Read This: “Vanishing Voices”

What is lost when a language goes silent?

Today, I suggest that you set aside fifteen minutes to read National Geographic‘s new article, “Vanishing Voices” by Russ Rymer. It’s an elegant and fascinating read that explores many of the questions surrounding endangered languages: why do some small languages die, while others manage to soldier steadily on? Which facets of any language are untranslatable and/or invaluable, and what insight could they offer? Why does it matter?

Rymer doesn’t answer all the questions he brings up — nobody could — but he does an excellent job of highlighting the state of the field and the many factors at play, using a complex fact- and story-based narrative. I’ve rambled about this topic before, and I can only hope to express my thoughts as cogently as he has, someday. While I come pre-equipped with vehement interest in this topic, I suspect that his article might be able to spark interest in even the most indifferent reader.

He focuses on three main groups of people, all of whom speak an endangered and/or small language: the Tuvan of Siberia, the Aka of India, and the Seri of Mexico. Read More

Why Language Preservation Matters: Success Is Not Merit

As you may know, the documentation of endangered languages is one of my passions. Since this is not the most common pursuit, I occasionally have to explain to people why anyone should care; thus, when my brain is idle, I sometimes work on arranging my views into clearer explanations.

In a bout of insomnia last night, I decided to scribble out a response to one particular class of claims I’ve heard before, which disputes the value of language preservation. My response is very much tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps it will prove enlightening. (It contains liberal use of the word “asshole,” but rest assured that I use it purely in an academic sense.)

Why Language Preservation Matters, Part 1:
Language Dominance Depends More on Assholery than Superiority

The Allegations:

  • “Well, the best and most useful language will win. No need to go interfering with the natural order of things.”
  • “But it’s not your place to decide which languages should survive.”
  • “Look at how many people speak English. That must mean it’s an innately superior language!”

The Response:
Imagine a small group of people living in a wooded area; we’ll call them Original Group, because we are creative at naming things. Read More