Re: Languages of the world

From: Donald Z. Osborn (
Date: Fri Mar 25 2005 - 12:38:39 CST

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    Many factors, as Asmus points out, enter into the decline of languages. In
    addition to those he mentions are language and education policies which serve
    to undermine or devalue the use of certain languages. Sometimes these are
    expressedly assimilationist policies designed to reduce or eliminate minority
    language use, and other times the policies may have a higher expressed aim
    (often influenced by a monolingual-state paradigm) but still end up
    marginalizing many maternal languages in public life and hastening the process
    of language loss in local cultures.

    Obviously the attitudes and actions of the native speakers themselves are
    central. Here too many factors, ideas, and influences are involved. But two
    deserve attention: first, in many cases, people take their language and
    culture for granted, which these days often translates to neglect of informal
    educational ways that long were part of the life of the language/culture
    (without those being replaced by other perhaps more formal educational
    approaches); and second, the lack of apparent conflict around the sublimation
    of languages and cultures is often not as benign a process as it may seem from
    outside (a case could be made that they are generally "non-conflicts"). The
    role of the outsider in issues of language survival and revitalization
    (processes to which the existence of Unicode contributes) is complex and
    delicate, but begins with raising awareness about what is happening and why,
    different ways of thinking about linguistic diversity (and multilingualism),
    and appropriate paths of action.

    One additional thought about language loss: one could see the cost to a people
    of loss of its maternal language as a loss of "esprit" (the French term has an
    interesting range of use which seems to me to go beyond that of its literal
    English translation of spirit, as illustrated in the loan term, esprit de
    corps). While there are tangible losses in terms of knowledge and expression,
    loss of a language arguably also entails a deeper loss to the sense of being of
    a people, and as such to humanity as a whole.

    For those interested in pursuing this discussion, you're invited to join a list
    set up to deal with such questions and related ones surrounding language
    development (which for the moment features mainly forwarded articles): "MINEL"

    By way of disclaimer, I am in no way an expert on endangered languages or
    language revitalization, but in the course of other language-related work have
    become interested in this subject area (it also links to an earlier interest in
    the dynamics of tradition and development, but that would really take us

    Don Osborn

    Quoting Asmus Freytag

    > >If a culture dies with [its] language, what [do] we loose if a language
    > dies?
    > >
    > >For each language lost, a unique interpretation of the cosmos is lost.
    > >Each language has a unique way of carving up the universe, making sense of
    > >reality, relating to other humans and the environment, expressing a
    > >literature or a mythology. Monolinguals rarely have any idea what this
    > >means
    > Sometimes the simple fact is that the (sub-)culture is dying or stagnating,
    > and there is less for speakers to express.
    > If a language is bound to a rural or even nomadic culture, but modern life
    > finds the descendants in an urban environment, there may be little, except
    > for religion, of daily life that can be meaningfully communicated in it.
    > Add to that rapid technological change, and sooner or later even reasonably
    > sized communities have to work at maintaining a native vocabulary. And not
    > all of them are as aggressive about it as the Icelanders ;-)
    > A./

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