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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
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Amardeep Singh
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Daniel Green
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Joseph Kugelmass
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Cultural or Neurolinguistic Uniqueness?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/06 at 09:46 PM

[Post inspired by a recent exchange on Unfogged.]

I. Preserving Cultural Uniqueness

On its face, the most salient criticism of Michaels’ discussion of language extinction invokes the idea that every language offers a unique perspective on the world—a perspective which is, if lost, irrevocably so.  The weak form of this criticism insists that categories embedded in a given language tell us something about the ideology of its speakers.  The most common example comes not from an endangered language, however, but from one spoken by 75,500,000 people: Javenese.  Theoretically, Javanese speakers move between these registers based on their social status relative to that of their interlocutor.[1] If Javanese died, so too would intimate knowledge of the worldview it afforded its speakers.  Despite myself, I’m sympathetic to this argument: linguists can learn more about a living language and its relation to the society of its speakers than they can infer from a dead one. 

But once a language has been thoroughly studied, what necessary investment should anyone have in keeping it alive?  Many would answer “Because its life entails the cultural life of its speakers and their unique way of looking at the world.” Fair enough.  Only what if we find its uniqueness morally repugnant?  What if the perspective it preserves is violently misogynistic?  I take this to be the point of Michaels’ hypothetical culture of American segregationists:

What if American segregationists had described themselves as participating in a culture of segregation and had said ... that they didn’t, of course, claim that segregation was good for everyone but they did claim it was good for them and that their culture had a right to survive. (153)

If they spoke a language all their own—a Southerner with relatives throughout rural Mississippi might even say they do—and still practiced segregation, claims that their culture deserved preservation on account of its uniqueness would be rare.  Once linguists finished cataloguing the humilifics used to identity African-American skin-tone, most everyone except for the segregationists would call for the destruction of that culture, its uniqueness be damned.  The moral imperative to preserve different cultures, I would argue, genuflects both to the pernicious myth of Western superiority and that of the noble savage:

Our lives can be enriched by your perspective, so we’re gonna send in the 51st Fightin’ Wordhordes to make sure you don’t go and die before doing us this good turn."

I think Michaels is right to link the persistence of culture to something more “ought” than “is.” That is, I think such conversations threaten to tumble into abstractions instead of specifics; which result I find strange, since the specifics of a language are what attract linguists to it.[2]

II.  Preserving Biological Uniqueness

Then I had another thought: What if the uniqueness of a language was more than cultural—what if it was biological?  What if the loss of a language didn’t entail the loss of a cultural perspective on the world but a neurolinguistic steady state, one which would not only be lost but which could never be duplicated?  So I dug around and discovered some recent, but by no means definitive, papers on the topic.

M. Chee, C. S. Soon and H.L. Lee’s “Common and Segregated Neuronal Networks for Different Languages Revealed Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Adaptation” (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 15.1, 2003) initially seemed promising:

that common, specialized areas for language exist at a macroscopic level. Intuitively, it seems probable that at a finergrained level, distinct neuronal networks are involved in processing different languages. However, it is presently unclear if conventional functional neuroimaging techniques have the capability of demonstrating these finergrained distinctions in functional specialization.

That “intuitively” worried me, as did the implication that they would continue to refine their tools and search until they find evidence validating their “intuition.” Mostly, though, the article disappoints because it draws no conclusion ... and because it seems like the researchers have hammer, will travel.  I’m sure neuroimaging technology will eventually deliver fields, nay, steppes of accomodating nails. 

D. Perani and J. Abutalebi’s “The Neural Basis of First and Second Language Processing” (Current Opinion in Neurobiology 15.2, 2005) dashed my hopes:

The most important contribution of brain imaging studies to the neurobiology of language in bilinguals is the observation of both invariance and plasticity. First, concerning language acquisition, [Language #2] seems to be acquired through the same neural devices responsible for [Language #1] acquisition. Second, regarding L2 processing, the patterns of brain activation associated with tasks that engage specific aspects of linguistic processing are remarkably consistent among different languages, which share the same brain language system. These relatively fixed brain patterns, however, are modulated by several factors. Proficiency, age of acquisition, and amount of exposure can affect the cerebral representations of each language, interacting in a complex way with the modalities of language performance. Future studies disentangling the different language processes should always take into account these potentially important variables.

Different cultures don’t process language—or the world through language—differently.  People who acquire second languages earlier or later in life do, but everyone acquires the first one through the same pathways.[3] So it seems the imperative to preserve unique brain patterns extends to individuals but not cultures.  I only read seven or eight articles though, and I’m not nearly so deft a science database-wrangler as a humanities, so I likely missed some fairly obvious material.  The undergraduate linguist in me finds this material endlessly fascinating, so recommend away, my little Tube Elves, and I’ll do my homework.[4]



1 I qualify here because most Javanese speakers only know the informal and polite registers.

2 This analysis ignores the fact that languages don’t burn off nearly so much as they fade away into, as Timothy Burke argues:

In the longue duree of human history, languages change, get absorbed into others and die out all the time. Does that make the linguistic history of humanity a case of endless tragedy? An endless compendium of resources lost to the linguist, and nothing more? It’s as if one set out to say all extinction of all kinds at all moments in the history of life on Earth is a bad thing because any extinction at any moment removed some small, crucial piece of existing biodiversity at that moment. If that’s true, then evolution itself is a bad thing; the price of new species is extinction. The price of linguistic variety and the expressive range of language is that some languages change, some languages combine, and some cease to exist.

So to get particularly upset about languages disappearing today takes more than just being upset about the phenomenon of languages disappearing. The phenomenon is at a minimal morally neutral; I’d go further and say it’s a positive good, because it is part and parcel of what makes human language the powerful, changing instrument that it is.

To be upset by a language disappearing (or a species going extinct), you need to offer an argument that a given language in the here and now is disappearing for reasons which are abnormal in the history of linguistic evolution. That’s an argument you can make in biological evolution pretty successfully, that we’re in the middle of an “extinction event” and that those periods, while broadly normal in the history of life, are nevertheless pretty negative in their impact on life forms existing during such events, and also, such events are different in scale and character than “ordinary” extinction.

I’m not sure you can make a precisely similar argument about languages. Linguistic change in human history often has a lot to do with major dislocations or disjunctures in human society: migration, war, environmental catastrophe, colonialization, cultural frontiers, changing family or kinship patterns, new trade opportunities. The present is bigger in scale, but not different in type. Especially if it turns out that globalization doesn’t produce in any simple way homogenization, if underneath it all, the drive to diversify and differentiate languages is as strong as ever.

3 Except for me, but I’m a legitimate exception.  So say the things I’m scribbling in my spare time. 

4 “Tube Elves” being the Kaufman household’s new name for people who email me things they think I ought to read.  They first appeared last night, when my stumped wife stumped me on some nicety of literary theory we both should’ve known.  I offered to “have my elves scour the tubes” for the answer. 

“Your elves?”

“Yes,” I replied, “my elves.”

“Your tube elves?”

“I guess you could call them that.”

“How does that work?”

“I’m not sure, but I think the third step’s ’Profit.’”


Comments

For the record, I’m testing out new ideas here.  I did that research this afternoon, and posted in what may’ve been unwarranted excitement.  So please refrain from pasting me to teh wall for overlooking the obvious unless I really deserve it.  (Which, as regular readers know, ain’t exactly unlikely.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/06 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read WBM’s book yet, so he may address the thoughts below.  I wonder why a much simpler argument might not be offered for the preservation of languages.

What’s wrong with the fact that communities in many cases *like* their language?; a language never on its own hurts or oppresses anyone.  It seems to me merely a truism to state that a language can express a variety of ideological positions and stances, contingent on historical circumstances and the commitments of its speaker.  Slaveholders and abolitionists both spoke English. 

If people in the Autonomous Community of Catalonia want to control of their own schools and teach Catalan and not Spanish--why not?  In cases of self-preservation, the burden of proof seems to me to fall on the camp of people who argue for linguistic homogeneity. 

In cases of “interventionist” preservation, of one more powerful linguistic community working to preserve the language of another weaker community, I think most of these cases are not so innocent.  Often languages die as the result of colonial and unequal power relations.  Under these circumstances, a former oppressor may simply be repairing damage that it had done at some time in the past.

But even under hypothetically non-colonial circumstances, we should argue for preserving another people’s language on the same grounds that we would use to argue for not burning down libraries and archives--even the libraries of evil and malicious communities.  Preserving information is a good in and of itself.  The preservation of linguistic diversity is, likewise, a good in and of itself: and a question completely independent from questions about redistribution and social justice.  The only material calculation at this point would be a reflection on opportunity costs:  what do we lose when we spend our resources preserving language X?

In practice, linguistic diversity and social justice may overlap.  A language may *come to represent* autonomy for a community.  But even in cases where the community seeking autonomy is not justified in its desires, there is no justification for destroying the language of that community.  To do so would be to make the same mistake that the autonomy-seeking community makes:  to mistake the symbolic--that is, instrumental--use of a language for the substantive matter of autonomy.

By Lee Konstantinou on 10/05/06 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Linguistic preservation is one of this issues I’m aware of, but don’t delve into because I think it’s a complex and messy one. What does presevation mean? Making a record of the language? It seems to me that’s a no-brainer. Yes, of course, make the record.

Doing that, of course, requires resources, mostly trained field linguists and anthropologists, but also the physical stuff of record keeping, books, libraries, electronic and digital media, etc. The development (e.g. training those professionals) and deployment of those resources must, somewhere, somehow, be cost justified, as this good cause is likely to compete with some other good cause, as well as not-so-good causes, for resources. So what’s the argument?

But, that’s just about making a record and assumes that, in a generation or two, no one will speak the language. What if the argument is about keeping the language alive? Well, if the language is currently spoken by, say, 10,000 people, that community might be able to keep itself alive under reasonable circumstances. But it it’s spoken only by 43 people, how do you keep that community alive? My guess is that, if nothing is done, that community will simply fade away. Keeping it alive seems to me might require something having those people live within a zoo-like setting to preserve the language. That is reprehensible.

One problem I have with Michaels his is relentless punk-ass glibness. This is merely a matter of tone and so should have no bearing on the substance of his argument but . . . Has he actually thought about the problem beyond what he needs to do to fit into into the general terms of the argument he’s making? That glibness suggests he hasn’t. Why should that matter?

Well, the a lots of complex and messy problems in this world, all requiring some resolution. If I thought WBM had thought this through thorougly, I might well be willing to accept his conclusion, however distasteful I might find it. But his “win the debate” glibness gives me little reason to trust him on this.

Is economic inequality an important issue? Yes. But I knew and believed that before reading this book. Is the advocacy of multi-culturalism obscuring attention to economic inequality? Well, that’s what WBM is arguing, and the argument is new to me. He may be right about it. So I’ve learned something from this book. But I’m not convinced that WBM thinks deeply about culture, identity, race, or religion. On those matters, he doesn’t seem to have much going on beside his analysis of the incoherence of a certain widely dispersed ideological concoction. That incoherence is something that’s bothered me for some time and I don’t see that Michaels has any clues about how to deal with those matters in a more satisfactory way.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 08:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On your long quote from Tim Burke, there’s a musical parallel. Back in the 1960s and 1970s ethnomusicologists, including the indefatigable Alan Lomax, began worring about the “great cultural grey out” in which all difference in musical cultural would be homogenized into sonic pablum. It hasn’t happened yet, and, if anything, music circulates more widely and freely around the world than ever before.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 08:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I’d say, well, let’s worry about that secret dying society of Commie-Nazis when we find it.

Until then, societies, cultures and languages are dying, and primarily - as Lee said - as a result of the power relations that develop out of colonialism.

It’s odd, I would think that the imposition of western-style class society would be a really big deal to Michaels, but he seems more interested in pretending that cultures being wiped out might be Commie-Nazis and we should temper our anti-colonial impulses just a bit.  That move makes me very skeptical of the politics driving the book.

By on 10/05/06 at 08:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From the second neuro article you quote, Scott:

Proficiency, age of acquisition, and amount of exposure can affect the cerebral representations of each language . . .

I looked into this a bit some time ago and discovered (citations lost, alas) some evidence that if L2 is acquired early in life it will be localized pretty much the same as L1. If it is acquired late in life (after adolescence) it will be localized differently.

This makes sense given how the cortex matures. While it has a complex 3D configuration, the cortex is bascially a sheet of tissue with neurons arranged in 6 or 7 layers. The complex shape happens with the sheet is folded to fit within the volume of the skull cavity. Well, this sheet matures from the periphery to the center and the maturation takes place over a long period of time (with some still happening into the 20s). So, if L2 is acquired early in life along with L1 is will be located relatively near the edge of the cortical sheet. If it is acquired late in life, it will be located further from the edge where the tissue is more plastic.

You might want to take a look at Elman, Bates, Johnson, Karmiloff-Smith, Parisi, and Plunkett, Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, MIT 1996. It’s not going to have the L1/L2 stuff I just outlined*—as I said, I’ve lost that citation—but it’ll give you an interesting workout on brain development.

For a somewhat easier read, Mark H. Johnson, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Blackwell 1997.

*Just in, see Springer and Deutsch, Left Brain, Right Brain, 5th edition, Freeman 1999, pp. 266-267.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 08:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wouldn’t it help to be a bit clearer about the apparent positive reasons for what WBM is asking for?  The reason that he thinks that everyone should speak a common language is for the greatest world-wide communicability.  (Please correct me if I’m misrepresenting him.)

That implies that everyone should speak the same language—but it doesn’t necessarily say that they can’t in addition speak other languages, right?  In theory, you could both achieve the goal of maximum communicability *and* language diversity / survival by having everyone learn two or more languages.  If you were concerned about neurolinguistic effects, you could encourage people to make the un-common language L1, and the common one L2.

While this, in theory, would make it possible for both the goals of universality and multiculturalism to be preserved, see also John Emerson’s post below about culture as option.

By on 10/05/06 at 09:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There may be a finite number of ways in which language can rewire the brain.  With the neurological argument we might end up concluding that we only *need* about 30 languages to preserve a certain amount of cerebral diversity.

On the other hand--

How many leafy green vegetables do we need?  If we eliminate arugula it is not such a great tragedy.  We can still have a salad.  Yet if we keep losing leafy green vegetables over the years, we might come to regret the overall loss after a certain point.  Then we might blame ourselves for not fighting to preserve arugula.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/05/06 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The reason that he thinks that everyone should speak a common language is for the greatest world-wide communicability.

Don’t recall that from the book and I just skimmed pp. 150-170 and didn’t spot it. It may be there as an aside, but it’s certainly not there as a significant idea. The core of his argument seems to be that “the disappearance of languages is a victimless crime” (p. 165). He seems to have no conception of a language as a cultural resource to be held in trust for all of us.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 10:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Language isn’t for the linguists.  It’s for the people speaking the language to communicate whatever they’re trying to communicate. 

Since I’ve only read the NYTimes piece, I can’t speak to what Michaels might be saying in the book, but in the Times piece he isn’t making the claim that we should force people to speak a particular language (that would be “an essentially arbitrary use of power” as he puts it).  People will speak, and do speak, the language that allows them to communicate what they want to say to the people they’re trying to say it to.  That’s Michaels’ pragmatism coming through.

By on 10/05/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess that I’m trying to read his argument as charitably as possible, Bill.  He wrote something about our desire to preserve Shakespeare because we feel it’s good for everyone.  But Shakespeare in translation is not, exactly, Shakespeare; it must lose something, as much all written artworks that depend in part on word choice, rhythm, etc.  I can understand a claim that this loss is not as important as the gain from everyone being able to talk to everyone else.  I don’t understand a claim that there is literally no loss.

By on 10/05/06 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Divguy, I should’ve made this more clear: with regards to language and culture, Michaels insist they not be defended by virtue of their existence, but actually defended.  This goes back to his argument in Shape of the Signifier about the problem with lionizing difference-qua-difference: once you remove the grounds for disagreement, you lose the ability to evaluate and justify your decisions.  Michaels interest here, then, is not in letting languages die—or in only letting crypto-commie-fascist ones die—but in breaking down the argument for the necessity of cultural preservation.  He would (and did, in the interview I linked to yesterday) say that diversity is a laudable goal—but he’ll also say that because we’re unable to argue against it, we’ve had to accept it whole-cloth and to the exclusion of class-based equivalents.  In short, I think you’re mistaking a plank in his argument for the whole thing.  (Granted, I can see how reading just that Times article might impress you otherwise.)

That said, I think Lee nails it:

But even under hypothetically non-colonial circumstances, we should argue for preserving another people’s language on the same grounds that we would use to argue for not burning down libraries and archives--even the libraries of evil and malicious communities.  Preserving information is a good in and of itself.  The preservation of linguistic diversity is, likewise, a good in and of itself: and a question completely independent from questions about redistribution and social justice.  The only material calculation at this point would be a reflection on opportunity costs:  what do we lose when we spend our resources preserving language X?

Bill, I knew I could count on you.  The fact that some of the books are from MIT Press is even better, since I have access to all their neuroscience books online.  What you’ve said about L1/L2 acquisition interests me, though, since it seems to suggest that the benefits we attribute to learning new languages only apply if we learn them outside the optimal window for language development...which means that what’s valuable isn’t the possession of multiple languages but the rewiring of the linguistic bits of our brains.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/05/06 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As far as I’m concerned the only argument for learning new languages concerns what we can do with those languages. It’s an open question as to whether or not there is any neural tissue that is pre-specialized for language, by which I mean that in some non-trivial way, that tissue in biologically intended (evolutionarily designed) for language rather than simply becoming specialized by virtue of the fact that language has become learned into it. My bias on this is that there is relatively little, if any, such specialization in cortical tissue. The microcircuitry is pretty much the same from one place to another. If a certain area becomes specialized for hearing, that’s because it receives inputs from subcortical auditory areas and it’s open for learning early in life when auditory input becomes available—actually, the fetus can hear external sounds from, like, the 7th month, I believe.

I know someone somewhere’s done an experiment with neonatal rats or rabbits or cats where they surgically swapped auditory and, I believe, tactile cortical tissue shortly after birth. The young animals had no auditory or touch problems as they matured.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m on board the neonatal neuroplasticity train, I’m just also a fan of the late-in-life re-wiring of the brain I’ve got.  Those mental gymnastic “mind hacks” may not actually do much, but they do help defeat writer’s block.  (As does a few hours studying chess, or translating something from Italian, &c.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/05/06 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, you know us humans are the only primate where the sutures in the skull remain open past adolescence. That’s because the brain’s still growing enough that you can permanently set the skull size. Sutures finally set sometime in the 20s I believe.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Many of the world’s languages that are endangered don’t have the advantage of being written languages like many non-endangered languages (the fast-disappearing American Indian languages of the Pacific Northwest fall into this category), so once the last of their speakers die, that’s it—since there’s no textual attestation, what we know of these languages and the systems of thought they embody will be lost utterly when their last native speakers are silenced by death. From just a scholarly point of view alone, then, language preservation is a worthwhile endeavor.

Also, there’s nothing particularly “natural” about language death—a language’s number of total speakers doesn’t rise and fall based on some natural periodicity.  More often than not in history, language death is a symptom and sign of political/economic oppression and hegemony—the demise in the number of native speakers of, say, Scots Gaelic, or the death of Cornish or Manx. 

Also, ask yourself this question, Scott: what if you were among only a handful of speakers left in the world—say 4 or 5—who could speak, read, and write English? How would you feel then if someone made your argument to you?  It’s a much harder argument to make on ethical grounds, I think, when one considers the subjective experience of native speakers of endangered languages.

By on 10/05/06 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To make the defense of a language depend on its intrinsic moral or political worth (how could that be determined?), or the implied worth of its speakers’ culture (as is implied in some of these comments) seems a dangerous precedent.  Language and culture are not identical. 

Hitching linguistic preservation to a Whorfian hypothesis of “systems of thought” is also problematic.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/05/06 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Hitching linguistic preservation to a Whorfian hypothesis of ‘systems of thought’ is also problematic.”

How so? B/c the correlation isn’t present? According to what I know of contemporary cognitive approaches to language and thought, it seems that there is a correlation. (Of course, I might just not know enough. . . .)

By on 10/05/06 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, because people who speak the same language can have a different cultures.  People who have different languages can have (almost) the same culture.  People who are bilingual know they can have the *same* thoughts in more than one language.  There may be some correlation, but it is a very problematic correlation. 

Think of how many cultures that people who speak English around the world might have. 

I’m not saying the Sapir-Whorf hypotheis lacks all value, but that in its strong, deterministic form it is problematic.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 10/05/06 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

there’s nothing particularly “natural” about language death—a language’s number of total speakers doesn’t rise and fall based on some natural periodicity.  More often than not in history, language death is a symptom and sign of political/economic oppression and hegemony—the demise in the number of native speakers of, say, Scots Gaelic, or the death of Cornish or Manx.

Natural, no; but language change is inevitable.  Another way to say this is that a snapshot of a language at any particular historical moment won’t be a language anyone ever spoke.  Languages are always incorporating, expelling and inventing new words, new constructions, &c.  That said, I agree with everything you wrote in your first paragraph about preservation.

Also, ask yourself this question, Scott: what if you were among only a handful of speakers left in the world—say 4 or 5—who could speak, read, and write English? How would you feel then if someone made your argument to you?  It’s a much harder argument to make on ethical grounds, I think, when one considers the subjective experience of native speakers of endangered languages.

On the one hand, I don’t think I’d much care if I were the last speaker of my language on earth.  (Well, outside of being lonely, that is.) The death of my language would be a victimless crime; no one would be better or worse because of it.  Of course, the sum-total of human knowledge would decrease, and as I said above, that’s something worth curbing.

How so? B/c the correlation isn’t present? According to what I know of contemporary cognitive approaches to language and thought, it seems that there is a correlation. (Of course, I might just not know enough. . . .)

What I was taught as an undergraduate linguistics major was that the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is only rivaled in its wrongness by the strong form of its refutation.  Both extremes are bunk, but no one knows quite happens in the middle.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/05/06 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,

True enough about the strong construction of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, yet I still think one could argue that even speakers of, ostensibly, the “same” language who have different cultures make that language over into a unique cultural expression specific to them—I’m thinking here particularly of, say, African American English or Australian English or, say, the Geordie dialect in the north of England. All of these forms are more or less intelligeable to “non-native” speakers of those forms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those forms do not encode or reflect differences in conceptualization between groups.

By on 10/06/06 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, I did say more or LESS intelligible:

http://www.geordie.org.uk/

By on 10/06/06 at 09:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Controversy over the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis seems to me embarrassingly condescending--as has been pointed out elsewhere, if there’s no Navajo word for “bus”, does that mean a Navajo can’t see it cruising down the highway? Didn’t Plato take this nonsense down in the Cratylus?
Simply to state the impossibility of knowing “another culture” (whatever that may mean) is to make a linguistic claim about the translatability of bridging the gap through explanation and glossing. Claims of the inability or impossibility of knowing something is a positive claim for a gain in knowlege of that thing, as Hegel has it somewhere.

Cheers,

Dr JA

By on 10/13/06 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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