LINGUIST List 3.811

Fri 23 Oct 1992

Disc: Language Preservation

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  1. mark, 3.798 Language Preservation, Brother's Keeper?
  2. Bill Bennett, Re: [3.802 Language Preservation]
  3. "David M. W. Powers", Re: Language Preservation

Message 1: 3.798 Language Preservation, Brother's Keeper?

Date: Tue, 20 Oct 92 10:03:52 ES3.798 Language Preservation, Brother's Keeper?
From: mark <>
Subject: 3.798 Language Preservation, Brother's Keeper?

I just want to add a note to Bruce E. Nevin's comment

> 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).

The "degeneracy" of the Ik was *induced*, by their forced removal
from their homeland, in which their entire culture had evolved
and to which it was adapted, to a totally different terrain, poor
in resources and in which they had to struggle even to barely
survive as individuals. This was done to them by a government
that considered them only in terms of utility to the people that
the government represented: "They're in our way, so we'll move
them out." That is one result of considering only the "utility"
of a people. Analogies with respect to cultures, species, and
languages I leave to the reader.

 Mark A. Mandel
 Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200
 320 Nevada St. : Newton, Mass. 02160, USA
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Message 2: Re: [3.802 Language Preservation]

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 92 20:15:21 BSRe: [3.802 Language Preservation]
From: Bill Bennett <>
Subject: Re: [3.802 Language Preservation]

I may have missed other contributions in the mood of Rick Wojcik's in 3.802,
but I too wonder why this debate is so thriving. I also sympathise with those
who want to keep some evidence of the past (that's why I bother about
countryside rights of way). BUT -how- do you preserve a language which no
longer serves its speakers? WHAT is "a language" anyway but a working fiction;
and how to conserve it: if it doesn't vary and modify it is unreal; if it does
then HOW can it be caught? And how are naive speakers to be "persuaded" to go
on using speech which is surplus to requirements?

Bill Bennett
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Message 3: Re: Language Preservation

Date: Thu, 22 Oct 92 12:00:25 MERe: Language Preservation
From: "David M. W. Powers" <>
Subject: Re: Language Preservation

It doesn't look like many linguist subscribers will vote for me as
world president (including me).

But I would like to recall a previous linguist discussion on the epithet:
"A language is a dialect with an army and a navy". This characterization
reflects that the world we live in is far from the ideal which has
been proclaimed by some of those who have responded to my original
posting. This sort of "survival of the fittest" is based more on
temporal power than objective, moral or in any sense considered judgement
about the value (moral, linguistic or cultural) of the "less fit" communities.

Unfortunately, as Pike put it in relation to language (the emic/etic
distinction), you're either an insider or an outsider in relation to any
community (in which I include the banding together of nations, unions
and social clubs).

I was disappointed that this self-same mentality was all too clear in the
responses, as my comments were taken as an attack on the linguistics and
anthropology communities. Objectivism is an elusive goal (Lakoff and
Johnson would have put it even more strongly), and we are all influenced
by both our subjective past experience and our perceived future livelihood.
I recognize that the kind of community/language which ONLP focuses on has
provided the training ground for many (including me). But "it keeps me
in a job" is rather a poor reason for undertaking such a project, or
indeed for doing anything (in an ideal world).

So let's try to look at the possible outworkings of the ONLP in a way which
avoids fairytale ideals (a world of non-competing languages and communities),
fairytale illusions (man is basically good and unselfish and will live
happily ever after) and fairytale theories (Universal Grammar as an expression
of an innate linguistic organ - or even its metaphorical undermining in
an extreme Cognitive Linguistics). I'd like to do a thought experiment
and look at some of the communities ONLP is "helping" in a generation or
two's time.

Let us first consider Community/Language A:

This is an isolated community, self-contained, with relatively
insignificant outside influences. A person of sufficient
influence and familiar with much of the folklore is whisked away,
trained to read and write his own language, and produces a book
containing some of their history and lore. He succeeds in
teaching others to read and write, and further books are written.
In succeeding generations, reading and writing and the language
continue to be important.

And for comparison Community/Language B:

This is a community with contacts to many other minor language
groups and to one major language, increasingly dependent on the
outside world, and with a significant proprotion of the community
envious of the greener grass outside. A person of sufficient
influence and familiar with much of the folklore is whisked away,
trained to read and write her own language, and produces a book
containing some of their history and lore. She succeeds in teaching
others to read, and a few to write, and helps people to see some
of the values of their own culture. In succeeding generations
however the community became smaller and smaller and ceased to
exist as people absorbed into the surrounding major language

These straw communities are idealizations. The scenario in A already
presumes some outside contact with community as the language has
already been analyzed and an orthography developed. The teaching
of reading and writing, even just of their own language, changes their
culture, and in this example destroys their tradition of oral
preservation of tradition. The teaching of writing may have just been
the teaching of physical writing and/or word-processing skills (the ONLP
gets them to write their book in a Computerized Desktop Publishing
environment), but is likely to have conveyed something of Western
stylistics (tables of contents, introductions and conclusions), if
not western "objectivity" (if the book extends beyond the setting down of
oral traditions in traditional style). For further books to be produced
the community needs to have the DP equipment, or at least pens and paper,
and the ability to produce these. The culture has already been radically
changed. If they are taught something about the western world, or he
writes as part of the ONLP volume or later books something of his visit
there, this is a further influence. There is no way we can keep it locked
up, and we have in fact unlocked the door to the outside world for this
community. But in this example, despite all of these factors, the
community continues to keep to itself and remains self-sufficient - even
in their publishing endeavours and the producing of the necessary equipment.

Case B is closer to what I see as the reality of the communities ONLP is
dealing with. If it is presently 1000 strong, and the community of
native speakers of the language reduces by an order of magnitude each
generation, it can only survive three generations. As their culture has
been locked into their own language it is lost, as there are no readers
of that language anymore (except for one anthropologist who was presented
with one book by the grandfather of one of his students, and learnt enough of
the language from him). The literacy program in the community had
included literacy in the official national language, but the ONLP emphasis
on preserving their culture in books in their own language led to its loss
(apart from the project of the lone anthropologist). The speakers of the
language treasured these books as they moved out into the wider world,
but their children always associated their culture with their parents'
language and the village life, and thus completely irrelevant to their
modern western lifestyle - especially as they had no interest in hearing,
let alone reading, their traditional language and at a fairly young aged
refused to even try to communicate in that language with anyone but their
grandparents, who really hadn't learnt much of anything else. But
grandpa's stories, they were interesting enough, yet belonged to a time

(Personal note, I was brought up in a ghetto community where two-thirds
of the children I went to school with belonged to one of two major and many
minor minority communities. I have out of necessity of one form or another
spent significant portions of my life in language communities where I
am not a native speaker. I am all for the absorbtion of different
cultural values and ideas, and for promoting opportunity for mutual
recognition of these. But I am not at all sure that ONLP is a uniformly
positive step in this direction.)

I made my original contribution in an attempt to make you think. It
rather made you jump down my throat. (But thank you to those who wrote
to me personally in support.) Even in this contribution, I have
no doubt used far too much too emotive language. But I trust that as
trained scientists you are able to see past this to the dilemmas which
I am trying to expose. Neither piece is intended as a tirade against
ONLP, or anyone else, but is a genuine attempt to seek an exchange of
views on a matter which I see as being anything but clear.

David Powers
World President NOT

Dr David M. W. Powers +49-631-13786 (GMT+1) E xtraction
Auf der Vogelweide 1 +49-631-205-3210 (FAX) O f SHOE
W-6750 KAISERSLAUTERN FRG H ierarchical
 S tructure
for Machine Learning of Natural Language and Ontology
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