Saturday, November 24, 2007

ABC news: "Ancient language may die out due to personal feud"

Have we got a race to the bottom on coverage of endangered languages? I'm starting to wonder, especially after somebody passed this along from ABC News. Let's just write off the headline. First, we've recently talked about the bogus 'ancient languages' meme here. Second, when a language is down to two speakers in their 70s, saying it "may die out" is an understatement, regardless of the relationship between the speakers.

In the piece itself, consider two tiny points. First, the men "should be doing their bit to pass their language on to other people in their community." Says who? These people have made choices. We might hope that people choose to keep community languages alive, but it's not my place to tell these guys to do it. These two "grumpy old men" are probably fathers and grandfathers and they decided for some reason at some point not to speak Zoque de Tabasco to the kids around them.

Second, look at the goal: It's described variously as passing the language on, preserving it, saving, documenting and maintaining it, etc. … a vast range of goals. At this point, you might document this tongue, but you won't 'save' it in any real sense. There's one way that languages normally survive from generation to generation: You speak it to kids. A lot. That, in fact, is how Spanish and Japanese and Cherokee were and are passed on to new native speakers — you don't have to have tape recordings, language classes, linguists providing expert advice.

By the way, for those who've heard of Zoque: There's a set of languages by this name and the others have larger numbers of speakers at present.

Hat tip to Angela for the link.


Jangari said...

Firstly: I like that you've linked to Australia's ABC news website, which, in my view, is the best news coverage in the (that is, our) country.

Secondly, this is exactly the sort of bad situation that field linguists never ever want to find themselves in; two speakers who can't speak to each other. This is for 'personal reasons' and fair enough, but when you have a pair of speakers who are culturally barred from speaking to one another, you just think, 'wow, I respect your culture and all that, but please?!!?'

Thirdly, we've literllay just had a change of government, which you can read about on the same news website, which is gonna be great for the efforts of linguists trying to save these (well, not this one in particular, seeing as it's considerably outside our jurisdiction) languages.

Mr. Verb said...


Yeah, when I heard about the change in Oz, all I could think was: Can WE do that? Please? Howard has, from what I can tell and to the extent you can compare such things, been far worse for indigenous communities than Bush, but Bush has surely done more damage to the world as a whole.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes, when you're down to two septuagenarians your language is really unsavable, which is sad but so.

And second - why is it all on these guys? Why "should [they] be doing their bit to pass their language on to other people in their community" but no onus is placed on "their community" who have pretty obviously chosen to let the language go?

Anonymous said...

Of course, the pressures to shift to Spanish (or other 'majority' languages) have been crushing for centuries, even aside from attempted genocide and the direct assaults on people for speaking their traditional languages.

This becomes one of those whiplash moments: OK, forget the last 500 years where we've been trying to force you to adopt our language and ways, now it's your fault for not keeping them up.

Monica said...

I appreciate what Anonymous said - I was going to point out that it's not necessarily a 'choice' that results in a language not being passed on. (I like the expression 'whiplash moment' - I may borrow that!) I also worry about us linguists talking about 'saving' languages - I think all we can do is help, but it's the community that's gotta wanna do it, and can make it happen.