I am in a very interesting linguistics class right now, The History of the Germanic Language. We are studying how languages change, specifically how the Germanic languages have changed and developed over time. Currently we are talking about reconstruction of languages – looking at similar languages we can reconstruct the older, shared language from which they all developed.
In talking about how languages have died or been influenced by other languages, especially in the very global world we now live in, one student asked “Why is it a bad thing that languages are becoming more similar or dying out completely?” This led to a very heated class discussion, as most of us are nerdy linguists who see the death of languages as being tantamount to genocide!
The responses from others in the class were very interesting, though. I believe in the importance of langauge for preservation of thought and culture. Language is directly derived from thought, and if you lose the langauge ability to express certain thoughts, you soon lose the ability to think certain thoughts. But language is also derived from culture. I have written before about the difference between English and German when it comes to certain words, like ‘friend’. These words have different meanings in the different languages because of the cultural differences. The words are used differently and so they mean different things. If we lose our languages we begin to lose our culture, replacing them with other languages and cultures.
Case in point: My last name is Greek. I do not speak Greek. My great-grandfather came over from Greece in 1915 with his young family. My grandfather was born shortly afterward. He spoke Greek. He learned it from his father and as he attended Greek Orthodox church and other community activities. There are a lot of Greeks that all moved into the same few neighborhoods in Illinois. My father, though, never learned Greek. And since he never knew Greek, I never learned Greek. I will call myself Greek, because that is my heritage, but honestly, I am not Greek at all. I am American. I have no connection to the Greek community because I do not speak the language and I do not know the culture. When I go to the local Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek Festival I am as much an outsider as anyone else.
We also talked about language as cultural identity. There have been many attempts to ‘erase’ languages. Especially the English have been notorious for this. They teach other cultures English to the exclusion of the native languages, and as a result they teach English culture and ideas. Manx is now a dead language. Welsh and Gaelic were close, but they survived because parents taught them to their children and used these languages as a way of maintaining cultural identity despite the English invasions. The Scots held on as tightly as they could to anything that separated them from the English – their language. And other peoples have used language to separate and identify themselves in the face of an oppressor. Enslaved peoples or conquered peoples have learned their master’s language, but use it differently, mixing it with their native language. They change the language just enough so that the masters cannot understand. We saw this especially with African slaves in America. They learned English (and after a few generations English was all they knew as they lost their native languages), but they spoke it differently from their American masters. It was not because they were too dumb to learn it properly, but they kept that language as a symbol of defiance and of separateness. That is what language does.
But, to return to the question, “Why is it a bad thing that languages are becoming more similar or dying out completely?” – In my opinion any loss of culture or language is a tragedy. But if a language is no longer useful for communication is it necessary to keep it? Is there a point to Old High Gallifreyan when there is only one person who speaks it? At this point the language becomes merely a linguistic curiosity. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still study it and learn from it, or even use it to teach us about other similar languages and peoples. Language is always fun!