GMT
From: Richard Ogden <RAO1VAXB.YORK.AC.UK>
Subject: 'nationalism' and languages

I am writing in horrified response to David Powers' message about
language and nationalism.

Encouraging people to use their own language, helping them to
find ways of writing it, are ways of ensuring the survival not
just of the language but also of the culture and the knowledge
of the people. It is all very well to say that 'everyone speaks
English'; but those who speak English do not have a monopoly of
wisdom or knowledge about the world. Of course languages 'come
and go', but being killed isn't the same as dying a natural death.
It would be a loss to our common humanity to let cultures die
away without at least some records. And please remember that we
are largely responsible for dying communities: not one or two
every century, but hundreds over several centuries.

Ease of communication is a luxury offered to those of us who have
electricity and telephones and a postal service. It isn't just
a product of the fact that those who eg read this bulletin board
can read English. 'Ease of communication' seems to be to be a
very feeble argument for the annihilation of diversity in human

Language as a unifying factor: if a language were forced upon you,
a language from a completely different culture, that didn't have
words to express the important things in your life, would you
feel that this language was a force for peace? Would you be glad of the
chance to speak your oppressor's language, share in your oppressor's
culture? I doubt it. As a privileged person from the Western world you are
unlikely to suffer this kind of imperialism, and more likely to inflict

it uopn others. Arguing that 'if we all spoke the same language
we'd live more peaceful lives' is drivel as far as I can see.

It isn't 'selfish' to want your identity. You can't be who you are
without an identity. That includes your language, which is
part of your culture, which is part of your identity. Again I ask you,
how would you feel if you were forced to speak an alien language
from an alien culture? Wars and tensions in Europe are not caused
just by us all speaking different languages; don't be so naive.

It offends me to the marrow that Christianity is used to accuse
other peoples of 'selfishness' and to ask them to sacrifice their
way of life, speak English (or whatever) and become 'international',
'assimilate'. This gives spurious credibility to a disgracefully
unloving and uncaring attitude. What steps do you take to 'assimilate'
to the ways of life of other cultures which we are annihilating?
As societies, I think we take rather few.

'Assimilation into the modern world' and pleas for more time to allow
it to happen (to ease the pain?!) just assume that 'our way is best' and
that we have nothing to learn from other people. Look at it the other way
round too: we need time to learn from those cultures we have been mercilessly
wiping out in the Americas, in Europe and Australasia and doubtless
every other corner of the earth as well. And I don't think you can 'preserve
the best of the various cultures': you have to decide what is 'best' (more
cultural imperialism). Do you seriously think you can take a bit of one
culture and understand it without seeing the rest of that culture as well?
I hope to goodness that linguists do not see their job as helping along the
speedy destruction of other cultures.

Yes, there are difficulties. We can't go backwards, we can't return the
world to how it was. We can't communicate using thousands of different
langauges. But that's not to say that we must allow the disappearance
of things, wisdom and knowledge which are the inheritance of a few people
without so much as a blink. One of the jobs that linguists can do is
to collect and learn languages. I am disgusted by the idea that a language,
a people and their culture should be left to die in a corner.

Richard Ogden
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Message 3: 0000

Date: Fri, 9 Oct 1992 16:36:56 +0000
From: <>
Subject: 0000

I cannot resist supplying David M. W. Powers' contribution about the
superfluousness of more than one of each of language, culture and
nationalism with a few enthusiastic comments:

>Throughout history, languages and cultures have come and gone.
>Freezing language and culture produces a static culture and an
>end to development.

How true! When Martin Luther froze German by contributing to developing a
written standard for it, or when Dante Alighieri did the same to Italian,
the respective cultures immediately stagnated and all development stopped,
as we all know. I am sure modern missionaries could supply a host of
additional examples of the stifling effect of literacy on culture.

>Language must change in order to keep up
>with a changing and advancing world.

It is so refreshing to find someone who still realizes that change is
always for the better. "A changing and advancing world"... the phrase has a
nostalgic ring to it - it is the kind of phrase I remember from my
childhood in the fifties, when people still were seeing clearly. And of
course we have to see to it that language keeps up - until the "unifying
influence" has played itself out, that is, and we all belong to one and the
same universal culture. Then no further change will be necessary.

>A language with only a few dozen or hundred speakers is NOT going
>to be seen as conveying status to its speakers.

No, but how do you make these people see this? Obviously the only reason
why they pig-headedly persist in using their native languages is that they
want to have status conveyed on them by us, but they always refuse to
listen when we tell them that it is no use.

>By contrast, from the Tower of Babel on, diversity of languages
>has been recognized as undermining unification and cooperation.

As one who is working on a unification-based system for machine translation
I can confirm that diversity of languages does indeed undermine

> Is it worth
>retaining all the German dialects - some of which are quite far
>removed from High German?

Obviously not. Let's throw them out.

>Selfishness is the aim to win ground for one's self and one's own
>immediate family. Tribalism, Parochialism and Unionism are just a
>level or two removed from this. Nationalism just a level or so further
>removed. In each case the aim is to win more for one's own group
>at the expense of others. Preservation of culture is a pretty
>veil to throw over this ugliness,

An admirably clear presentation of the basic conflict today: the conflict
between natural and truly universal Anglo-American culture on the one hand
and all the manifestations of petty selfishness all over the world on the

> By all means capture the lore
>and culture and language of these communties, providing literature
>if there are people to read it.

Yes, let's stick the whole thing in a museum and let "these communities"
admire their own culture there.

> I am not proposing to force
>anyone to become westernized like me

Why so modest?

> - there are many negative
>aspects to our cultures too!

Really? Name one!

> But they can't have it both ways,
>maintaining their own language and culture, yet wanting to be part
>of the modern world, and receive the benefits of technology,
>medicine etc.

Obviously not. But "they" are incredibly presumptious, you know, persisting
in speaking their grubby little languages, and still expecting "us" to give
"them" the said benefits. I really think "we" should withhold these
benefits in the future unless "they" discard their ridiculous lingos and
start speaking properly, preferably with an American accent.

>To preserve the best of the various cultures and combine
>that with the best of ours requires great wisdom, and the
>assistance of anthropologists, linguists and in particular
>wise leaders from their own communities.

I wouldn't use anthropologists and linguists, since such people are sadly
prone to having their vision blurred and lose the ability to separate the
*best* of a culture from the dispensable rest.

> In particular,
>great understanding of the natural forces toward language
>and cultural change are necessary to make this process as
>painless as possible.

That's just it. We have to make them see that it is a question of *natural
forces*. Then they will realize that there is no point in resisting.

Helge Dyvik
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