Essay/Philosophy of Language

The death of languages

Endangered languages have sentimental value, it's true, but are there good philosophical reasons to preserve them?

Rebecca Roache

Katrina Esau, one of the last remaining speakers of a Khoisan language that was thought extinct nearly 40 years ago, teaches her native tongue to a group of school children in Upington, South Africa on 21 September 2015. Photo by Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty

Rebecca Roache

is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, and currently writing a book about swearing. She lives in Oxfordshire.

3,100 words

Edited by Nigel Warburton

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The year 2010 saw the death of Boa Senior, the last living speaker of Aka-Bo, a tribal language native to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. News coverage of Boa Senior’s death noted that she had survived the 2004 tsunami – an event that was reportedly foreseen by tribe elders – along with the Japanese occupation of 1942 and the barbaric policies of British colonisers. The linguist Anvita Abbi, who knew Boa Senior for many years, said: ‘After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years. She was often very lonely and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.’ 

Tales of language extinction are invariably tragic. But why, exactly? Aka-Bo, like many other extinct languages, did not make a difference to the lives of the vast majority of people. Yet the sense that we lose something valuable when languages die is familiar. Just as familiar, though, is the view that preserving minority languages is a waste of time and resources. I want to attempt to make sense of these conflicting attitudes.

The simplest definition of a minority language is one that is spoken by less than half of some country or region. This makes Mandarin – the world’s most widely spoken language – a minority language in many countries. Usually, when we talk of minority languages, we mean languages that are minority languages even in the country in which they are most widely spoken. That will be our focus here. We’re concerned especially with minority languages that are endangered, or that would be endangered were it not for active efforts to support them.

The sorrow we feel about the death of a language is complicated. Boa Senior’s demise did not merely mark the extinction of a language. It also marked the loss of the culture of which she was once part; a culture that was of great interest to linguists and anthropologists, and whose extinction resulted from oppression and violence. There is, in addition, something melancholy about the very idea of a language’s last speaker; of a person who, like Boa Senior, suffered the loss of everyone to whom she was once able to chat in her mother tongue. All these things – the oppression until death of a once thriving culture, loneliness, and losing loved ones – are bad, regardless of whether they involve language death.

Part of our sadness when a language dies, then, has nothing to do with the language itself. Thriving majority languages do not come with tragic stories, and so they do not arouse our emotions in the same ways. Unsurprisingly, concern for minority languages is often dismissed as sentimental. Researchers on language policy have observed that majority languages tend to be valued for being useful and for facilitating progress, while minority languages are seen as barriers to progress, and the value placed on them is seen as mainly sentimental.

Sentimentality, we tend to think, is an exaggerated emotional attachment to something. It is exaggerated because it does not reflect the value of its object. The late philosopher G A Cohen describes a well-worn, 46-year-old eraser that he bought when he first became a lecturer, and that he would ‘hate to lose’. We all treasure such things – a decades-old rubber, our children’s drawings, a long-expired train ticket from a trip to see the one we love – that are worthless to other people. If the value of minority languages is mainly sentimental, it is comparable to the value that Cohen placed on his old eraser. It would be cruel to destroy it deliberately, yet it would be unreasonable for him to expect society to invest significant resources preserving it. The same might be true of minority languages: their value to some just doesn’t warrant the society-wide effort required to preserve them.

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There are a couple of responses to this. First, the value of minority languages is not purely sentimental. Languages are scientifically interesting. There are whole fields of study devoted to them – to charting their history, relationships to other languages, relationships to the cultures in which they exist, and so on. Understanding languages even helps us to understand the way we think. Some believe that the language we speak influences the thoughts we have, or even that language is what makes thought possible. This claim is associated with the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker at Harvard has described as ‘wrong, all wrong’.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is certainly linked to a variety of dubious myths and legends, such as the pervasive but false belief that Eskimos have a mind-bogglingly large number of words for snow. But its core idea is not as wrong-headed as Pinker believes. While there is little evidence that thought would not be possible at all without language, there is plenty of evidence that language influences the way we think and experience the world. For example, depending on which language they are using, fluent German-English bilinguals categorise motion differently, Spanish-Swedish bilinguals represent the passage of time differently, and Dutch-Farsi bilinguals perceive musical pitch differently. Even Pinker apparently finds the link between thought and language compelling: he believes that thoughts are couched in their own language, which he calls ‘mentalese’. In any case, this debate can be settled only empirically, by studying as many different languages (and their speakers) as possible. Which leaves little doubt that languages are valuable for non-sentimental reasons.

Second, let’s take a closer look at sentimental value. Why do we call some ways of valuing ‘sentimental’? We often do this when someone values something to which they have a particular personal connection, as in the case of Cohen and his eraser. Cohen calls this sort of value personal value. Things that have personal value are valued much less by people who do not have the right sort of personal connection to them. Another way of being sentimental is valuing something that is connected to someone or something that we care about. This sort of value is behind the thriving market in celebrity autographs, and it is why parents around the world stick their children’s drawings to the fridge.

The term ‘sentimental’ is gently pejorative: we view sentimentality as an inferior sort of value (compared with, say, practical usefulness), although we are often happy to indulge each other’s sentimental attachments when they don’t cause us inconvenience. Parents’ sentimentality about their kids’ drawings is not inconvenient to others, but sentimentality about minority languages often is, since they require effort and resources to support. This helps to explain why minority languages, to some people, are just not worth the bother.

However, sentimentality is not so easily set aside. Our culture is underpinned by values that, on close inspection, look very much like sentimentality. Consider the following comparison. We can all agree that it is sentimental of Cohen to insist (as he did) that he would decline an opportunity to upgrade his old eraser to a brand-new one. Yet were the Louvre to decline an offer from a skilled forger to exchange the Mona Lisa for an ‘improved’ copy that eliminated the damage suffered over the years by the original, we are unlikely to view this decision as sentimental. On the contrary, were the museum to accept the forger’s offer, we could expect to find this shocking story make headlines around the world. Our contrasting attitudes disguise the fact that the values involved in these two cases are very similar. In each case, an item with a certain history is valued over another, somewhat improved, item with a different history.

Sentimentality explains why it is better to support endangered natural languages rather than Klingon

This sort of value is ubiquitous. We preserve such things as medieval castles, the Eiffel Tower and the Roman Colosseum not because they are useful but because of their historical and cultural significance. When ISIS fighters smashed 5,000-year-old museum exhibits after capturing Mosul in 2015, outraged journalists focused on the destroyed artefacts’ links with ancient and extinct cultures. Historical and cultural significance is part of why we value languages; indeed, the philosopher Neil Levy has argued that it is the main reason to value them. These ways of valuing things are labelled sentimental in some contexts. If minority languages are valuable partly for sentimental reasons then they are in good company.

While valuing minority languages is often viewed as sentimental, it is just as often admired. The documentary We Still Live Here (2010) tells the story of the revival of the Wampanoag language, a Native American language that was dead for more than a century. The film celebrates the language’s revival and the efforts of Jessie Little Doe Baird, who spearheaded its revival, whose ancestors were native speakers, and whose daughter became the revived language’s first native speaker. Baird received a MacArthur Fellowship to carry out her project, and her success attracted widespread media attention and honours, including a ‘Heroes Among Us’ award from the Boston Celtics basketball team.

Across the Atlantic, Katrina Esau, aged 84, is one of only three remaining speakers of N|uu, a South African ‘click’ language. For the past decade, she has run a school in her home, teaching N|uu to local children in an effort to preserve it. In 2014, she received the Order of the Baobab from the country’s president, Jacob Zuma. Both Baird and Esau have received global news coverage for their efforts, which are acclaimed as positive contributions to their community.

It is fortunate that sentimentality can be a respectable sort of attitude. Without it – that is, focusing solely on the scientific and academic value of languages – it is difficult to explain why it is better to preserve currently existing minority languages rather than revive long-dead languages that nobody living today cares about, or why it is better to support endangered natural languages such as the Lencan languages of Central America rather than artificial languages such as Volapük (constructed by a Roman Catholic priest in 19th-century Germany) and Klingon (the extra-terrestrial language in Star Trek), or why it is better to preserve endangered natural languages than to invent completely new languages.

Even people who are unsympathetic to efforts to support minority languages are, I imagine, less baffled by Esau’s desire to preserve N|uu than they would be by a campaign for the creation and proliferation of a completely new artificial language. No such campaign exists, of course, despite the fact that creating and promoting a new language would be scientifically interesting. The reason why it’s better to preserve currently existing natural languages than to create new ones is because of the historical and personal value of the former. These are exactly the sort of values associated with sentimentality.

Minority languages, then, are valuable. Does that mean that societies should invest in supporting them? Not necessarily. The value of minority languages might be outweighed by the value of not supporting them. Let’s look at two reasons why this might be the case: the burden that supporting minority languages places on people, and the benefits of reducing language diversity.

While we might value minority languages for similar reasons that we value medieval castles, there is an important difference in how we can go about preserving the two types of thing. Preserving a minority language places a greater burden on people than does preserving a castle. We can preserve a castle by paying people to maintain it. But we can’t preserve a minority language by paying people to carry out maintenance. Instead, we must get people to make the language a big part of their lives, which is necessary if they are to become competent speakers. Some people do this voluntarily, but if we want the language to grow beyond a pool of enthusiasts, we must impose lifestyle changes on people whether they like it or not. Often this involves legislation to ensure that children learn the minority language at school.

Such policies are controversial. Some parents think that it would be better for their children to learn a useful majority language rather than a less useful minority language. However, for native English speakers, the most commonly taught majority languages – French, German, Spanish, Italian – are not as useful as they first seem. A language is useful for a child to learn if it will increase the amount of people she can communicate with, increase the amount of places where she can make herself understood, and perhaps also if it is the language of a neighbouring country. Yet, because English is widely spoken in countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy, even an English-speaking monoglot can make himself understood pretty well when visiting these countries. If he decides to invest effort in learning one of these languages, he can expect relatively little return on his investment in terms of usefulness.

If people in English-speaking countries are concerned about teaching children useful languages, we should teach them languages whose native speakers less commonly understand English, such as Arabic and Mandarin – languages that are not commonly taught in schools in the UK and the US. There are, of course, some native English speakers who believe that learning any foreign language is pointless because English is so widely understood – think of the stereotypical British ex-pat living in Spain but not learning Spanish – but this view is clearly not held by parents who are supportive of their children learning some foreign language. So people who support English-speaking children learning French, German and Spanish, but who don’t support them learning a local minority language, will have difficulty defending their position in terms of usefulness. In that case, why is it so widely seen as a good thing for English-speaking children to learn majority languages such as French, German and Spanish? I think it is the same reason that many claim it’s a good thing to learn a minority language: to gain an insight into an unfamiliar culture, to be able to signal respect by speaking to people in the local language, to hone the cognitive skills one gains by learning a language, and so on.

Languages have not become extinct or endangered gently. The history of language death is a violent one

There is also, I think, a special kind of enrichment that children – and people in general – get from learning a minority language connected to their community. They get a new insight into their community’s culture and history. They also gain the ability to participate in aspects of their culture that, without knowing the language, are closed off and even invisible; namely, events and opportunities conducted in the minority language. I write from experience here, having spent the past 18 months or so trying to learn Welsh. I was born and raised in Wales yet, until recently, my main contact with the language consisted mainly of ignoring it. Returning to Wales now, armed with my admittedly modest understanding of Welsh, I have a sense of this long-familiar country becoming visible to me in a new way. I feel pleased and interested when I encounter Welsh speakers. I am happy that my nephew learns Welsh at school. These strong conservative intuitions are – for a non-conservative like me – surprising and somewhat alien. But they are not unique: they centre on benefits that are frequently mentioned by campaigners for minority languages.

Finally, let’s consider a very different reason to resist the view that we should support minority languages. Language diversity is a barrier to successful communication. The Bible has a story about this: as a punishment for building the Tower of Babel, God ‘confused the language of all of the Earth’ by causing people to speak a multiplicity of languages where once they had all spoken the same one. It’s rare these days to encounter the view that our diversity of languages is a curse, but it’s notable that in other areas of communication – such as in the representation of numbers, length and volume – we favour standardisation. The advantages to adopting a single language are clear. It would enable us to travel anywhere in the world, confident that we could communicate with the people we met. We would save money on translation and interpretation. Scientific advances and other news could be shared faster and more thoroughly. By preserving a diversity of languages, we preserve the obstacles to communication. Wouldn’t it be better to allow as many languages as possible to die out, leaving us with just one universal lingua franca?

It would be difficult, however, to implement a lingua franca peacefully and justly. The very idea calls to mind oppressive past policies, such as the efforts of the Soviet Union to suppress local languages and to force all its citizens to communicate only in Russian. Extinct and endangered languages have not, on the whole, become extinct or endangered gently, by subsequent generations choosing freely to switch to a more dominant language. The history of language death is a violent one, as is reflected in the titles of books on the subject: David Crystal’s Language Death (2000), Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine’s Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages (2000), and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s Linguistic Genocide in Education (2008).

It would, then, be difficult to embrace a lingua franca without harming speakers of other languages. In addition, if we were serious about acting justly, it would not be enough merely to abstain from harming communities of minority language speakers. Given the injustices that such communities have suffered in the past, it might be that they are owed compensation. This is a view commonly held by minority-language campaigners. It is debatable what form this compensation should take, but it seems clear that it should not include wiping out and replacing the local language.

Perhaps, if one were a god creating a world from scratch, it would be better to give the people in that world one language rather than many, like the pre-Babel civilisations described in the Bible. But now that we have a world with a rich diversity of languages, all of which are interwoven with distinct histories and cultures, and many of which have survived ill-treatment and ongoing persecution, yet which continue to be celebrated and defended by their communities and beyond – once we have all these things, there is no going back without sacrificing a great deal of what is important and valuable.

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