Cecily's Reviews > Language Death

Language Death by David Crystal
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This is a fascinating book about why languages - all of them - matter. It's the other side of his book, English as a Global Language (which I haven't read). Update: I've just read a review of Experimenting in Tongues: Studies in Science and Language, which is a new publication, about how English has triumphed as the language of science in recent years.

David Crystal is eminently readable (as well as eminent) and it is quite short, so although it's written mainly for serious linguists, it's accessible to the general reader with an interest in language. This review is a summary of key points.

"Language is the most massive and inclusive art, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations." Edward Sapir.

"Languages are the pedigree of nations." Dr Johnson.

What's the problem?

Languages have always died, but Crystal fears the process is accelerating, and explains the difficulties in assessing the truth of that fear.

How do you define a language? If two languages are mutually intelligible, they are generally treated as variants of the same language, except for the exceptions (generally political, e.g. Serbo-Croat is now Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, though there is little change to the actual language(s)).

The recognition of minorities could mitigate the tide of language death: English may be swamping the world as a second/additional language, but it may splinter into regional variants that are more distinct than currently. "No one owns English now", which I think is broadly good. On the other hand, I have no problem understanding American or Indian English, but how would I feel if that ceased to be the case?!

At what point does a language become endangered? One used by a small but stable community may have a surer future than one spoken by tens of thousands, but where it's swamped by a language perceived as having more power and prestige.

Why does it matter?

1. Diversity is good, and languages are a delicate, connected ecosystem.
2. Language is part of identity.
3. Languages are a repository of history (etymology, but also differences of vocabulary and style).
4. Any loss of knowledge is a loss. Preservation isn't about communication (there are other languages), but identity and uniqueness.
5. Languages are inherently interesting (e.g kinship vocabulary, reflecting different social structures).

Why do languages die?

1. The people are in physical danger (war, plague, tsunami).
2. Cultural change or assimilation:
2a. Pressure to use the dominant language (political, social, economic).
2b. Emerging bilingualism.
2c. Younger generations favouring the new language, so becoming monolingual in that.

What can be done about it?

The final chapter is aimed more at professional linguists, but even before that, Crystal considers how and if outsiders should support languages at risk, especially if the speakers don't care about saving it.

Community involvement is vital, and language isolates should be prioritised.

The main tools are raising the prestige and visibility of minority languages. He saw the internet as a cheap, easy and non-geographically bound way for minority languages to have a presence. However, I suspect that since he wrote, any such advantage has been diluted by the spread of English.

He notes that literacy is no guarantee of survival, but that it does make it easier to pass a language across generations (and continents) and even to resurrect dead ones. However, where a language does not have a writing system, great sensitivity is required: which dialect should be encoded in writing (will others die as a result), and are there political implications of picking Roman over Arabic script, for example?

For languages that are likely to die, it's important to store data in a variety of mediums: not just writing, but audio too, and covering as wide a range of contexts and registers as possible. The rhythm of oral traditions cannot be fully conveyed on a printed page.

Helpless me

Crystal has many ideas of what to do and not do, and why, but for all that I say I care about language, as an outsider (rather than a field linguist) who is fluent in only one language and can get by as a tourist in three others, I'm left feeling alert to the issues, appreciative of what I have, but ultimately helpless.

Bilingualism

Shame on me and many of my compatriots. Bilingualism is the norm for most people across the world.

For all the idealism of Esperanto or attempts to spread English even further, he cites The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the Babel fish "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

More seriously, two languages need not be in conflict within a community: typically, one is about identity (inward-looking), and the other is for communicating with other groups (external).

Eskimo snow myth

Even in 2000, this was old hat. One of the reasons is down to lexemes (semantic units): flowerpot, flower-pot and flower pot are a single unit, as are take, takes, taken, taking, took. It's similar with snow words. And of course, there are quite a few snow-related words in English: snow, slush, sleet, mogul, flurry, whiteout. More here: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~kmuldrew/c...

Showing its age?

This is fifteen years old (published in 2000) and frequently cites research and publications from the late '90s. Most of the issues are general and enduring, so it's only a few examples where it's relevant. In particular:

* The year before this was published, it became compulsory to teach Welsh in all state funded schools in Wales. Hence, Crystal hadn't seen the effects, which is a shame, as it's a language he has a particular interest in.

* Crystal refers to the ubiquity of English in the US, without any mention of Spanish, which is increasingly widely spoken, though predictions of trends vary: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/.... It might even fall, as those from Spanish-speaking backgrounds stop speaking Spanish at home!

* He saw the power of the internet, but didn't foresee how it would increase the spread of English.

* He also saw HIV/AIDS as a bigger long-term threat than seems to be the case.

Stats

At the time of writing, 96% of the world had a first language that was one of only 20 languages (out of around 6000 languages).

The most spoken first languages were: Mandarin, Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. I know Brazil is big, but I was surprised Portuguese was so high (and indeed English), and although Mandarin and Russian are compulsory across vast nations, I thought they were second/additional languages for many. And no Arabic.

The New Yorker article Emir and Ted mention in comments #1 and #2 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...), from 30 March 2015, has these numbers, putting Arabic at #5:

"The mother tongue of more than three billion people is one of twenty, which are, in order of their current predominance: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Wu Chinese, Korean, French, Telugu, Marathi, Turkish, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Urdu. English is the lingua franca of the digital age, and those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions."

I wonder if they're lumping together different varieties of Arabic that Crystal's stats counted separately.

Descriptivism and prescriptivism

Crystal is a descriptivist: he sees language change as inevitable, healthy and interesting.

In contrast, here's a satirical piece from Speculative Grammarian titled "Saving Endangered Languages with Prescriptivism":
http://specgram.com/CLXXII.4/09.dever...
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Reading Progress

March 22, 2015 – Started Reading
March 22, 2015 – Shelved
March 22, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 22, 2015 – Shelved as: language-related
March 26, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 70 (70 new)


message 1: by Ted (new)

Ted Cecily, very coincidentally to your great review of the book, the following article appeared recently (3/30/15) in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...

Annals of Conversation - A LOSS FOR WORDS -Can a dying language be saved? by Judith Thurman


Cecily Hi Emir, there may be more up-to-date books on this subject, but if you do find this, it's worth a read.


Cecily Ted, thanks for linking to the article Emir mentioned. It's a perfect fit, and even has updates on one of the stats I quite (I'll amend my review).


message 4: by Ted (new)

Ted Cecily wrote: "Ted, thanks for linking to the article Emir mentioned. It's a perfect fit, and even has updates on one of the stats I quite (I'll amend my review)."

Oh, heh, I didn't notice that he had mentioned that article. Sorry, Emir!


message 5: by Caroline (last edited Apr 02, 2015 12:23AM) (new)

Caroline Gosh, so much to think about! As someone who speaks a ubiquitous language (and shamefully, as you say, it is my only language)I find it hard to put myself in the shoes of a minority culture speaking a minority language. The nearest I can come to understanding these issues is to think of the culture of those who are deaf, many of whom defend their right to be deaf, and not to have an operation which might change this. They obviously feel that the way they communicate is a hugely important part of their culture. (Of course it is the bedrock of their culture...) But how would I feel about English if I was proficiently bi-lingual? Say one of the Chinese languages took over as being the major language in the UK, and English was spoken less and less. How much would I mind? I suspect I might mind a lot.


message 6: by Cecily (last edited Apr 02, 2015 12:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Don't apologise, Ted! Emir mentioned it, and you linked to it. Synchronicity.


message 7: by Cecily (last edited Apr 02, 2015 12:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Sign languages are an intriguing angle, Caroline. I don't recall much (or any?) mention in the book, but although they are undoubtedly full and proper languages in every sense, I think they tend to be more inherently part of a signer's identity than other first languages, in part because the mode of conversation is so noticeably different, and in part because of the need to fight against the potential stigma of disability.

Like you, I'm sure I'd mind if English was overtaken by another language in England, but one of the difficulties Crystal tackles is communities that DON'T care about preserving their language. Sometimes that's because basic survival is a higher priority, but sometimes it's just about aspiration and apparent progress. How much should well-intentioned outsiders do to save it?


message 8: by Ted (new)

Ted The New Yorker article talks quite a bit about languages of many Native American tribes/nations dying out, but also mentions some very interesting and quite moving programs that have been undertaken by elders to reacquaint younger people with their linguistic heritage; some of these programs are apparently having a lot of success.


Cecily It's wonderful that it's possible. Long may it continue. Those examples highlight the importance of cultural context: it's not just about writing a dictionary and keeping a few written records.


message 10: by Nandakishore (new)

Nandakishore Varma I read, write and speak two languages fluently (Malayalam and English - though the latter with a pronounced accent), can read, write and speak a third one passably (Hindi), can understand reasonably and manage to make myself understood in a fourth one (Tamil). It has benefited me. So bilingualism may be a possible answer.


message 11: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Cecily wrote: "Sign languages are an intriguing angle, Caroline. I don't recall much (or any?) mention in the book, but although they are undoubtedly full and proper languages in every sense, I think they tend to..."

Again, a very interesting question. It makes me think of the way that the Victorians pillaged a lot of archaeological items from other countries - but at the time many of those items were being ignored, or even abused. Nowadays those same cultures often want their artefacts back. Their value has changed completely in the eyes of the original culture. It would seem to me therefore that keeping notes (recordings?) of a small minority language that is disappearing might be doing the people speaking the language a big favour. They might not appreciate their language now, but come to value it deeply as time goes on.


message 12: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Although I'm deeply fascinated by minority languages, I have to admit I've always been slightly uncertain about efforts to preserve or rescue them if their native speakers find it expedient to speak something else. Definitely record as much as possible for reasons of ethnographic or linguistic curiosity, but in the end language is a pragmatic tool, and people will use the words and structures that are most useful to them. Anyway, nice summary, thanks.


Cecily Nandakishore wrote: "I read, write and speak two languages fluently... It has benefited me. So bilingualism may be a possible answer."

I wish I did. Crystal is a fan of bilingualism, and points out it's the norm in most of the world.


message 14: by Cecily (last edited Apr 02, 2015 01:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Caroline wrote: "It makes me think of the way that the Victorians pillaged a lot of archaeological items from other countries - but at the time many of those items were being ignored, or even abused. Nowadays those same cultures often want their artefacts back."

That's a good analogy, although carvings and manufactured artifacts can be preserved and returned more easily than a dead language.


message 15: by Cecily (last edited Apr 02, 2015 01:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Warwick wrote: "Although I'm deeply fascinated by minority languages, I have to admit I've always been slightly uncertain about efforts to preserve or rescue them..."

Crystal shares those concerns. He stresses the importance of multi-faceted community involvement and support in any such process, but even then, it risks being a paternalistic distraction from what matters most to a community, whether that be finding enough food to live on, avoiding bombs and bullets, or assimilating into a culture perceived as more desirable.


message 16: by Ted (new)

Ted Warwick wrote: "Although I'm deeply fascinated by minority languages, I have to admit I've always been slightly uncertain about efforts to preserve or rescue them if their native speakers find it expedient to spea..."

Well, the younger people are mostly eager to move on and assimilate, in many cases. But because they're young they don't understand what they're tossing on the garbage heap. And once they realize what they've lost (the culture of their forefathers) it can be too late. This is what many Native American elders feel so disheartened about. After all, their culture, their relation to nature and the natural world, is in many respects superior to our own Western, post-industrial values. (IMHO)

Of course they can't be forced, but it's certainly worth while to try to open their eyes. We too can learn from them. And of course the loss of language doesn't necessarily mean the loss of the entire culture. But it can have a devastating effect in some cases.


message 17: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Cecily wrote: "That's a good analogy, although carvings and manufactured artifacts can be preserved and returned more easily than a dead language. ..."

Preserved yes, but we do seem to have some issues about returning things... (It's a hornet's nest troublesome issues!) But yes, I understand what you mean. Re-introducing a language would be a mammoth task.


Cecily Another difference is that returning a dead language would be no loss to us, whereas returning The Elgin Marbles for instance, would leave a big gap at the British Museum.
(I'm not arguing against returning them.)


message 19: by Nandakishore (new)

Nandakishore Varma Cecily wrote: "Another difference is that returning a dead language would be no loss to us, whereas returning The Elgin Marbles for instance, would leave a big gap at the British Museum.
(I'm not arguing against ..."


I would prefer the return of The Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-noor Diamond. ;)


Cecily Nandakishore wrote: "I would prefer the return of The Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-noor Diamond. ;) "

I don't blame you, but the first you'll have to find, and the second you'd have to wrest from the Beefeaters at the Tower!


message 21: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Cecily wrote: "Another difference is that returning a dead language would be no loss to us, whereas returning The Elgin Marbles for instance, would leave a big gap at the British Museum.
(I'm not arguing against ..."


Yes indeed!


message 22: by Nandakishore (new)

Nandakishore Varma Cecily wrote: "Nandakishore wrote: "I would prefer the return of The Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-noor Diamond. ;) "

I don't blame you, but the first you'll have to find, and the second you'd have to wrest from ..."


They may put me in the Tower. :(


message 23: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Warwick wrote: "Although I'm deeply fascinated by minority languages, I have to admit I've always been slightly uncertain about efforts to preserve or rescue them if their native speakers find it expedient to spea..."

Yes indeed - language preservation is largely a form of cultural imperialism. "I know that you don't want to speak this language, and that you feel that having such a minor mothertongue is part of what is trapping your community in poverty, but I'm afraid it's your duty to keep speaking it, because we rich people find it nice to have your language exist. I mean, look at how wonderfully primitive in touch with nature your culture is, and just think how you'd lose that if you became rich and English-speaking like us! What's that? Oh no, we don't want to adopt your culture or your language, good god no! But you need to keep on doing that funny native stuff you're doing, and every so often our tourists will come and throw shiny shiny pennies at you in return for experiencing your charming and ancient cultural traditions, okay? (if you don't have any charming and ancient cultural traditions that's ok too, you can just make some up and we won't know the difference, or care)."


Fortunately, the internet and changes in modern culture are really improving the situation. Huge numbers of languages are going to go extinct now, but mostly ones that have already been rendered moribund - languages that have kept a viable community are doing much better now and will probably survive a long time.

Unfortunately, the cost of that is that they will stop being the traditional language. The only way to have a language survive, you see, is for it to be integrated into fashionable youth culture and daily economic life... and that means it must be homogenised. Take Irish, for instance. Irish was dying out (again) on the gaelteacht, but is now doing very well in Dublin (and to a lesser extent other urban areas) among young people. The problem is, the 'Irish' spoken by young Dubliners is often very 'poor quality' Irish - which is to say it's lost a lot of what made Irish distinctive, and increasingly just copies English syntax with different words.

So you can have the Irish spoken in the gaelteacht, and read old books about how grim life is in the gaelteacht and listen to radio programmes about ploughing techniques and the common diseases of sheep, or you can have the Irish spoken by young people in dublin, and have pop music and sport and soap operas and twitter and facebook... and have a language that increasingly mimics English, which is of course the mother tongue of most of these irish speakers, and the language that almost all their culture comes from originally.
Except you can't really have the first option, because even in the gaelteacht irish is dying out now.

In my mother's generation, everybody had compulsory Irish learning, and they made sure everyone spoke Irish well. The result was that few people spoke Irish voluntarily, and forgot it all as soon as they left school. Whereas I have a couple of second cousins in Ireland who enthusiastically speak Irish with their friends... via txtspk, calqueing One Direction lyrics directly into 'Irish' with little interest in complexities of syntax (or indeed phonology - apparently the old slender/broad distinction, so fundamental to the phonology, is largely being ignored now).
[OK, I don't think my cousins actually listen to One Direction, but you get the point]


message 24: by Ted (new)

Ted Wastrel wrote: "Warwick wrote: "Although I'm deeply fascinated by minority languages, I have to admit I've always been slightly uncertain about efforts to preserve or rescue them if their native speakers find it e..."

This comment seems really weird to me. The people who are seeking to preserve languages are the people who are losing them, not "imperialists" who want to force minorities to preserve their vanishing languages. Good grief.

(Perhaps you're talking about academic types who are in favor of this, so that they still have the old language to form a basis for their own research? But that's an issue that is completely apart from the New Yorker article referenced. Whether it's dealt with in this book is a different question.)


message 25: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel In practice, it's more often the West trying to push minorities into preserving their languages. The minorities themselves are generally hostile to their languages, which is why the languages are dying in the first place. [Very, very few languages die out because the speakers die - almost all die out because people want to speak something else instead] And yes, this can even come to legal conflict or even violence - as many communities view their language as their property, and reject any attempt by outsiders to preserve or publicise it. [A famous example is where the Mapuche tried to sue Microsoft because Microsoft had translated Windows into Mapudungun, so that the Mapuche could use Windows in their own language. That wasn't really about language death per se - it was about internal conflicts over orthography (whether Mapudungun should be allowed to be written at all, and if so which system of spelling should be used). But it illustrates a common attitude toward well-meaning external observers trying to encourage native language use]


message 26: by Ted (new)

Ted Wastrel wrote: "In practice, it's more often the West trying to push minorities into preserving their languages. The minorities themselves are generally hostile to their languages, which is why the languages are d..."

You say "in practice". Where are you getting this from? Why don't you take a look at the article referenced?


message 27: by Roy (last edited Apr 02, 2015 10:53AM) (new)

Roy Lotz Great review, Cecily!

Apropos to language death, I do see what Wastrel and Warwick were saying. I studied anthropology, and one often comes across stories of disappearing languages and cultures while reading anthropological literature. At first, as a young student, I thought this was a tremendous tragedy (and, no doubt, it is unfortunate) that must be stopped.

But, when you start reading in-between the lines of many of those scholarly books and articles, you get the impression that it's only the anthropologists who are sad about it; the people themselves are happily adapting to changing circumstances. It's hard not to sympathize with them, too, as the cultural, social, and economic advantages of learning English and integrating into a Western lifestyle are huge.

This is not to say that every time people try to preserve a language it is imperialistic. I'm sure there are a great many people from the communities themselves who don't want their languages to die. But in the scholarly literature, there is often a conflict of interest between the researchers and the subjects, as well as a troubling double standard. After all, the researchers want these communities to continue existing, but would never chose to integrate into the communities.

Anyways, that's my small experience in these matters.


message 28: by Ted (new)

Ted Lotz wrote: "Great review, Cecily!

Apropos to language death, I do see what Wastrel and Warwick were saying. I studied anthropology, and one often comes across stories of disappearing languages and cultures wh..."


yes, as I said, I can see academics having a conflict of interest in this. But to say that "the West" is somehow plotting against third world peoples in anything other than a purely economic manner strikes me as paranoia. I simply can't fathom a reason for it. We aren't living in the 19th century anymore, and the economic self-interest of large scale capitalism, still there as always, has shifted from trying to steal resources from the third world, to one of selling stuff to them. Well, some of both I suppose. But in neither case do I see how convincing people not to learn English or Spanish or whatever "developed" language you want to talk about serves any nefarious purpose of The West. Again, not that I doubt that there are nefarious goals in play.


message 29: by Roy (last edited Apr 02, 2015 01:26PM) (new)

Roy Lotz Yes, I agree that it's easy to get paranoid. And we're often at risk of getting into "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations. To me, it's just important that the impetus to preserve a language or culture comes from within a community, and not primarily from without.

The only "case study" I'm at all familiar with is from Tanzania. When Tanzania became independent of English power, they made Swahili the national language. As part of a big education push, soon almost everybody in the country could read and speak it. This was, by almost all accounts, a very good thing, as it gave everybody a common means of communication and fostered a sense of national identity.

But some groups resisted, most notably the Maasai. I believe to this day, the Maasai remain mostly aloof, living a pastoral lifestlye on government reserves. Many of them speak neither English nor Swahili. At first, there was a lot of government pressure for the Maasai to conform. But now things are different, because tourism drives so much of Tanzania's economy, and the Maasai are a major tourist attraction. Ironically, now there's incentive to keep the Maasai un-integrated!

This just goes to show that sometimes there are economic incentives for people not to integrate, and sometimes the other way around. So it's a generally difficult situation, and there are economic pressures on both sides. I don't have any answers, or even strong opinions, however.


message 30: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel I think you're sounding a bit paranoid now - nobody ever alleged any 'nefarious purposes'.

My point was simply - as Cecily and Warwick have both agreed - very often the drive to preserve endangered languages comes from observers (western academics, aid workers, missionaries, tourist companies etc), rather than from the people themselves. This only makes sense, given that the reason languages become endangered in the first place is a lack of enthusiasm to keep speaking them. Of course, changing the circumstances of the speakers can change their interests and priorities... but doing this because you want to change their cultural values to make them want to preserve their languages for you is manipulative, and culturally imperialist. More generally, language preservation is part of the broader problem of cultural preservation: which is that encouraging people to value their own culture often means changing the part of their culture that devalues their own culture. And on the ground this theoretical problem becomes bigger because there are often costs to failing to integrate into the languages and cultures of more powerful economic groups, so essentially Westerners are asking these marginalised people to make sacrifices for them - sacrifices that the Westerners themselves are not willing to make.

These are problems I think people are likely to become aware of if they spend much time reading about the linguistics, sociology, anthropology etc of marginalised communities. I mean, just look at the SpecGram article that Cecily posted: it pretty much takes this problem as read for its first line. And SpecGram, while often very clever (chapeau for the Piraha joke there!) is not exactly radical or politically extreme in my experience.


message 31: by Ted (new)

Ted Wastrel wrote: "I think you're sounding a bit paranoid now - nobody ever alleged any 'nefarious purposes'.

My point was simply - as Cecily and Warwick have both agreed - very often the drive to preserve endangere..."


Okay, my objection to your comments basically comes down to this: to characterize "academics, aid workers, missionaries, tourist companies" as "The West", without qualifying that phrase in any way is to me pretty loose talk. Let's single out the groups that are offering advise which may not be so good, rather than just condemn "the West". The generality of that complaint does nothing to lead to any sort of useful remediation.


message 32: by Cecily (last edited Apr 02, 2015 02:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Gosh, it's like The Elves and the Shoemaker here: veritable essays have appeared in the few hours I've been away!

I've often pondered the wider conundrum of cultures eager to adopt the trappings of other cultures, even to the extreme of body modification - and it can be a rapid change. We visited China in 2008, and ALL the glamorous adverts, magazines and packaging for fashion and cosmetics featured Caucasians, or the least Chinese-looking locals. (Sixteen years earlier it wasn't noticeable.) No wonder people want leg-lengthening, eyelid surgery, skin whitening etc. And KFC and McDonalds squeeze out local cuisine. We can blame the cultural imperialism of multinational profit-chasing corporations, but once the demand is there, who are we to deny them these things, even if it's to the detriment of their culture? Do we have greater rights to preserve knowledge, in the form of language, regardless of the speakers' own desires?


message 33: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala It's great that you've reviewed this book and initiated such an interesting discussion, Cecily. As you say, Crystal has probably moved on a lot in his own thinking since this work was published and as he's been watching what's happening to language right now via forums such as this one where a 'written' group conversation is happening in English between people for whom English may not be a first language, or even if it is, may be a different variety from the others, as mine is.
I'm very conscious that we are currently witnessing a speeded up version of how language is passed on and changes with time. In the past, change happened gradually because people had to move away from their own locality in order to even hear different accents, or new vocabulary, or alternative grammar use. Then, as they moved further away, they heard different languages entirely and had to learn them fast in order to function in the new place. Now we speak to each other across huge distances daily in a 'common' language and each of us is learning something new from the others all the time while losing something too. There are expressions I no longer use in every day speech never mind on such a forum as this. I will soon not even remember them - and I haven't passed them on to my daughters but they continually pass on new ways of using words to me. I used to resist when they used a word differently to the way I had previously done but I don't anymore. I see now that their usage is the majority use and mine has become the minority.
All that just to say that I think the smaller world we have become cannot sustain a huge variety of languages and variations of languages. One day there will be only one language.


message 34: by Cecily (last edited Apr 03, 2015 08:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Fionnuala wrote: "It's great that you've reviewed this book and initiated such an interesting discussion..."

That's because I have such interesting and thoughtful and diverse GR friends, many of whom, as you point out, are contributing in their second or additional language.

I certainly agree with you about how much faster language can change nowadays, across the globe, but I am doubtful we will end up with only one language. The ubiquity of some form of English as the world's second language seems likely in the medium term, but whether it will push out first languages, I'm less sure. In many parts of the world, larger countries are fragmenting into smaller regions, and having their own language is often a visceral part of that renewed identity. For instance, if Catalonia ever gets full independence from the rest of Spain, I'm sure English will continue to be widely spoken, but Spanish will be pushed out by Catalan.

But I'm just an amateur observer. I may be very wrong.


message 35: by Michael (new)

Michael So nice to take a foray into a subject we all should have more awareness of. It sounds like revitalizing a dying language is as hard as intervening with a species on the brink of extinction. A local tribe here in Maine is trying to do that using diverse strategies. But unless families make it the main mode of speaking with their children its a very uphill struggle.

For a personal take on the mass extinction of languages, I recommend a collection of ethnobiologist Nicolas Wades tour of peoples with disappearing languages: Light at the Edge of the World. The value of language diversity resembles how genetic biodiversity serves as a reservoir of evolutionary resources for adaptation in the changing environment of the world.


Cecily Michael wrote: "So nice to take a foray into a subject we all should have more awareness of. It sounds like revitalizing a dying language is as hard as..."

Thanks for your comment, Michael.

Yes, it's hard, but not impossible, if done early enough: Hebrew and Welsh have been successfully rejuvenated from a very low usership.


message 37: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Cecily wrote: "That's because I have such interesting and thoughtful and diverse GR friends....
The ubiquity of some form of English as the world's second language seems likely in the medium term, but whether it will push out first languages, I'm less sure..."


Needless to say, I'm hoping you're right.
And you do have a great bunch of Internet friends.


Cecily Fionnuala wrote: "And you do have a great bunch of Internet friends."

Thank you for being one of them.


message 39: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Fionnuala wrote: "It's great that you've reviewed this book and initiated such an interesting discussion, Cecily. As you say, Crystal has probably moved on a lot in his own thinking since this work was published and..."

I think what's happening is that everyone, via the internet, is in a 'contact situation'. Contact situations happen around the edge of where a language is spoken, where it meets another language. On the plus side, contact situations can actually produce really interesting linguistic phenomena - yes, there's a tendency to 'level', to be understood by as many as possible, but there's often also a tendency to show off, to incorporate elements from different languages (or dialects) into your speech in a flamboyant way, often allowing a great deal of nuance in terms of social situations (expressions you would use with a friend vs with a stranger vs with a boss vs with a neighbour, etc).

In addition, some minority languages are thriving - the internet allows viable communities to be formed despite geography. Someone who wants to speak Irish, for instance, may not have enough Irish speakers in their neighbourhood, but they can find them online - people from their neighbourhood, the next neighbourhood, the next town, the next country, the next continent, all together speaking the same (ish) language.

In England, regional dialects are also thriving. This is often missed because they aren't the old dialects of particular regions. But people aren't all homogenising their speech - in fact, many people, particularly the young, are varying their speech more and more from the national standard, toward the urban standards of the big cities - Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle in particular, but also Birmingham, Bristol, and probably others too. [The old rural dialects, however, are all but extinct in most places]

So it's not all doom and gloom. It's probably true that everyone will end up speaking English, but they may speak other things as well. As an analogy, think of europe before nationalism. The upper classes at least all spoke (or at least wrote) Latin, and often a bit of Greek too - but they also spoke their national standards, and sometimes regional standards too. A rich man living in southern france, for instance, might speak Latin, (semi-Parisian) French, and Occitan - and sometimes it wouldn't even be clear what he was speaking, since he would mix these languages in different proportions to meet the social context.

In many ways, the whole idea of 'one nation, one people, one language' is a modern invention - for most people in history 'language' has semantically been a mass noun rather than a count noun - not a choice of this language or that, but an ill-defined blob of language skills leaning toward this flavour or that shade. In the 19th century, the new Nation States attempted to impose uniformity within their borders, and stress difference from other language-forms (they say that in 1800 you could walk from Paris to Lisbon and would never notice passing from one language to another, as there was only a continuum of forms). What the internet (and indeed plain old TV and radio) is doing is making it really hard to keep those borders culturally meaningful.


message 40: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Btw, a couple of pedantic points, sorry:

- I wouldn't be too enthusiastic about Welsh. Welsh speaking has fallen over the last decade, and in particular the Welsh heartlands are dying. Welsh speaker numbers (and Irish ones, for that matter) are also inflated, because they're based on asking whether people can speak Welsh - and lots of people overestimate their ability, out of personal or national pride.

- you say Spanish is the majority first language in at least one US state. I'm surprised by this. Which state? The most I can find is New Mexico, at something like 23%. [Obviously Puerto Rico is majority Spanish, but that's not a state]


message 41: by Cecily (last edited Apr 03, 2015 01:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Wastrel, pedantic is fine - especially in relation to a factual book:

- I hadn't investigated Welsh language developments, but surely the fact all public sector signage, documents, websites etc have to be bilingual (and many private sector ones follow suit), coupled with a generation who've had compulsory Welsh in school has had some effect? I used to work with an English guy (just turned 30), who seemed to have a useful degree of Welsh from his schooldays.

- I was sure I'd read, more than once, that in California, more people have Spanish as their first language than English. You've prompted me to check, and I'm wrong (and have amended my review and added a link). Maybe I was thinking of the percentage of Latinos, or of children in kindergarten? Thanks for prompting me to investigate.


message 42: by Cecily (last edited Apr 04, 2015 02:51AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cecily Wastrel wrote: "I think what's happening is that everyone, via the internet, is in a 'contact situation'."

Gosh, thanks for all that.

I hadn't realised regional dialects were flourishing in my own country! Do you have any pertinent links?

Your analogy with medieval Latin + local language makes sense, though I wonder how far it will go in our lifetime.

Walking from Paris to Lisbon (Google Maps reckons that would take 344 hours!) without noticing the boundary between languages is an extraordinary idea, though given the context you give, I'm not doubting it. So much to think about. Thanks.


message 43: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Unfortunately, things like official signs, compulsory education etc have little impact on minority languages. Well, they may help prevent total extinction, but they don't really do much to help a community grow.

The great example here is Irish. Irish is the national language of Ireland, and the 'first' official language - many constitutional terms aren't even given official English translations. All legislation must be in Irish (there may also be English versions, but there don't have to be). All primary-level teachers must be able to speak Irish. All Irish students wishing to study at the National University of Ireland must be able to speak Irish, and all teachers at the Galway campus must be able to speak Irish. All government services are available in Irish. All schoolchildren in non-private schools have 14 years of compulsory Irish study. Irish placenames must be used on all official maps and signs. There are public-service radio and TV stations in Irish. There are officially recognised Irish-first regions of the country. Until the 1970s, every single government employee had to be able to speak Irish. Etc, etc.

The result of this overwhelmingly supportive government policy? The percentage of the population speaking Irish as their first language fell from 15% to 1%. Around 8% claim to be fluent or nearly fluent, and maybe 15% use the language to some degree now and then. The number of people living in communities with substantial use of Irish fell from 250,000 to 10,000. There are virtually no areas where Irish is still the first language.

There is an ongoing revival of the language, and it looks in better shape than for a long time. But this revival is primarily a matter of middle-class aspirational city-dwellers sending their kids to Irish-medium private schools because they have better educational records - something almost entirely coincidental to the entire century of government language policy!


Cecily Wastrel wrote: "Unfortunately, things like official signs, compulsory education etc have little impact on minority languages..."

I may have read this particular book and therefore started the discussion, but I bow to your greater knowledge in these matters. Thank you for all the extra information.


message 45: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Wastrel wrote: "...So it's not all doom and gloom. It's probably true that everyone will end up speaking English, but they may speak other things as well..."

That's what I'd like to believe too, of course - and the example of medieval Europe is a great one reminding us of people's ability to be easily bi or trilingual when there was need. Our needs in the future may be different, requiring an adaptility in different areas of cognitive functioning.

The situation of Irish certainly makes any general predictions about the inevitable demise of minority languages shaky. On the one hand, there is the apathy of the majority of the population and on the other, the fierce urge to revive the language by a powerful minority. Your summary of the history of the efforts both by the state and by individuals to bring about that revival was very accurate, Wastrel.
Isn't it all very interesting to watch - from a distance!
I'm away from 'home' at the moment, typing on a touch screen which won't allow me to scroll within the comment box so I can't see what I've just written so please excuse it if it sounds incoherent!


Cecily Fionnuala wrote: "The situation of Irish certainly makes any general predictions about the inevitable demise of minority languages shaky."

Indeed. And fascinating.

Wastrel, do you have a professional interest in this, or are you just very well-read in such matters?


message 47: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel In linguistics in general, I'm an interested layman. In terms of Irish, it's a combination of that and personal interest, in that I'm half-Irish and have spent a lot of time in the country.
[And am an example of why language revival is hard. I'd quite like to learn Irish, and if I did I'd probably be able to find people I could use it to speak with on the internet (in fact I know a couple already). I even, thanks to an Irish mother, beginner's guides to learning Irish and collections of writing in Irish. However, I haven't learnt even a smidgen of Irish (beyond the 'slainte' level)... because I can't be arsed. Lots of people support language revival in the abstract, but when you get right down to it it's really difficult to motivate people to learn languages. (Hell, I had a pretty good level of written German once upon a time, even if my conversational German was always poor. And German is something that would actually be useful in real life, yet I haven't maintained it. If I'd grown up in Ireland, I'd probably have been enthusiastic about learning Irish... but would I actually have maintained it into adulthood? Probably not.) The key really isn't getting mothers to teach their children, it's getting kids to talk to one another in the language. Kids have reasons for bilingualism, the same way they have for adopting and innovating slang: it lets them construct walls between themselves and their parents and unliked peers. Adults can just avoid people they don't like, so don't need to learn codes...
Irish education in the state schools has apparently traditionally focused on written Irish, stressing the connection to the wonderful heritage of Irish literature and history (my mother can't speak a word of conversational Irish but can still recite some bits of poems from memory). And this can help, certainly, making people want Irish as part of their identity. But the language has to live as a conversational language, between ordinary people, on a daily basis.]

However, my primary allies in any discussion are always wikipedia and ignorance - the latter gives you confidence, while the former obscures the latter in a veneer of intimidating percentage figures...

[Fionnuala: glad to know my second-hand impressions of the situation aren't entirely off the mark!]


message 48: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Loved this review and enjoyed the comments every bit as much- thank you, obrigado, spasibo, and arigato, everybody!


Cecily Thanks, Elizabeth. I've loved the comments and discussion, too.


Cecily Wastrel, thanks for explaining your background. It's good to have a personal account, and your points about the personal effort in learning and maintaining a secondary language ring worryingly true.


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