Azara Blog: Survival of Languages

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Date published: 2006/02/03

The third lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Peter Austin on the "Survival of Language". This was the first lecture in the 2006 series where the lecturer actually did a proper job.

Austin said that there were an estimated 6500 languages spoken in the world today. Of course that is just an estimate (what is a language?) but it's as good as any. Apparently there is a "crisis" in that lots of languages are disappearing. Apparently this "crisis" is accelerating. Hmmm, it sounds just like every other "crisis" that confronts the Earth.

Apparently 96% of the world speaks 4% of those 6500 languages, with more than 40% just for the top 9. Austin evidently found this a shocking state of affairs, but is it? Take almost any series you want and you will get exactly the same kind of long tail. Apparently 50% of languages have less than 10000 speakers and 25% less than 1000.

It seems there are dire predictions that anywhere from 50% to 90% of existing languages will disappear by 2100. As he pointed out, even at 50% that would mean that approximately 2 languages per week are going to disappear this century. Well, that is assuming that these predictions are accurate.

He blamed the loss of language mainly on "colonialist" policies, by which he meant a people with one language "subjugating" a people with another language (via economic, political, educational and other means). As one example he mentioned Australia, where when the Europeans arrived there were an estimated 250 languages, but now that is down to around 12 viable languages.

Of course this is nothing new. He mentioned the loss of languages in Italy when the Romans (and hence Latin) took over.

Should we care? He said that some people said "no" because apparently they believe that it would be better for the world if there were fewer languages. For example, there might be less conflict in the world if there were fewer languages. Well that sounds implausible, but it would be easier for people to get around, which of course some members of the ruling elite would not like (there is nothing worse than having ordinary people being able to do the same things that the ruling elite can do).

But, more seriously, he did not mention that perhaps we should not care because that is just the way the world is. Languages come and languages go, and languages change. Trying to freeze the situation so that all languages forever henceforth survive is just fighting against thousands of years of human evolution. You can fight human evolution, just like you can fight Mother Nature (e.g. trying to save species whose environment has all but disappeared), but you are not likely to win.

Austin of course thinks we should care, so he managed to come up with five reasons we should care, versus the one why we should not. The first was that we need language diversity. Apparently people who push this argument make a comparison with biodiversity. But nobody can even convincingly "prove" that that biodiversity is inherently a "good" thing (although everybody believes it). And, as Austin pointed out, you cannot be a robin and a sparrow, but you can speak French and English.

The second reason we should supposedly care is that languages express identity. Well, that's all very well, but you do not need language to express identity. There are several hundred million native English speakers, and they do not all have the same identity in any sense of the word.

The third reason we should supposedly care is that languages are repositories of history and culture. But that again is neither here nor there. Most culture just disappears (how many 20th century authors are even remembered, and that is relatively recent).

The fourth reason we should supposedly care is that language contributes to the "sum of human knowledge". Well this is more of an argument to document languages than to insist they survive.

The final reason we should supposedly care, and of course stated as a joke, is that languages are interesting to linguists.

Austin ended with a bit of a sales pitch, to show what work he has been involved with and to mention that in some places languages are recovering (e.g. Welsh, Maori, Hawaiian). He seemed reasonably optimistic. But just tonight on the news was a story that Rotterdam city council is thinking about introducing a regulation that people have to speak Dutch in public. Apparently some Dutch people feel threatened that some people -- read Asians -- are not speaking Dutch, which is pathetic. (Presumably they will not lock white people up, such as most tourists, just non-whites.) This is the kind of "colonialist" policy which Austin spoke out against.

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