4 Myths about Endangered Languages

My research is on the Englishes spoken by Aboriginal people in Australia. Aboriginal English is a fascinating dialect group which is often viewed negatively by outsiders but which is nonetheless hugely important to its speakers, many of whom no longer have access to their ancestral languages. Today’s blogpost is therefore on a topic close to my heart. As with Rowena’s previous post on sign language FAQs, it evolved from many conversations over beers, food, or anywhere else I end up talking about my research. Versions of the 4 statements below have been cropping up more or less frequently in these conversations, and each time I’ve felt like they needed a better response than what I could manage on the fly. And that’s what you have a blog for, right?

The language you speak determines the way you see the world

I thought we would start out with a classic (which has already been alluded to in Eleni’s post on language and dancing, amongst others). Sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language has a dominant influence on thought is an interesting point to start a debate on endangered languages. In its strongest form, the hypothesis is that each language embodies a worldview of its own, which can be contrasted with the world views inherent to other languages. This means a speaker of Arrernte, an Australian Aboriginal language, will see the world in a different way than a speaker of English, simply because of linguistic differences between the languages. However, empirical evidence such as Berlin and Kay’s 1969 study on universals in colour term semantics, as well as theoretical criticism (most notably Pinker 1994) means the original version of this idea has fallen out of grace in contemporary linguistics. Nevertheless, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis still survives, both in beer gardens in Cambridge, and in the urban myth that Inuits have countless words for snow – more on this interesting and super-pervasive myth here.

It does not matter which language you speak 

But wait, does this mean one language is as good as another? That would mean there was no reason to care about – or save – endangered languages. Worse, even, being “stuck” with a less widespread language could then be nothing but a barrier to getting an education, and a job. Now, to answer these questions properly I would need an entire blog post just on this subject (or even a book). I’ll try to be brief, but if you’ve got more time on hand, you might want to take 10 minutes to view this TEDx video by Felicity Meakins.

You’ll notice Felicity saying that “encoded in [Gurindji] grammar is a different world view”. Now, that might sound familiar, but what she alludes to is a weaker and more widely acknowledged version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, whereby rather than determining the way we think, the particular characteristics of a certain language may influence how we draw distinctions, or how we categorise things in our mind. What she emphasises is not only the differences in pronunciation, grammar and lexis between English and Gurindji, but also how the two languages convey different ways of conceptualising the world – e.g. with reference to ourselves (left or right in English ), or to external directions (north, south, east and west in Gurindji). And if you ask speakers of endangered languages themselves, they will tell you that their language and culture are intricately linked, and how losing a language feels like losing a connection to culture and group identity.

Identity and all that is fine, but speaking an endangered language does not have any practical implications

In the video above, Felicity Meakins shows some of the potential problems caused by the lack of awareness of Indigenous languages in education. Similarly, Diana Eades has conducted a number of studies on misunderstandings in courtroom settings caused by linguistic differences between speakers of minority and majority languages (and dialects). The problems facing second language speakers of endangered languages are a point of discussion in Australia, among other places, and are currently in the process of coming into focus, both with linguists and the public.

For scholars, endangered languages have plenty of practical implications in and of themselves. Many great linguistic discoveries have been made on the basis of a small language with few speakers that few from the outside had heard about before. And there’s knowledge of the culture in the languages that can, for instance, help archaeologists understand the motifs of cave paintings, or ancient migration patterns, better.

 Language death is not a problem to me.

Language death is what happens when a language no longer has any native speakers. The language may be recorded (for instance on tape, or in dictionaries) and can be revitalised, but language death will still have serious effects on the language itself, such as loss of complexity and dialectal variation. Furthermore, as I’ve argued above, the community associated with the language loose a significant connection to their culture and traditions, and to their own identity as a social group. But what does this have to do with me, you might ask? Well, language is knowledge. Of a culture, of a way of living, of the past. All this is worth keeping! So if you’re the kind of person who thinks that knowing as much as possible about the world is important, and that linguistic and cultural variety is amazing, then I hope you find that small

Author: annajespersen

Postdoc at Aarhus University, Denmark

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