LINGUIST List 3.785

Sat 17 Oct 1992

Disc: The Preservation of Languages

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  1. "R.Hudson", Dying languages
  2. stephen ryberg , promoting diversity

Message 1: Dying languages

Date: Wed, 14 Oct 92 09:10:40 +0Dying languages
From: "R.Hudson" <>
Subject: Dying languages

In the debate about whether or not we should be trying to help speakers of
threatened languages to preserve their language, it is often argued that the
case is like that of threatened biological species; this argument was used
recently in Linguist by Peter Svenonius. But we surely can't use this as a
serious argument, and if it's not serious, it weakens the (good) case for
this kind of work to deploy it at all. The difference between languages and
biological species is that when a species dies out, its genes die out with
it, and we may have lost thereby important material for creating useful
medicines etc. No such argument can be mounted for languages, so far as I
know; at least, no such argument is mounted by defendants of language-
preservation, so I assume it can't be.

Another related argument is that grammarians need threatened languages in
order to help us to decide on the limits of UG. Surely this is a really
feeble argument, and would be much better not used at all; the only
should be the well-being of the languages' speakers, and our professional
needs are completely irrelevant. None of us, surely, would argue that large
amounts of public money should be used for encouraging a group of people to
go on speaking an otherwise threatened language if we were the only possible
beneficiaries? Bad arguments are a present to the opposite side - they'll
seize on them and hold them up to ridicule, thereby undermining confidence
in the arguments that are really good.

Dick Hudson
Dept of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
(071) 387 7050 ext 3152
home: (081) 340 1253
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Message 2: promoting diversity

Date: Thu, 15 Oct 92 11:25:49 GMpromoting diversity
From: stephen ryberg <rybergsGAS.uug.Arizona.EDU>
Subject: promoting diversity

I found one aspect of the discussion about why we should care about language
diversity particularly striking, and would like to comment on it, though I
fear it strays from the topic of language per se a bit (probably not
much more than the original postings did). David Powers presumes that
promotion of a group necessitates some form of demotion of other groups,

	> ... the aim is to win more for one's own group at the
	> expense of others...

while Peter Svenonius (and perhaps the others who responded contra Powers)
presumes that promotion of a group is on the whole additive,

	> ... we gain more from diversity than from uniformity...

I think it is important to recognize these different views, and to ask
which is more valid, if not in theory then certainly in practice. I
personally would like to believe the latter view, but--though I disagree
wholeheartedly with Powers in general--I suspect that the former view is
closer to what happens in practice, with real human beings in the real
world, in a number of instances. I am reminded of three Irishmen I became
friends with while living in England a few years back. They were friendly,
respectful and reasonable sorts, in all my experiences with them, so I was
quite taken aback one day when I discovered how prejudiced they were toward
non-white people. One of them was quick enough to see this, before I had
said anything, and by way of explanation quickly established that for him,
there was a connection between being proud to be Irish and being so
prejudiced, there being relatively few non-white people in Ireland. For
him, then, promoting his own group and demoting another went hand in hand.

I certainly don't advocate this man's position, but I don't think it's so
unusual for real people in their everyday lives in the real world to adopt
such a position. Perhaps the most obvious way to promote one group is to
demote another. One could argue that affirmative action legislation
promotes some groups (however deservedly) only by demoting others, and if
so, provide another example from actual practice that shows Powers' view is
closer to what's happening in the real world than Svenonius'. I don't
think we should get rid of affirmative action legislation, but that doesn't
bear on the question of which of the above views affirmative action practices
more closely resemble.

And though I want to believe it, it's not at all clear to me even in theory
that views like that of Svenonius are so easily tenable. How _do_ you
promote any one group without implicitly, at some level, demoting others?
I have been asking myself this since that incident with the Irishmen, and I
still don't have a very good answer. I'd like to know, because I'd much
rather hold Svenonius' optimistic view than Powers' more cynical one.

Sorry if I got off the language subject too much, I just think we should
recognize these two different views, and thought they were particularly
striking in these discussions.

Stephen Ryberg
Department of English
University of Arizona
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