There’s a weird fight going on in my brain. In the blue corner we have my love for languages, linguistics, the life-like way they evolve and merge and adapt, grammar and its complexities, and the depth and colour that words can add to simple ideas, not to mention learning the different pallets of other languages and cultures. And in the red corner I kinda want endangered languages to die out, and quickly please. In fact, if we could go ahead and execute the severely endangered and other imperilled forms of speech that would be just grand.
For those of you who love languages and linguistics, I’m picturing a look of revolted horror on your faces right now. And yes, I do feel that I am somehow betraying some ancient oath taken by all linguophiles to preserve all speech and do no harm, but I also can’t drum up enough will to actually care.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with the concept of language endangerment so let me explain to you. Out of the earth’s 7000 languages (you never knew there were that many did you?) it is believed that half of them will be extinct by the end of the 21st century. By the year 2100 we as a species will have flying cars* but only 3500 languages. A language dies when all of its speakers, but not necessarily all of the ethnic group who traditionally speak it, kick the bucket. Some of the more common examples are many of the Native American languages. Lots of the young Native Americans have English as their first language and may not speak Sioux, or Apache, or whatever language their tribe uses at all. If they do speak it, it is often only to older people in their family groups and they sometimes resent using the language as it makes them feel like outsiders in their own social groups (high-school is an awful place to be different). Thus, the mechanics of sociolinguistics slowly drive a language into the grave and there are none alive left to use it. They are as dead as latin doornails.
So why am I so keen that these languages, and therefore much of the cultures attached to them, die out? Well… I love globalisation. The idea that in the future we will be one planet and one nation (so to speak). The higher goal of attaining peace (or at least prickly tolerance) the world over is such a fantastic idea. Now, don’t worry I’m not going to lie in bed, let my hair grow, and stay there until all wars end. I’m not naive enough to actually believe that world peace is remotely achievable anywhere in the near future. Call me pessimistic but place a bet and I’ll win. Yet the concept of uniting as many people as possible into a peaceful community is essentially what I dream of. Jeez this got very hippy-ish all of a sudden didn’t it?
Not that people can’t be peaceful and cooperative if they speak different languages. Look at us and the French. We hate their collective guts (and they ours) but we get along just fine and haven’t bombed each other in quite a while. But to me, there is so much conflict that boils down to simple cultural differences or beliefs. In my mind it makes sense that eliminating as much potential cause for struggle and strife is a good thing.
Yet the more I think about it, the more I think that this makes me more than a little racist (but hey – everyone’s a little bit racist). Get rid of those funny foreign languages! My language is one of if not the least endangered in the world and I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m advocating the elimination of hundreds (if not thousands) of years of the slow growth and evolution of a speech system. Not to mention the culture that inevitably gets folded into the mix along the way.
Then again, this is how languages work. They are much like living things in this respect. They evolve, change, adapt, and grow. And when met with insurmountable evolutionary obstacles (meteors, colonisation, western expansionism into rainforests etc) they die. Now as much as I adore pandas, I do have to admit that the arguments for spending as much money as we do on protecting a species that has clearly not been paying attention to the basic tenets of Darwinism are weak at best. (If you choose to eat nutritionally devoid food, don’t want to screw, and live solitary lives – YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!) Surely some of the same arguments can be applied to languages? If a culture is so marginal in the face of expanding civilisation (think tribal bush languages in Papua New Guinea) then it is literally inevitable that they will gradually fade. While this is undeniably sad for many reasons, is it worth expending effort in protecting something that will eventually die out? These languages are so minute, their practitioners often elderly, that simply keeping them for the sake of keeping them is meaningless.
Oh I don’t know. Truth is: my opinion matters not at all. Things will take their course and languages will die over time. Perhaps this will add to the gradual creeping towards world… togetherness (peace is too fanciful an idea) and bring us together more as a species. Perhaps you just have to be fat, cute, black and white, and addicted to bamboo to warrant a full scale preservation effort.
*I actually think that flying cars are a stupid idea that will never actually come into common use. While we may invent the technology in the near future, actually equipping as many people who drive cars with flying machines just seems stupid. Will there be air roads? What’s to stop the occasional car falling from the sky and smashing into a house? Any accidents wont just kill the drivers but the people down below. Judging by the fact that there are, on average, 6.5 MILLION car collisions each year in the US alone, having that amount of death raining down is simply batshit crazy. I think the dream of flying cars will be seen much like the past dream of turning lead to gold. Sure, we now have the technology to do it, but it’s expensive and pointless.