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
- “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!”
Imagine a small group of people living in a wooded area; we’ll call them Original Group, because we are creative at naming things. They have a central village, which is adjacent to fields full of cultivated crops. Nearby, there is a half-wild forest where they hunt meat and gather wood. An amiable river runs through the forest, and its waters serve as their source of hydration and irrigation.
Original Group: This doesn’t suck.
One day, a larger group of people, the Colonists, arrive in the area. They decide to settle down next door to our Original Group, and decide that the best place to build their settlement is in the middle of the forest. Naturally, this involves cutting down hundreds of trees in order to make a clearing for their large town. Then, they deem it necessary to purge the forest of many more trees, in order to get wood to build their houses. While they’re at it, they scare the crap out of all the local game; most of those animals run off to a less asshole-ridden forest several miles away. The Colonists also decide that a reservoir would be a good idea, so they dam up the river and create a nice pool.
Colonists: We will rule over all this land, and we will call it… This Land.
At this point, our two groups run into a bit of a conflict:
Original Group: Um, hi, you’ve completely scared off all our game, and our crops are drying up because you cut off our access to the river. Any chance you could… not do that?
Colonists: It is our sacred destiny to conquer the land! We must tame and develop this savage unsettled wasteland.
OG: You do realize it wasn’t unsettled, right? Well, thanks to your destiny, we’re starving, so could we barter for some of your food? We are skilled artisans who would willingly trade our services.
C: Bah! We will not deal with you unless you learn our language, adopt our fancypants religion, and start dressing like us.
OG: Well, that’s pretty asshole-ish, but I guess it’s better than starving to death.
C: Excellent. Now, let me teach you how to be more like me. First, you— *cough cough* Ah, excuse me, I just have a touch of the influenza. Don’t worry about it; you guys have developed immunity to that, right?
OG: Influenza? What’s th— *cough* Oh, damn it all.
Within a matter of months, much of the Original Group has died off, whether from disease, starvation, or bored colonists with weapons. The survivors have grudgingly developed relations with the Colonists. The Colonists, meanwhile, are healthy and smug.
Colonists: Lo and behold! Our population has grown and thrived, while the Original Group has starved and dwindled! Their survivors have all learned our language, and they sing our hymns! Clearly, we are the most noble and holy race of settlers ever to set foot on this land.
Original Group: I suppose genocide is an old tradition of nobility, isn’t it? What a fine legacy; you must be so proud.
And that’s why we ought not proclaim that the reason a particular language flourishes is its inherent supremacy. Sometimes languages rise to prominence by pure chance or political whim; just as often, they thrive through a historical combination of luck, avarice, butchery, and fervent narcissism.