LINGUIST List 3.819

Sat 24 Oct 1992

Disc: Language Preservation

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  1. Joseph Tomei, Language presevation
  2. Ivan A Derzhanski, 3.811 Language Preservation
  3. Rick Wojcik, Re: 3.811 Language Preservation
  4. , Re: 3.811 Language Preservation

Message 1: Language presevation

Date: 22 Oct 1992 23:13:00 -0700Language presevation
Subject: Language presevation

I have been reading with interest the discussion on language death and
maintainence. A few points I would like to comment on are the comparison of
language disappearance to the loss of biological diversity. A point to be made
is that the traditional usage of a dead language has been for Latin and
classical Greek, languages in which great amounts of materials still exist. The
languages which are disappearing are doing so at a rate so quickly, linguists
often reach them at Dorian's stage of 'rememberers' who can only remember
isolated words and phrases.

Another point which I find interesting in this comparison between biology and
language is that it seems that some languages have a certain 'robustness' that
others do not, in that they are better able to resist language decline than
others. I don't like the fact that this could take a darwinian turn, i.e.
languages that are meant to succeed do, and those that didn't shouldn't. But on
the other hand, AI researchers are dealing with the possibility that systems
'think', in that some systems can react to certain changes to 'improve' their
environment (and the best known example is the "gaia" argument, that the earth
is an organism in a certain sense of the word) I suppose that there will be
those who argue that language death is merely social and economic pressures
that force a people to choose, and, in a strictly logical sense, I have no
arguments to offer. The fact that Japanese put their verbs at the end of the
sentence doesn't necessitate that they will be deferential. But on another
level, it distresses me to think that languages are merely tools to do things
with. A system as complex as language should have a dynamic just as other
complex systems have. Perhaps this is just an outgrowth of the use of phrases
like 'a living language' but I'm not so sure...
Joe Tomei
University of Oregon
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Message 2: 3.811 Language Preservation

Date: Fri, 23 Oct 92 14:23:51 BS3.811 Language Preservation
From: Ivan A Derzhanski <>
Subject: 3.811 Language Preservation

> Date: Thu, 22 Oct 92 12:00:25 MEZ
> From: "David M. W. Powers" <>
> 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).

I don't think that anyone was using "it keeps me in a job" as an
argument. On the other hand, the argument "we need it for our work"
was used, and that was indeed a poor argument.

I think Rick Wojcik had the right idea. The Oaxaca community have the
right to do what they like with the Oaxaca language. If they choose
to abandon it, then the best thing to do for the linguists who intend
to use it for their research is to compile a large corpus of material,
while this is still possible. In so far as the parallel with biology
is valid, there are some experiments that biologists can't afford to
perform, although they would be useful for increasing their knowledge.
We live in the real world.

But if the Oaxaca have the desire to preserve as much as possible of
their traditional culture, including as much as possible of their
language, then it will be a crime for anyone to prevent them from
doing so. And if it turns out that in order to get there they need
some assistance from us, if our knowledge and skills can be useful for
putting their language into writing and getting a literature started,
then I believe it is our duty to make it available to them. We didn't
do anything to earn our birth into communities speaking languages used
by millions of people, with long literary traditions, and what we have
we must share with those who have a different fate. If that succeeds,
we will all be richer at the end of the day.

Yes, and I also think that it is perfectly possible for it to succeed.

> 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.

Maybe, but why should it go down by an order of magnitude?

> 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.

Here's the catch. We don't know that. I have no idea how much
interest the young Oaxaca have in hearing, reading, writing, speaking
their traditional language. I'm not sure that they are not interested.

> But grandpa's stories, they were interesting enough, yet belonged
> to a time past.

Yes, and so do Shakespeare's plays. Let's junk 'em.

> David Powers
> World President NOT

Oh, and here's my emphatic vote against the world having a president.

 `If ye hiv ears oan yer heid - then use them tae lissen.' (The Glasgow Gospel)
Ivan A Derzhanski (;
* Centre for Cognitive Science, 2 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh EH8 9LW, UK
* Cowan House, Pollock Halls, 18 Holyrood Park Road, Edinburgh EH16 5BD, UK
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Message 3: Re: 3.811 Language Preservation

Date: Fri, 23 Oct 92 09:38:26 PDRe: 3.811 Language Preservation
From: Rick Wojcik <>
Subject: Re: 3.811 Language Preservation

I would like to follow up on Bill Bennett's point about how difficult it is
to preserve a language which its speakers have little use for. As a young
graduate student who first visited Brittany in 1971, I was full of eagerness
to learn the language and help preserve it. My mentor, Wolfgang Dressler,
asked me how I might ask directions of a Breton farmer if I got lost on a
back road. After my several clumsy attempts to find the correct Breton
phrasing, he pointed out that anything less than French would invite an attack
with a pitchfork. Why? Because, he explained, the Breton farmer would think
"This person thinks I'm so stupid that I don't even know French." :-)

Well, not all farmers were that way, but it was a good lesson for me. I had
many experiences that made me think I didn't really understand what was going
on with Breton. Why, for example, did a man in his 30's, a fluent Breton
speaker, refuse to speak Breton with friends and relatives when he returned
home from Paris? Reportedly, he spoke it all the time in Paris. The fact
was that he felt a need to express his Breton identity in Paris. In Brittany,
he wanted to broadcast his success in the world outside, which could only be
helped by his use of French. What keeps a language alive is its social
function, and we live in a world where the Breton language has little social
value for its users. So, despite the deep sense of loss that Bretons feel
at the passing of their language, there is little beyond sentimentality to
motivate them to keep it alive. Worse yet, the French language itself is
feeling cramped by the elevation of English into an international lingua
franca. So it is not only the Breton identity that has been under attack,
but the French one as well.

				-Rick Wojcik (
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Message 4: Re: 3.811 Language Preservation

Date: Fri, 23 Oct 1992 14:32:58 Re: 3.811 Language Preservation
From: <>
Subject: Re: 3.811 Language Preservation

At the risk of starting an uninteresting regress of recursive wonder I must
express wonder at Bill Bennett's wonder that linguists should be interested
in discussing questions pertaining to language preservation and language
extinction. Aren't these questions interesting both as a field of research
and as a possible field of application for linguistics?

This is not to say that linguists should see it as their task to come to
the rescue with howling sirens whenever a language threatens to vanish, or
that they could do much if its speakers really do not want to go on using
it. But is that the kind of scenario anybody has had in mind?

Agreed, the impetus towards language preservation, as an aspect of culture
preservation in general, must normally come from members of the threatened
community itself (although there are examples of successful initiatives
from outsiders). But it is a fact that even the simple discovery that your
native language actually has grammar may boost the cultural self-respect of
a community significantly. Hence the work of linguists may in some cases
have some modest influence on the course of events.

It is also easy to see the potential relevance of linguistics for various
existing language planning programmes around the world. Should linguists
take part in, criticize, or (to preserve their objectivity unmolested)
ignore such programmes? Isn't it at least worthwhile to discuss such
matters on the Linguist List?

What I object to in Bennetts posting as well as in Powers' original posting
is what I see as the suggestion that developments such as language death
are caused by forces beyond human control, or are somehow natural and
inevitable. In studying such phenomena linguists are studying aspects of
human action, and the role of the totally neutral, objective observer may
not always be available to them (to put it carefully) - even though I agree
that it remains an ideal for the linguist in his/her capacity as empirical

Helge Dyvik
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