Thursday, June 25, 2009

NAT: Language Extinction

Never mind whales, save the languages
Peter Monaghan | June 24, 2009 | The Australian


WORRIED about the loss of rainforests, the ozone layer, quokkas? Well, none of those is doing any worse than a large majority of the 6000 to 7000 languages that remain in use on earth. One-half of the survivors will almost certainly be gone by the middle of this century, while 40 per cent more will probably be well on their way out. In their place, almost all humans will speak one of a handful of megalanguages - Mandarin, English, Spanish - although often a poor version of them.

Linguists know what causes languages to disappear. Demographic shifts, government neglect or suppression of regional and indigenous languages and the depredations of mass media all play a role.

Less often remarked is what happens on theway to disappearance; languages' vocabularies, grammars, and expressive potential all diminish.

"Say a community goes over from speaking a traditional Aboriginal language to speaking a creole," says Nick Evans, an Australian National University linguist and leading authority on Aboriginal languages. "Well, let's just use talking about the natural world as an example. You leave behind a language where there's very fine vocabulary for the landscape. Inside the language there's a whole manual for maintaining the integrity of the landscape, for managing it, for using it, for looking for stuff. All that is gone in a creole. You've just got a few words like 'gum tree' or whatever."

As speakers become less able to process and express the wealth of knowledge that has imbued ancestors' lives with meaning over millennia, it's no wonder that communities tend to become demoralised, says Evans, who has dedicated his career to the tall order of keeping shrinking languages going.

"There are times when what people speak is like seeing the world through very badly made, thick glasses," he says. "You can avoid bumping into objects, but you don't see all the beautiful detail."

Evans describes the dimensions of the loss, culled from his years of work in northern Australian Aboriginal communities, in the recently released Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us (Wiley-Blackwell). The situation is so serious that it warrants a global effort to document and preserve languages, he proposes.

How much would that cost? To train one linguist to document one struggling language costs about $500,000. That covers doctoral training and two or three years of postdoc work. "Multiply that by, say, 4000 languages," says Evans. "That's $2 billion."

Too much? It's small potatoes, compared with big-science budgets, he notes. "How much did sequencing the human genome cost? A fair bit more than that, I'd think."

The scientific payoffs would be enormous, he says. That kind of Manhattan Project of human speech would secure the raw data that linguists depend on to shape theories about how language works. And even programs that only partially resuscitated languages would reap social benefits. With the compilation of a dictionary, a grammar, and other printed materials, "people suddenly see their language as something immensely valuable, as something to be proud of, and to learn", Evans says.

If the losses are so huge, why are relatively few linguists combating the situation? Australian linguists, at least, have distinguished themselves by the preservation they have achieved. Just as governments have supported documentation efforts in some countries, including Germany, China, and Russia, Australian governments began in the 1970s to back a major push that has resulted in good documentation of most of the 130 remaining Aboriginal languages, although almost all the survivors are at risk of dying off.

In England, the Arcadia Fund (formerly Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund) has helped another Australian linguist, Peter Austin, to direct one of the world's most active efforts to stem language loss, at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Austin, who like Evans studied at the ANU linguistics department during the long tenure there of Aboriginal languages specialist Bob Dixon, heads a program that has trained many documentary linguists in England as well as in language-loss hotspots such as west Africa and South America.

At linguistics meetings in the US, where the endangered language issue has of late been something of a flavour of the month, evidence is mounting that not all interventions will be particularly helpful. Some linguists are boasting, for example, of more and more sophisticated means of capturing languages: digital recording and storage, internet and mobile phone technologies, and knowhow from such fields as signal processing and global positioning systems. But those technologies, say some doubters, are encouraging a "commando style" of recording trip: Zip in, switch on digital recorder, clear off, download to hard drive, and nod at funding agencies' requirement that speaker communities have access to gathered material.

That's not quite what some endangered language advocates have been seeking, for more than 30 years. Most loud, and untiring, has been Michael Krauss, of the University of Alaska. He has often complained that linguists are whistling Dixie while most of their raw data disappears on the breeze.

Who is to blame? Noam Chomsky, say Krauss and many others. Or, more precisely, they blame linguists who have fetishised the approaches of the most prominent of all linguists. Documentary linguists, who go out into the field to study, record and describe languages, argue that theoretical linguists, who draw conclusions about how languages work, have held such sway that the field has largely ignored the death throes of languages.

Chomsky, from his post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been the doyen of theoretical linguists for far longer than he has been a prominent political commentator. In 1957, he published his landmark Syntactic Structures, which argues that all languages exhibit certain universal grammatical features, encoded in the human mind. American linguists, in particular, have focused largely on theoretical concerns ever since, even while doubts have mounted about Chomsky's universals.

Austin and co are in no doubt that because languages are singular and irreducible, even if they do tend towards common syntactic features, creating dictionaries and grammars requires prolonged dedication and is inevitably a hard slog. As Krauss puts it: "You learn a language by sitting there with people. You ask an old lady what she calls various kinds of bushes."

That patient study may require knowledge of geographic features, farm tools, ethnobotany, mythology, and oral literature. It requires that linguists remain alert not only to languages' structural subtleties, but also the social, historical, and political factors that bear on them.

It also calls for persistent funding of field scientists who may sometimes have to wade, intrepid, into harsh and even hazardous settings. Once there, they may need such non-linguistic skills as diplomacy in the face of community suspicion.

Evans makes no bones about showing communities that he is willing to fight for their rights, linguistic and other. He often acts as an expert witness and interpreter in legal proceedings relating to land rights, for example. He notes that because Aboriginal community leaders expect to engage in give and take with visiting outsiders, linguists canbuild relationships that permit "sustainable linguistics".

So much the better, he says, because endangered language communities have cause to doubt or even oppose efforts to preserve their languages. They may have seen support and funding for such projects as immersion schools come and go. They may have ceased bothering to speak their languages to children, whom they believe will profit from speaking a dominant tongue.

Plenty of students continue to be drawn to the intellectual thrill of linguistics field work. Postgraduate programs have increased in several countries. That's all the more reason to clear away barriers, contend Evans, Austin, and others. The highest, they agree, is that the linguistics profession's emphasis on theory saps young field linguists of their enthusiasm, over time.

Chomsky disagrees. He recently has begun to speak in support of language preservation. But his linguistic, as opposed to humanitarian, rationale for that stance is, let's say, unsentimental: The loss of a language, he states, "is much more of a tragedy for linguists whose interests are mostly theoretical, like me, than for descriptive linguists who focus on specific languages, since it means the permanent loss of the most relevant data for general theoretical work".

There's a certain cold logic to that argument. Chomsky says he certainly deplores the force that most often causes language deaths. "It's known as imperialism," he says.

But outrage about that damage, he argues, should not lead the profession essentially to lower its standards by rewarding more greatly the documentation of languages.

At the moment, few institutions award doctorates for such work, and that's the way it should be, he reasons. In linguistics, as in every other field, he believes that good descriptive work requires thorough theoretical understanding and should also contribute to building new theory.

But that's precisely what documentation does, objects ANU's Evans. The process of immersion in a language, to extract, analyse, and sum it up, deserves a PhD because it is "the most demanding intellectual task a linguist can engage in".

Peter Monaghan, a graduate of the Australian National University, writes regularly for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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