Re: Last speaker of Bo died

From: Ed Trager (
Date: Fri Feb 05 2010 - 10:58:58 CST

  • Next message: Marion Gunn: "Re: Last speaker of Bo died"

    On Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 9:52 AM, Jeroen Ruigrok van der Werven
    <> wrote:
    > -On [20100205 12:01], Marion Gunn ( wrote:
    >>American languages are the most obvious examples, Jeroen. How many American
    >>languages were/are there?

    Were there not on the order of ~300 languages spoken in North America
    when Europeans first arrived on these shores? The actual count of the
    number of languages may depend on whether you are a "lumper" or a
    "splitter." Of these, perhaps 30 are still actively used in North
    American Indian communities today ... and I don't know how many of
    that number will survive the next 10 or 20 years?

    But language extinction is surely not a modern phenomenon, although
    aspects of the modern world may accelerate the extinction rates ...

    Look at China for example. Not counting the numerous non-Chinese
    minority languages spoken in various parts of modern China, there are
    I believe just 8 major Chinese languages spoken. Surely if North
    America had on the order of 300 languages as recently as a few hundred
    years ago, and India today still has --what is it?-- 220 or so living
    spoken languages, then I wonder how many "Chinese" languages were
    spoken in ancient China at the time when, say, Cao Cao consolidated
    power over Northern China in the early 200s C.E.? My bet would be
    *at least* several hundred ... If we were to correlate geographic
    "tortuosity" with number of human languages spoken before Empire
    changed everything, we could probably extrapolate an even higher
    number for ancient China ...

    But the facts remain as they always have: war, empire-building, and
    colonialism always lead to drastic changes in the cultural,
    linguistic, and economic fabric of human communities and nations. We
    may now also wish to add globalization as a new factor with strong
    effects on language survival. The survival of minority language
    communities depends on many things. Geographic and various forms of
    cultural isolation favor language survival.

    But on balance, I suspect that the forces of globalization in our
    lifetime are, statistically speaking, not good for minority language
    community survival.

    While it is true, as K David Harrison points out in his article, "The
    tragedy of dying languages" on the BBC website
    ( that "new technologies are
    being mobilised to the cause [of language preservation]," I doubt
    that these technologies, as useful as they potentially may be, will
    bear much fruit for most of these dying language communities.

    This quote from Harrison's article is really on the mark:

    >> A Torres Straits' Islander in Australia told me: "Our language is standing still,
    >> we need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words,
    >> because right now we can't say 'computer'."

    That quotation summarizes the whole problem exactly!

    Minority languages will *only* survive in those language communities
    where the people collectively realize that they need to renew their
    language as a living and vital part of their cultural heritage, just
    as the Jewish people, inspired by Zionism, did. The story of modern
    Hebrew is quite instructive: a few individuals -- Mendele Mocher
    Sfarim and of course Eliezer Ben-Yehuda -- played huge roles. So it
    appears that the key "ingredients" for successful language
    revitalization are (1) A strong collective desire to preserve language
    as part of a community's cultural heritage -- which often is part of
    (2) some larger ideologically-based cultural renewal movement (as
    Zionism was for Hebrew), and (3) a few key individuals who serve as
    leaders who inspire the community (as Ben-Yehuda, inter alia, did).

    Once you've got #1, #2, and #3 as your key ingredients, only then can
    the additional "ingredients" of things like (4) trained linguists and
    (5) technologists and (6) enabling technologies like Unicode itself
    become truly effective components in the larger "recipe" of language

    One final note: I personally would not want to work toward the goal
    of language "preservation" per se where said "preservation" really
    just boils down to recording the speech of the last few dying elders
    of some tribe so that future generations of students in Linguistics
    can go to the Smithsonian to do their PhD research ... That's too
    much like looking at bones and artifacts of long-dead people in old
    musty museum cases... But language "revival" as part of a larger,
    living goal of cultural renewal and preservation in minority
    communities -- now that is something I can get excited about!

    - Ed Trager

    > I assume the question is rhetorical in nature?
    > The BBC also followed up on the story about (Aka-)Bo with this:
    > "The tragedy of dying languages"
    > --
    > Jeroen Ruigrok van der Werven <asmodai(-at-)> / asmodai
    > イェルーン ラウフロック ヴァン デル ウェルヴェン
    > | | GPG: 2EAC625B
    > In short may I, directly and indirectly, offer benefit and happiness to all
    > beings, may I secretly take upon myself the harm and suffering of all
    > beings...

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