Celebrate your languages

by Sid (Faisal)
10th February, 2008 at 9:37 pm    

Marie Smith Jones

Imagine if you were the last person in the world who spoke your language. You would live with the knowledge that when it was your time to go, the world that lived with the words you used to speak and think and dream would be gone forever.

On 24 January, the BBC ran a story about Marie Smith Jones, who passed away at the age of 89. She was the last of Eyak-speaking people of Alaska. For the last fifteen years of her life she knew that when she died the entire culture of her people, hundreds if not thousands of years old, would disappear. So she did an extraordinary thing. Working with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, she put her knowledge of Eyak to the written record, something which had never been done before. Now it can be more than just a memory. Her language stands an outside chance of a second life.

But it is just an outside chance. Because the Eyak language is one of nearly 20 native American languages in Alaska alone that are on the endangered list. It is little more than 500 hundred years since Europeans first set foot in the Americas and just over one hundred years since the United States census declared the western expansion over and the internal frontier closed. In that time, the pathetic remnants of the Native American peoples have been herded and marginalized into the barren fringes of a continent.

The phenomenon is global. Language experts believe that there are approximately 6,000 languages remaining on the planet. There is no common understanding of what a language is, so this figure is an approximation. So is the number of languages that those same experts believe will be extinct in the next 30 years: 3,000. That means that, at present rates, fully one half of all the languages spoken around the world will be gone by the year 2040. For example, in France, there are about 500,000 speakers of the Breton language over 50 years of age, but fewer than 2,000 are under 25 years of age. It is highly likely that this language, which is related to Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic in the British Isles, will die out in the next half-century.

Put it another way, three thousand people, either alive today or to be born to someone living today, will likely be the very last speakers of half of all the human languages that remain.

Language approximates with culture and the more languages there are the greater the cultural diversity. The loss of languages means that this diversity is at risk, and with it the wisdom and particular memory of the world. Now pause before you digest the next piece of information: 70 per cent of 400 U.S. biologists surveyed in 1998 believed that the earth is in the middle of (most probably) the fastest and (possibly) the largest mass extinction of flora and fauna for 250 million years. Biologist E. O. Wilson estimated in 2002 that if current rate of human destruction of the biosphere continues, one half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years. The two extinctions, natural and cultural, have a common enemy. They are both being caused by modernized civilizations and civilizations that want to become modernized.

According to the UNDP Human Development Report for 2004, titled Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World, “colonial administrators and missionaries, sometimes for administrative expediency and sometimes for prosletyzing reasons (translation of bibles in particular), elevated individual dialects to the status of languages and narrow local groups to the status of tribes.” In other words, colonialists and missionaries changed languages and language use, typically with the effect of reducing language diversity.

Something like this has occurred here in Zambia over the last 100 years, says Daniel Posner of UCLA in his 2001 paper: ‘The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Cleavages: The Case of Linguistic Divisions in Zambia’. Posner explores how the tax and industrial policies of the colonial British, coupled with missionary activity, created convergence around a few ‘languages’ where before there had been as many as 78 languages and dialects. This has left several tongues gasping for air in modern Zambian life. Moreover, Zambia remains an unusually urbanized country and language diversity is threatened by this. The coming together in towns and cities creates what John McWhorter, author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language calls, “language slurry.”

The problem becomes more acute because most, if not all, of the tongues left for dead in rural areas offer little by way of commodifiable value. Northern multinationals rush to establish proprietary rights over gene pools of flora and fauna running out of space in the Global South, but there are very few institutions lining up to support Zambians concerned about preserving Ambo, Iwa and other local languages for posterity.

All of this is sad to observe. I grew up in England of Bengali parents. So while my mother tongue is English, my mother’s tongue is Bangla. English is in no danger of dying out any time soon, thanks to two of the most significant expansions of our times: of colonialism and of The Internet. The language has the rare distinction of outgrowing the ethnic group from which it came, as Nicholas Ostler explains in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. It is now the first, second or third language of well over 300 million people.

Bangla is the language that inspired a movement that led to a country’s independence. The movement demonstrated that mother tongues should be celebrated and, if necessary, defended. Bengalis did the latter with their blood. The date chosen to commemorate International Mother Language Day is therefore 21 February. On this day in 1952, a group of students on Dhaka University campus were gunned down by security forces while claiming their right to use their mother tongue rather than an imposed lingua franca. Today the language has up to 230 million speakers in three Bengals: independent Bangladesh, Paschim Banga state of India, and the Bangla-speaking diaspora around the world.

International Mother Language Day deserves celebration in Zambia. The country has worked hard to establish and maintain political unity over the years. But as other societies are learning too late, it would be a tragedy if this hard-fought unity should be maintained at the expense of the variety of languages and dialects that have long called these lands home.

The Day will mean many things to many people, and so it should. For those of us who belong to majoritarian language groups such as English and Bangla, it will be an occasion for pride in our histories old and new, and in the richness and achievements of our lexical universe. For the speakers of the 3,000 languages on the brink, it will be an occasion to renew resolve to protect what is at risk of slipping away. It is, of course, too late for those languages that we have altogether lost. Languages like Eyak from what is now Alaska.

Nevertheless, I would like to think that all languages are equal from an ethical point of view, even those that have died. If you do too, then I hope you will spend a moment on 21 February this year to lament the passing of a brave old woman from Alaska called Marie Smith Jones. When she left us last month, we were all diminished.

This is a guest post by Hannan who is launching his new blog East of the Equator.

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  1. Roger — on 10th February, 2008 at 10:34 pm  

    There’s a fine short story by David Malouf- can’t remember the title- about the last speaker of a language. With all respect to MJrs Jones, i understand that Eyak wasn’t a major loss. it was a fairly recent development with very similar related languages still surviving, but even so, it was tragic enough. Perhaps there are other languages with whole ways of thought bound up in them- I still have a sentimental attachment to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis- that we need even more.

  2. Saqib — on 10th February, 2008 at 11:07 pm  


    ‘This is a guest post by Hannan who is launching his new blog East of the Equator.’

    Is this Hannan you Sid?

  3. Sid — on 10th February, 2008 at 11:08 pm  

    Nope not me, he’s an old pal.

  4. Saqib — on 10th February, 2008 at 11:12 pm  

    Oh right,

    Anyway didn’t know you had become a PP editor, congratulations. shouldn’t the old list of editors be updated with yourself and Rumbold?

  5. Adnan — on 10th February, 2008 at 11:48 pm  

    There was a recent story about the remaining two speakers of a dying language refusing to talk to one another because of some argument.

  6. Kulvinder — on 12th February, 2008 at 3:51 am  

    To a certain extent im playing devils advocate, but does it matter if a language dies out?

    For the sake of argument if we assume all people are free to communicate as they wish then the natural elimination of certain languages isn’t a ‘bad’ thing. Different languages obviously enrich humanity, but you can’t rage against the dying of the light; after all we’re free to learn any of those dying languages but choose not to. Ultimately if a better language for communication comes along we use it, that is progress.

  7. Roger — on 12th February, 2008 at 4:26 am  

    Does it matter if a species or a race dies out? Does anything- cosmically speaking- matter?

    For one thing each language is distinct and interesting in its own right and so worth looking at. Furthermore, the spread of English doesn’t seem to help communication- it males low level communication easier, but it seems to damage english as a vehicle for cmmunication at any other level. Finally there’s the Sapir-Whorfe hypothesis that the nature of a language determines what we can communicate, which means that the extinction of a language means the extinction of possible ideas.

  8. Kulvinder — on 12th February, 2008 at 5:06 am  

    But ultimately you’re fighting individual choice. I can well appreciate the enriched texture a variety of languages bring, but the reason some die out is because people don’t want to use them – they are superfluous to the individual. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be retained for academic interest just that they died out ‘naturally’ because they didn’t fulfill what people needed.

    Now obviously there are situations where ethnic groups are prevented from practising their culture but i don’t think the article was referring to that.

  9. Hannan — on 12th February, 2008 at 7:18 am  

    To Kulvinder: thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, language survival is neither a matter of Darwinian selection nor individual choice. Languages are eliminated through public policies that favour majoritarian power. Sometimes this extermination is systematic, as in cases where colonial settlers have sought to delegitimize local tongues through ethnic cleansing. In many of these instances, such aggression has become gentrified through the assumed benefits of lingua francas built into school curricula. What is happening to the Alaskan languages has also happened across Amazonia, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and elsewhere. So their elimination is not an act of nature or market utility but an unjust act of man.

    As to the relatively modest nature of the Eyak language community, I don’t think we can say that any one language is less valuable than another by virtue of the number of people who speak it. What then is the threshold below which a language is deemed worth keeping? That would be a chilling call to make and I doubt any reader of this website would want to make it. On the contrary, we should be pressuring public officials to act to protect and promote languages which, as Roger suggests, are a store of knowledge that could disappear with their last speaker.

  10. Kulvinder — on 12th February, 2008 at 12:33 pm  

    I’m not really sure how the spread of English at the expense of other languages can be deemed ‘an unjust act of man’. I’m not suggesting you’re saying this but to avoid another tangential argument about how the evil west is practising cultural imperialism on the non-west, an example within the confines of the EU. There are no public policies that favour majoritarian power in that case. Corporate boards across diverse and interlinked societies need the ability to communicate effeciently so they choose one language.

    I accept that there are cases of demonstrable ethnic repression where one language is favoured, but on the whole i think the ‘dying out’ is due to individual choice. Anyone is free to prevent language elimination by learning a language in danger of extinction. None of us bother learning those languages because its useless – they would not aid in communicating with anybody, and that ultimately is the litmus test for a language.

  11. Roger — on 12th February, 2008 at 1:15 pm  

    Many languages have been destroyed as a matter of government policy- not just elsewhere, but in Europe too. British and French attitudes to Celitic languages involved their systematic and deliberate suppression in the public sphere. The indivivual cjoice you speak of Kulvinder is a compulsory choice in many ways; if people are not allowed to communicate certain things in a language they are less likely to use that language to communicate with others.
    In fact, one aspect of a language is to restrict communication and to identify who to communicate with. In the early days of the Gaelic Revival in Ireland, many of its leaders were Protestant Unionists. They were graduallly excluded as Gaelic became increasingly identified with extreme nationalism. The dialects or argots developed by communities are another example. One of the problems with Globish English is that the opposite happens. The language is so general that the nuances of English English- or other regional variations-cannot be used any more because most of the people who use English on the ‘net use it as a lingua franca.

  12. Desi Italiana — on 12th February, 2008 at 5:19 pm  

    “English is in no danger of dying out any time soon, thanks to two of the most significant expansions of our times: of colonialism and of The Internet.”

    And also, the global economy.

  13. Desi Italiana — on 12th February, 2008 at 5:21 pm  

    “The loss of languages means that this diversity is at risk, and with it the wisdom and particular memory of the world.”

    And also, different ways and aspects of thinking. As someone who speaks several languages, there are many terms and concepts that are not easily translatable from one language to another; even if they are translated, it never entirely captures the concept expressed in the original language.

  14. Desi Italiana — on 12th February, 2008 at 5:29 pm  


    “I accept that there are cases of demonstrable ethnic repression where one language is favoured, but on the whole i think the ‘dying out’ is due to individual choice”

    I really disagree. As Roger points out in #11, it is mostly born out of state policy with political motives. Take for example the historical suppression of the Kurdish language in Turkey or Berber in N. Africa. The Basques in Spain up until a little while ago were forbidden from learning their own language during Franco’s time; there has been a similar situation (perhaps changed by now) in Tibet with the implementation of Mandarin/Cantonese (not sure which one). And not many people know this, but there is a small but gathering momentum in Punjab, Pakistan for chucking Urdu in favor of Punjabi; many feel that Urdu is an imposition that has sidelined the regional tongue which people feel reflects their own heritage.

    Eliminating and/or suppressing languages which can lead to a language dying out is an act of nationalism and stamping out diversity and/or pre-empting future desires to be different from the official state and culture. Once this becomes institutionalized, you progressively lose the necessary literacy to have literature, proper usage, etc in that said language. You can’t expect an entire generation that has barely been able to learn a language to start speaking and reading it fluently and teaching it to their children while another language is taught in schools and spoken all around.

  15. Hannan — on 12th February, 2008 at 5:30 pm  

    in 19th century Britain, the status of English dialects and accents from around the country declined as the south-eastern version became received pronunciation.

    There are a number of reasons why this happened. First, a standard pronunciation, supported by a standard grammar and system of spelling, made the English language more communicable as a tool of administration overseas (Shakespeare writing in 16th century English famously signed his name at least six different ways and not once did Miss keep him behind for detention). Second, the onset of universal primary education made instruction through a standard English more administratively convenient. Third, and perhaps most subtely, the south-eastern dialect that became RP helped to cement the centralized state in the UK and marginalize different forms of expression of what it meant to be British. Which is why a lot of people still make fun of scousers or Indians with butt-butt accents.

    So language homogenization such as the one described above is one means of asserting centralizing power. Up until the 19th century, language homogenization in Europe was not a success factor in trade and commerce. So why did it become so when it did? That’s worth exploring.

    I don’t think we are digressing to suggest that the spread of English across continental America was facilitated by ethnic cleansing and displacement. Native American languages did not disappear because they were useless, but because villages were burnt, people uprooted from their homes and those that survived were forced to learn an alien language (the new Australian parliament has just apologized to the ‘lost generations’ of indigenous peoples whose children were forcibly relocated and taught English, a practice which only ended in the 1960s).

    Based therefore of even a small sample of the historical record, there is thus sufficient justification to claim the spread of major languages such as English (and French in west Africa and Spanish in Latin America) has been made possible through violent political domination. Ergo, injustice.

    There are of course other scenarios where political domination have not led to language domination. After the western Roman empire was over-run by Germanic tribes in the fifth century A.D., their languages failed to take hold in the ex-dominions of Iberia, Gaul and the Italian peninsular. Instead, derivatives of Latin prevailed. This probably has more to do with the system of governance and the expected relationship over local resources than it did with any inherent strength or weakness of Germanic tongues. More recently, French held on for two hundred years as the court language in Britain after 1066 but it never really made it beyond the royal entourage anyway.

    The reason I choose to refer to language elimination as an unjust act is therefore deliberate. It is to shift the terms of debate away from narrow utilitarian interpretations of value. Sure, it’s fine to have a basic grasp of common languages to enable simple interaction. But I would be sad to see, for instance, the last of the Trobriand Islanders die in silence in their homes in the Pacific. They have dozens of words for blue but none for black, for instance. Their conceptualization of colour is unique to the ecology to which they belong and attached to that a cosmonogy and world of their own. If it’s not too crude an analogy, language diversity is essential for cultural diversity.

    To suggest that some languages are expendable because they do not stand up to modern measures of usefulness is not far removed from the racist justification for eliminating savages for being lazy, naked and un-Christian. They never died out, those junglees; they were squeezed and harassed out of existence. And the same is happening today with languages, both by ommission and commission.

    One final thought for now: there is an obvious reductionism in the way one uses analogies of competition to state the merits and demerits of languages. This is the culture of neo-liberalism speaking, where everything in human life is viewed through the filters of utility and measurement. If it was indeed the case that languages die out because of individual choice, then we would be left speaking very few languages very soon. But people choose to retain languages for other non-material calculations: emotional, cultural, access to the past, &c.

    The irony is, languages are dying out and dying out fast. Not because of individual choices, but because of deliberate action that our descendents will find easier to brand as immoral than we might do today.

  16. Ms_Xtreme — on 12th February, 2008 at 5:33 pm  

    But ultimately you’re fighting individual choice.

    By process of elimination, if too many languages die, there will be no choice.

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