LINGUIST List 3.798

Mon 19 Oct 1992

Disc: Language Preservation

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  1. , Re: 3.785 The Preservation of Languages
  2. , Language Preservation
  3. "Bruce E. Nevin", Brother's keeper?

Message 1: Re: 3.785 The Preservation of Languages

Date: Sat, 17 Oct 1992 16:44:03 Re: 3.785 The Preservation of Languages
From: <>
Subject: Re: 3.785 The Preservation of Languages

Dick Hudson objects to the analogy with threatened biological species in
arguments for the preservation of language diversity:

> 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

If the only reason Hudson sees for preserving biological diversity is that
such diversity is a potential resource for the medicine industry, I can
understand why he rejects the analogy. But others might see more cogent
reasons than that, such as the growing realization of the importance of
biological diversity for continued life of any kind on the planet, combined
with the realization of how little we know, and hence are able to predict,
about the behaviour of complex ecological systems when changes occur, and
the basic modesty and respect for other species that our limited
understanding ought to inspire.

Obviously language communities are not biological species: when we draw the
analogy, we are (as so often when talking about language) speaking
metaphorically. But I believe that the metaphor may be fruitful - or at
least not harmful. Different languages and cultures represent different
ways of tackling reality, and hence an indispensable source of insight in
the non-necessary character of our own respective ways. And again, our
limited understanding should inspire some modesty and respect.

Stephen Ryberg wonders whether it is possible to "promote any one group
without implicitly, at some level, demoting others". Possibly not - but
that seems to me to be slightly beside the point. The dilemma before us is
not whether we should "promote some groups" or refrain from promoting any,
but rather what "groups" we should "promote". And it frequently does not
seem very hard to identify the "groups" that are in need of support.

Helge Dyvik
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Message 2: Language Preservation

Date: Sun, 18 Oct 1992 9:41:56 GLanguage Preservation
Subject: Language Preservation

I agree with Dick Hudson that we should be careful about using
shaky analogies like the biological species one in debates on
language endangerment. Michael Krauss' way of using figures of
endangered species (in the recent number of Language) to point
up the fact that the situation with languages is much worse
quantitatively is reasonable, but other extensions of the
analogy are fraught with problems.

I also agree with him that we should be talking much more
about the human dimension of the problem - who the speakers of
threatened languages are, what they think, and what they are
doing about the problem themselves. Linguists can and do work
with the speakers of endangered languages and their
organisations to address the problem: Collette Craig's talk at
the plenary at the International Congress of Linguists in
Quebec recently covered this aspect well for the Americas.

In Australia there are Aboriginal-controlled organisations
like Regional Aboriginal Language Centres which are working
not only to record "dying" languages but to maintain languages
as living entities that are used by their speakers. Yet we
hear little of this in current international proposals for
work on endangered languages put forward by linguists, which
are focussed on universities and the archiving of information
far from where the speakers of languages can benefit from

Many of the more specific questions of what correct strategies
for language maintenance are must be worked out in
consultation with language speakers. Returning to the original
trigger for this discussion, the Oaxaca language Project, I
too have reservations about projects that overemphasise
literacy as a means of language maintenance. On occasion (and
contrary to the stereotype of linguists) I have found myself
arguing for less emphasis on literacy and literature
production with local language speakers who regarded it as a
key element in a strategy. In time I understood their view, I
think. Such debates continue in local projects all over the
world. One very valuable thing that the linguists who are
interested in language preservation could do is to help set up
a network or forum in which such issues could be discussed,
which would include threatened language speakers as well as

There is more to this of course than just the consequences of
the fate of small languages for their speakers, important
though this is. Diversity of languages and cultures does
enrich human culture in general. This is something that many
speakers of Australian Aboriginal languages are aware of: they
want to share the knowledge and insights which are often
inextricably bound up with their traditional languages. Ken
Hale has written in his article in Language, and at Quebec,
of such things as the wonderful Damin auxiliary language of
the Lardil of Australia, now all but extinct. But there are
other aspects of endangered languages which are of immense
value in understanding the world.

In Australia many people are realising that the environmental
problems arising from white settlement and agriculture are
linked to extremely poor understanding of the Australian
environment, and a few are searching for that understanding in
the indigenous knowledge of Aboriginal people. Yet the
enlightened scientists who take this tack usually have no
concept that the structuring of Aboriginal languages must also
be taken into account to understand their taxonomies and
conceptualisations, which are not one-for-one translations of
English or Linnaean terminology.

I suspect that AI and cognitive science oriented linguists may
be among the least interested in maintaining linguistic
diversity. Yet paradoxically they may have the most to learn
from the diversity of naturally occurring systems. Many
cognitive scientists are involved in projects attempting to
simulate the intelligence needed for entities to find their
way around. In Australia there are linguistic and cultural
systems for doing this which are both startingly different
from Standard Average European ones and apparently very
efficient (Stephen Levinson, John Haviland and their group
have been looking at this). Moreover it is possible to study
such things not by simply taking knowledge away from
Aboriginal people, but negotiating joint research with them
through their bodies, which can also serve their aims such as
training and language maintenance.

Patrick McConvell
Northern Territory University
PO Box 40146
Casuarina 0811
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Message 3: Brother's keeper?

Date: Mon, 19 Oct 92 10:09:50 EDBrother's keeper?
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
Subject: Brother's keeper?

There are many issues concerning the social conscience of linguistics.
Twenty years ago, I became deeply involved in the pain and prospects of
the people whose language I was studying, and this assuredly did
interfere with my academic career. Among linguists and in the
institutions that we create and on which we place our dependence, it
behooves us to cultivate more support for language preservation and for
culture preservation. In a context of community development, this could
reduce the conflict between doing good and doing well. It would also
enhance the political and social relevance of the field, make it more
attractive to students, and more visibly consequential when
administrators cast about for dispensible limbs to amputate from the
body academic. I know there is growing interest among linguists in
language and culture preservation, so it is in my opinion not at all
tangential to the topics of this forum.

Re: promoting diversity

Stephen Ryberg <rybergsGAS.uug.Arizona.EDU> poses one sort of question
that is relevant:

>					 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.

The beginnings of a framework for addressing this and kindred questions
are in "Synergy: Some Notes of Ruth Benedict", Maslow & Hoenigmann,
_American Anthropologist 72(1970):320-333, with an introduction by
Margaret Mead, who was Benedict's literary executrix.

Paraphrasing Mead, in 1941, Ruth Benedict gave a series of lectures
calling attention to the correlation between social structure and
character structure, especially aggressiveness. She compared cultures
for their differing capacities to support or humiliate the individual,
to render the individual secure or anxious, or to minimize or maximize
aggression. She borrowed the term "synergy" (independently of the
somewhat divergent borrowing by R. Buckminster Fuller) from medicine,
where it had long referred to combined action. "In medicine it meant
the combined action of nerve centers, muscles, mental activities,
remedies, which by combining produced a result greater than the run of
their separate actions."

Though the point is left tacit in this published summary, it is clear
that U.S. culture, like many of its most influentual tributary
cultures, is toward the low end of the synergy spectrum (though not so
low as the aptly named Ik, whose dreadful degeneracy was documented by
Turnbull). For us, self-interest is clearly opposed to altruism, and
accounts of cultural realities for which these notions are so closely
identified that there can be no distinct vocabulary for them strike many
of us as the wishful thinking we may associate with fairy tales.

Benedict's immediate impulse seems to have sprung from the widespread
destruction of indigenous cultures across the Pacific, and a concern how
to counsel policymakers in making choices for culture change when two
cultures confront one another. (Similar generous intentions underlay
Goodenough's _Cooperation in Change_, parodied in the 1960s as
"Cooptation and change".) The lecture notes lay fallow while Benedict
wrote _The Crysanthemum and the Sword_ about Japanese culture in change.
She may have become discouraged as to the ability of scholars to
influence policy. In any case, she never wrote the book she had
envisioned on synergy. So far as I know, the most visible reflex today,
by way of her student Abraham Maslow, is the somewhat related use of the
term "synergy" among therapists and human potential workshop leaders.

Re: Dying languages

Dick Hudson <> suggests that it weakens one's argument
in favor of language preservation to draw an analogy between
preservation of languages and preservation of species.

>					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.

However, consider the intended audience of the argument, and recall the
appeal for that audience of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Ex hypotheosi,
speakers of these languages are able to perceive relationships, make
useful deductions, and so on, that are more difficult for speakers of
"Standard Average European" (Whorf's term) to achieve. And vice versa,
to be sure, but thence the argument for diversity and synergy rather
than competition. For what we are dealing with is the recalcitrant
win/lose logic of a low-synergy culture.

Sapir advances more sophisticated arguments for the value of languages,
however "primitive" or politically marginal, for example in his
discussions of a language as a collective work of art, fashioned by
countless generations of anonymous craftsmen.

>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;

Our audience (holding the purse-strings, as we suppose) might be more
taken with the familiar (to us) suggestion that language provides a
window on the workings of mind and brain, the more subtle suggestion
that it is actually more difficult to learn some things using only one's
own language with all its freight of unconscious assumptions, etc.
Sapir's metaphor of American languages as a laboratory comes to mind.

>the only consideration
>should be the well-being of the languages' speakers, and our professional
>needs are completely irrelevant.

Unfortunately, this appeals only to a liberal conscience. Sylvan George
(am I remembering that name right?) in his studies of ideology found
that in the ideology of the left values and personal direction are
determined from within the person, and social institutions are to be
created and modified to foster self realization; but in the ideology of
the right values and direction are imposed from without, the "depraved"
individual is a loose cannon to be bound by social institutions
hypostatized as eternal and changeless. For immediate example, the
descriptive commitment of linguistics makes it innately liberal vis a
vis "conservative" prescriptivism.

The ideology of the right has much in common, it seems to me, with
cultural values at the low end of Benedict's proposed scale of synergy.
They are fostered by (and create) the experience of a world in which
there is not enough to go around. They are rooted in fear. The still
ongoing destruction of cultures high in synergy, beginning with those
described by Columbus and his contemporaries arriving in the Carribean,
is to our own very great detriment. Can we make that loss visible from
within the contrary perspective of our own culture? Is linguistics a
vehicle for social change? Would those who provide funding disapprove
such ideas? Would those who seek funding disavow them?

	Bruce Nevin
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