Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Can you read Demotic ?

Linguistic diversity, historically under the pressure of the homogenizing forces of empire-builders, market connectivity and nationalism, appears to have reached a crisis point with the era of globalization:

"While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.

....Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

"When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday."

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.

....Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.

The hot spots listed at Tuesday's briefing:

Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal Australia holds some of the world's most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag..."

Around the turn of the 20th century, the last known speaker of Dalmatian, a bastardized vestige of the tongue spoken by the ancient Dalmatae tribes of the Balkans, was killed in a terrorist bombing and the language was forever lost. This was in the heyday of linguistic scholar-adventurers when the mastery of twenty or forty languages by experts was not unusual. Today, it is not that unusual to have monolingual "linguists" who study the neurology or grammar of languages but not the tongues themselves.

As human population has increased, linguistic diversity has decreased. This may simply be a correlation but I think it is causation; increasingly complex societies can ill-afford the added inefficiencies of the uber-multilingualism of hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects. Political power and market dynamics exert pressure for a leveling of languages down to a common tongue. The process is not a rational one, as evidenced by the global ubiquity of English, riddled as it is with illogical exceptions to jerry-built rules.

For myself, I am, admittedly, exceedingly mediocre at learning foreign languages. I have no more ear for it than I do for music. At best, I mastered enough Portuguese to read Brazilian newspapers and today I'd be lucky to be able to ask where a bathroom was in a Sao Paulo hotel. That being said, lost languages represent a loss to the cognitive capacity of humanity. Every language contains a nucleus of effectively untranslatable words that express the unique insights of particular cultures. When languages become extinct, these insights vanish from the cultural heritage of mankind.

Of new languages in the last millenium, the only real creative growth appears to be in the realm of computers and the programming languages that make the internet hum. What does this portend for the future ?


The esteemed Dan of tdaxp is the apostle of linguistic efficiency.

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That being said, lost languages represent a loss to the cognitive capacity of humanity. Every language contains a nucleus of effectively untranslatable words that express the unique insights of particular cultures. When languages become extinct, these insights vanish from the cultural heritage of mankind.

I agree completely -- except I would add, those insights can be rediscovered sometime in the future.

I suppose this means (if I remember Dan's post correctly from my reading earlier today) that I disagree with the thrust of the tdaxp post that the loss of diversity in language is all good.

Thanks for the link!


fl (of Primrose Road) and I had a back-and-forth. Linguistic consolidation is not all good. But it is good.
Isn't possible that there is an "ebb & flow" to the diversity of language? What if we lose half of the existing languages today, only to see three times as many languages in a thousand years? I think that this is simply alarmism on the part of linguists.

Varieties of languages persist in isolation. Contact results either in development of a lingua franca or the extinction of one of the languages. Highly conservative populations may hold onto their languages despite contact but it takes real tenacity and often, frankly, xenophobia.

In this light loss of linguistic diversity is a good thing in a Tom Barnett sort of sense. Connectivity and all.

It does make things duller for linguists.
The decrease in the number of languages I would think a byproduct of globalization effect. Why can't there be Creative Destruction in the market for languages?

Existing languages are not static. How many words are being added officially and non-officially to english each year? New ideas and concepts are being added all the time.
Wow! Many excellent comments!

No, languages are not static, true enough. I was thinking in terms of the emergence of new languages but internal growth within a language counts as well.

"Isn't possible that there is an "ebb & flow" to the diversity of language?"

Great question! I don't know the answer to that - my suspicion is that we have been on a steady decline for a few thousand years. Renewed parochialism would be a driver as with the dark ages when dialects sprang up.
The Slavic languages differentiated about 800 years ago, presumably as a consequence of isolation. Said another way Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian didn't exist 800 years ago—just Old Church Slavonic.

The prevailing model is that Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian were all once Vulgar Latin and began differentiating from each other more than 1,000 years ago. That would mean that one language became something like 20.

The history of the Chinese languages is controversial. Did they all differentiate from Old Chinese? No one really knows for sure. If so, one language became dozens or scores.

If the prevailing belief about the Indo-European language family is correct, a single language spoken between 8,000 and 6,000 years ago became scores (or even hundreds) of languages by 1500. Since 1500 quite a number have disappeared.

But the mechanism for all of the differentiation is posited to be isolation and isolation is darned hard to come by nowadays.
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