LINGUIST List 3.802

Tue 20 Oct 1992

Disc: Language Preservation

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Mark Turnbull, natural language diversity
  2. Rick Wojcik, Re: 3.798 Language Preservation
  3. Leland Emerson McCleary, Threatened languages

Message 1: natural language diversity

Date: Mon, 19 Oct 1992 15:47:41 natural language diversity
From: Mark Turnbull <>
Subject: natural language diversity

REGARDING natural language diversity

For any of you interested in this topic who are planning on attending the
Boston University Conference on Language Development next weekend, Ken Hale
will be presenting
 "On Resisting Language Loss: The Human Value of Local Languages"
at 9 am on Sunday morning October 25th.

If no one else volunteers, I'll take notes and post them here.

Mark Turnbull
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Message 2: Re: 3.798 Language Preservation

Date: Mon, 19 Oct 92 14:43:50 PDRe: 3.798 Language Preservation
From: Rick Wojcik <>
Subject: Re: 3.798 Language Preservation

I was a little puzzled by Patrick McConvell's generalization:

 "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..."

I regard myself as both "AI and cognitive science oriented", and I have
also worked on a dying language, Breton. I don't agree that having a
particular linguistic orientation makes one prejudiced one way or the
other. I most heartily agree with his point that those interested in
the nature of intelligence have much to learn from the study of exotic

I happen to have very mixed feelings about this issue. As someone who came
to have a lot of contact with Breton nationalists, I naturally came to adopt
something of a sympathetic view of their cause. Nevertheless, I have always
believed that my job as a linguist was to be a dispassionate observer of the
language. Getting involved in political issues might not skew grammatical
analyses, but it can certainly skew your understanding of social trends, which
might be important to your work. And it can also get you into some
sticky situations, especially when you learn that speech communities are
almost never monolithic. When asked whether I thought Breton would survive
as a language, I usually answered with a diplomatic "That is up to the Breton
people." Not everyone liked that answer, but it seldom got me in hot water.
And I learned to take this position from having seen another linguist get
scalded. :-)

And this brings me to my main point. Why are linguists even debating whether
or not they should aid efforts to preserve a dying language? It really is up
to the language community, and we exaggerate our power to play a significant
role. You can no more stop a language from dying than you can give birth
to one. Many of my informants thought me more than a little odd to even want
to learn about Breton. They saw no real use for the language outside of their
own local conditions. Others saw it as the essence of identity. It was not my
place, as an outsider, to take sides in this social dynamic.

					-Rick Wojcik (
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Message 3: Threatened languages

Date: Mon, 19 Oct 92 14:44:34 -0Threatened languages
From: Leland Emerson McCleary <>
Subject: Threatened languages

I read David Powers' incredible flame immediately after having seen
the Chomsky documentary on the manufacture of consent and Hector
Babenco's beautiful adaptation of Peter Matthiessen's "Playing in the
Fields of the Lord".

In the Chomsky film, we see East Timor being liberated from their
unfortunate isolation from western civilization and being offered the
benefits of standard Indonesian. In the Babenco film we see missionaries
sacrificing the comforts of home to bring plastic bowls and the Word of
the Lord to savages previously condemned to live out their lives speaking
to each other in a dying language. Surely two enterprises that would
warm Power's heart.

In the ensuing commentary I was puzzled by D Hudson's critique of two of
Peter Svenonius' arguments. Hudson said:

>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

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

Hudson's own logic gives me pause. In the first case, genes should be
preserved because they may be *useful* to humans (thanks to the work of
biogeneticists and the pharmaceutical corporations, naturally).

In the second case, the usefulness of threatened languages to linguists
(and possibly also therefore to humans, if knowledge of human cognition
and behavior might have practical applications) is not good enough. In
this case "the only consideration should be the well-being of the ...

Too bad it's not so easy to argue for the preservation of genes with
that same argument. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could garner support
for the preservation of the Amazon forest only on the basis of the
"well-being" of the plants and animals that live there?

Leland MccCleary
Universidade de Sao Paulo
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