Seven thousand languages are in danger of disappearing.
Arguments in favour of letting Nature take its course:
1. It’s nobody’s business except for the people who are still speaking them.
2. Political considerations and romantic hypocrisy make it difficult to think straight about the subject.
Arguments in favour of trying to prevent their disappearance:
1. Every language, dead or alive, is (or was) the possession of all of humanity.
2. Every language – to use unscientific terms – has its own wisdom and beauty.
3. Every language contains knowledge that can be of practical use.
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On February 5, the BBC published observations by the linguist K. David Harrison, the author of the forthcoming book The Last Speakers: The quest to uncover the world’s most endangered languages.
Some of his points were:
Language revitalization will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.
What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, is to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know – which we’ve forgotten or never knew – may some day save us.
We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let’s listen while we still can…
The Kallawaya of Bolivia know a lot about medicinal plants. The Yupik of Alaska name ninety-nine distinct sea ice formations and the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer in certain particular ways.
Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally and new technologies are being mobilized in their cause.
The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige and translation software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues may infuse new vitality.
Comment by Reader A of David Harrison’s observations: “The first micro-etched Rosetta Disc, an archive of over fifteen hundred human languages” should be mentioned.
Comment by Reader B of David Harrison’s observations: “We have, in Europe, a language called the Basque language. It is the most ancient European language, the only pre-indo-European language spoken in Europe and is not related to any other languages.
“Although it is official and widely spoken in the Basque autonomous community in the Spanish state, Basque speakers in other parts of the Basque country, such as Navarre or the French Basque country, suffer constant discrimination from the local authorities in regions where Basque has always been widely spoken.
“My concern is that languages often die out as a result of politics and nationalism (in the Basque case, French and Spanish nationalism are to blame).
“I also believe that it is the EU’s responsibility to ensure that the Basque language survives in the whole Basque historical territory.”
Comment by Reader C of David Harrison’s observations: “You know what? The reason that Cornish, Andaman and even Latin died out as languages was that they were the expression of moribund societies incapable of communicating the intellectual, cultural and social dynamics required for sustained longevity and evolution. Trying to keep these languages ‘alive’ artificially is both futile and condescending.”