"Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages"

By Gavin McNett

By Salon Staff
Published August 22, 2000 7:54PM (EDT)

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Thanks for Gavin McNett's review of "Vanishing Voices." McNett is at least partly correct regarding linguists' view of language death when he states: "There is no consensus as to why it's bad -- or what should be done about it." The latter statement is true, but the former is not. Linguists generally agree that what is bad about the current accelerated pace of language obsolescence is the loss of linguistic diversity.

McNett's assertion that mainstream linguistics "holds as an article of faith that all languages are basically equivalent in terms of conveying meaning" may have held true 30 years ago, but few linguists today would hold to this utopian ideal that all languages are equivalent in expressive power or complexity. This idea is more an evolution of social ideology in reaction to early white explorers (not necessarily linguists) who labeled foreign tongues "barbarous" and "simple." Note that early 20th century linguists such as Edward Sapir and Franz Boas actually celebrated the complexities of indigenous North American languages. No linguist doubts that the intricacies of Navajo grammar are much more complex that those of Hawai'ian. The trouble arises when non-linguists attempt to correlate these differences in linguistic complexity with extra-linguistic factors such as "intelligence."

Once the pretense of linguistic equivalence is abandoned, the significance of language death becomes more apparent. When we lose a language with unique and complex grammatical structures, we lose potential insight into the way humans structure information about their world. Both English and Dyirbal have something tell us about human cognition, but not necessarily the same things. Fortunately, we know quite a bit about the structure of Dyirbal. The same cannot be said for most of the world's remaining 6,000 or so languages. Nettle and Romaine may digress too far into political and social issues, but the basic point remains that languages offer unique insights into the structure of human cognition. In the words of linguist Marianne Mithun, loss of linguistic diversity is a "loss of one of one of our most valuable human intellectual resources."

-- Gary Holton
Alaska Native Language Center

One of the authors of this book was interviewed on local radio here in Dallas. He described each language as being like a beautiful butterfly, and he remarked how wonderful it was that the Francophones of Quebec were maintaining their language.

What he neglected to say was that the policies of those attempting to maintain the "Frenchness" of Quebec have engaged in what can only be described as genteel ethnic cleansing, with overt and covert racism and anti-Semitism driving people, money and businesses out of the province. Almost every government in Canada and Belgium since World War II has fallen over the language issue, and the brutal conflict between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda was both an ethnic and a linguistic (the Hutu Francophones vs. the Tutsi Anglophones) conflict.

Vanishing languages should be studied and recorded, but their preservation has the effect of creating discord and violence in society. That isn't a butterfly, it's a pretty wasp with a potentially lethal sting.

-- Matthew G. Saroff

Salon Staff

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