Thursday, November 29, 2007

Death of a Language: Why Care?
When your dog dies, you know it's bad without having to be told why. When a language dies (and they die every week) it dies quietly and without a fuss. Why care? It's hard to really know. I think senescent languages should be allowed to die peacefully- just as long as they are not murdered along with their speakers.

Is the 'death' of a language really a 'death' if the dictionary is still there? Perhaps a language is like a crystallised virus- hibernating for thousands of years until the next appropriate 'host' (anthropologist) is found.

Even if the language itself can never be resuscitated- it can be translated. This is where the comparison with 'biodiversity' fails (despite many comparing language extinction with species extinction). When the information contained in the species known as "leopard" dies out in the next few decades, it cannot simply be re-booted on another animal (yet).

Other arguments seem to stem from a more utilitarian perpective: "If we only knew what (extinct plant) the speakers (of this extinct language) used to treat headaches!"- but is ethnopharmacology really the way "Big Pharma" discovers new drugs? I doubt it.

We can certainly learn more about history /culture if we can understand how languages evolved with their speakers. Dead languages need to be translatable for research purposes- but who cares if there aren't any people speaking "linear B" anymore?

History is written by it's victors- and in their language. In a globalised world- one in which typing on a computer keyboard empowers an alphabetic language- i think English is the best bet. If voice recognition improves, alphabets won't be as important- and Chinese may dominate. Either way, probably about 97% of all languages will die. Overall, i think this will be a good thing.

A common language doesn't mean an end to war- but i think mutual understanding is a necessary precondition for peace. Once linguistic unification is achieved, we'll be able to build " Tower of Babel II".

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