Language and Authority: Why languages disappear

Language and Authority – part 1

We began this discussion on the broad topics of defining language and we found it more difficult than perhaps popularly believed.  This time, we will discuss the trend of language decline in the world and why it is not simply a matter of natural language death, but directly tied to our policies and attitudes towards language, culture and other humans.

“…we must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest linguistics go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90% of the very field to which it is dedicated” – Michael Krauss, Journal of Language, 1992

Endangered languages represent a limited and expiring supply of potential research possibilities not just for the field of Linguistics, but all the cognitive sciences.  To a linguist, however, the disappearance of many of the world’s languages is particularly disheartening.  To the outside world, however, disappearing languages is not only not cause for concern, but many view it as a net positive. We will take a look at the issue of disappearing languages and why linguists are concerned.

To any linguist,The most concerning issue is that evidence suggests that somewhere around fifty percent of the languages spoken now, will no longer be spoken by anyone in the world within this century (Crystal 2000).  To a linguist, this means that if these languages go without thorough documentation, we will never know, to the extent those languages provide, the full range of human language.  We will be ignorant, but what’s worse, we will not be, as linguist Ken Hale describes it, “blissfully ignorant” (1998:194) because we will have watched it occur.  There are probably hundreds of thousands of languages that have come and gone in the history of humanity– of those languages we will never know what we are missing.  Of those, our ignorance is less jarring.


But even a language that has been documented (meaning, a grammar has been scientifically defined and explained; a working dictionary has been created; and a body of cultural texts based on oral history published), there remains many areas of scientific study that are impoverished without an actual living community of speakers.  The sociolinguist, the second-language-acquisition specialist, among many others.

The Real Problem

This line of thinking, however, misses the larger problem.  Science for the sake of science is not the answer.  The world opporates on a much broader level than simply “knowledge”.  Where linguists have failed (in the past, we are much wiser today) is in underestimating the role politics and authority play in deciding the direction of science.

Nora England in Language:

“Many of us have been used to thinking that our work is pure science-that the most compelling reasons for doing linguistics are to know how specific languages work and what language is. The widely accepted Western idea that knowledge in and of itself is valuable for society is often the only justification we need to do what we do.” (30)

Later, quoting a Mayan leader, Cojti Cuxil:

‘It is difficult, above all in Guatemala, where Ladino colonialism reigns and where the very Political Constitution assigns informal functions to Mayan languages, for linguists to define themselves as neutral or apolitical, since they work on languages that are sentenced to death and officially demoted. In this country, the linguist who works on Mayan languages only has two options: either active complicity in the prevailing colonialism and linguistic assimilationism, or activism in favor of a new linguistic order in which equality in the rights of all the language is made concrete, something that also implies equal rights for the nationalities and communities.” (England, 31).

Some point out (rightfully so) that language decline and death is natural and has happened regularly over the course of history.  Latin is the most popular example.  A once powerful language that commanded the world but eventually died out.  No one laments the death of Latin.

Nor should they.  The death of Latin is sad, but its end had more to do with diaspora and the spreading of Latin to the world than anything else.  We can see this is true, because while Latin is dead; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanch, Italian and many, many other languages are still living a robust life. All are the children of Latin and were once considered “vulgar” forms of Latin.

There is a very important, and absolutely critical, difference between the death of Latin and the imminent death of many languages in the world today.

Here it is.  The great secret truth that everyone knows. Many languages and cultures die because people in power-positions decide it should be so.  Very little more needs to be said to convince the scientific world that languages need to be preserved.  Convincing the general public and governments poses a much grander task for linguists and minorities.  Starting with possibly the greatest concern, that language loss appears in many cases to be caused largely by discrimination and genocide.  Consider Leanne Hinton:

“Before there was a United States of America, Europeans and Native Americans had already had close to 200 years of contact, much of it hostile, with great harm to the natives.  War, slavery, massacre and removal were the main order of the times.  The linguistic symptoms of this harm included the demise of many languages.  On language maps of North America depicting Native American languages, part of the southeast has a giant blank spot, where languages disappeared so quickly and completely that nothing at all is known about them” (Hinton 2001:40, italics added).

map.usaThe loss of these languages before linguists could document them is lamentable.  However, it is to an even greater extent, incomparably horrifying what this “giant blank spot” represents in terms of lives lost and cultures destroyed.

Lets take a moment to think about this.

The Cause

Government policy may still effect endangered languages without such extremes as the genocide of the Native Americans.  Krauss was very generous when he said, “Governments generally favor one language over another” (1992:4).  And the reasons for favoring one language usually rest in identity.  As was mentioned in part one, When establishing the then new United States of America, the American hero, Noah Webster was quoted as saying, “Culture, habits and language, as well as government should be national.  America should have her own distinct from the rest of the world…” (Nunberg 1999).  It is easy to see who is part of any particular culture, when that culture is defined by a certain usage of a certain language.  This allows for ideas like nationalism, unity and linguistic pride to flourish. (Much more to be said on this subject specifically, in part 3).

More often than not, this national pride swells up in a multicultural area.  Nationalism is chiefly concerned with conformity to a specific set of tenets and cultural mores from the dominant culture.  This conformity comes at the expense of the minority cultures.  This is and should be a major concern to linguists and the world.  When people lose pride in their culture, heritage and language, the most common action is to abandon them.  At this point, it no longer requires an authority to actively enforce the language shift (though as we have developed, the government policies and ideals of the majority group are always playing a part).  Colette Craig says that one of the major victories in her efforts to revitalize Rama, spoken in Nicaragua, was:

“the new awareness of the value of the language… this awareness can be articulated by some of the last speakers, as well as teachers, leaders, and community members-that the language is a ‘good’ language, that it has enough words for a dictionary, that it can be written, that it can be learned, that it has rules of grammar” (Craig 1992:23).

Again, let’s stop and think about that.  What if someone said to you, “Oh English? you mean that incoherent babble of bastardized German and French? that’s not a language.”  Surely you would scoff, and point them to the largest collection of literature in the history of the world as exhibit A.  Minority languages don’t have the benefit of a large corpus of written language, keyboards may not adequately represent their language on the internet and the rich people of the world explain that this is what a language is.  Its ability to be written down.

This logic is  circular and begs the question.  All languages begin as spoken languages and then develop written forms.  To suggest that a language isn’t a language if it isn’t written is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of language.  But I suppose that is the point.  The majority of people in authority either knowingly or ignorantly misunderstand what language is.

The fact that Rama has rules of grammar, that it has words that can go into a dictionary should be taken as granted, based solely on the fact that it is a natural language, but it wasn’t.   This is because the real problem isn’t with a language, the problem the authorities have is with the people. The language is simply a shibboleth that identifies the targeted minority.  The rhetoric against a language can be internalized by even the minority groups, and eventually everyone just knows that language X isn’t a real language; not like language Y, obviously.

The Solution

In opposition to the nationalistic oppression many minority language communities face, the linguist can help legitimize a language, by giving it the things the world says constitutes a “real” language.  They can write dictionaries, publish books and write programming codes and develop computer technology that embraces these cultures.  Giving them a place on the world stage of the internet.

mayanBut if the Mayans, the Rama, the Hawaiians, the Welsh, the Navajo, and many others teach us anything; it is that, in the end,  the real decision to revitalize a language or not lies entirely in the wants and wishes of the speech community.  No matter how interested a linguist is in revitalization, the evidence suggests that the plan will fail if the community is not behind the push (Ash 2001).  Not until the people decide to make it their own, does a revitalization project work.

What can be said of these arguments in their current form, is that humanity is doing something very drastic to affect the world’s languages.  And for a large part, humanity is quite passive about it.  People are much more likely to get active for causes involving ecology, genocide, healthcare and civil rights, than they are about languages alone.  If linguists want to continue the progression of linguistic research as it is now following, they have great incentive to enter the marketplace of ideas and start changing global (by changing the local) perspectives on language through forms of persuasion, on top of rigorous debate of what our arguments are for persevering endangered languages.


Ash, Anna et al.  2001.  “Diversity in Local Language Maintenance and Restoration: A Reason For Optimism”.  Hinton 19-39.  Print. 1 Sept 2010.

Cameron, Deborah. 1995.  Verbal Hygiene.  Routledge, New York.

Craig, Collette, 1992.  “A constitutional response to language endangerment: The case of Nicaragua”. Language, 68:1.  1992.

Crystal, David., 2000.  Language Death.  Cambridge Press, United Kingdom.  2000.

Dorian, Nancy C. 1993.  “A Response to Ladefoged’s Other View of Endangered Languages.”  Language, 69:3, 575-579.

England, Nora C., 1992.  “Doing Mayan Linguistics in Guatemala.”  Language, 68:1.  1992.

Fishmen, Joshua A., 1991.  “Reversing Language Shift: theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages”.  Multilingual Matters, Pennsylvania. 1991.

Grenoble, Lenore A., Linsdsay J. Wahley, Ed. 1998. Endangered Languages: Current issues and Future Prospects.  Cambridge Press, United Kingdom.

—,—. 1998. Toward a typology of language endangerment. Grenoble 22-55.

Hale, Ken, 1992.  “Endangered Languages”.  Language, 68:1.  1992.

—,—, 1998.  “On endangered languages and the importance of linguistic diversity”.  Grenoble 192-217.

Hinton, Leanne and Ken Hale, ed.  2001.  The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice.  Academic Press, California.

Hinton, Leanne, 2001.  “Federal Language Policy and Indigenous Languages in the United States”.  Hinton 39-45.

Krauss, Michael, 1992. “The World’s Languages in Crisis”.  Language, 68:1.  1992.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. 1999 The persistence of English. Norton Anthology of  English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 7th edition, 1999.

Whalen, D.H., 2004.  “How the study of endangered languages will revolutionize linguistics”.  Linguistics Today – Facing a Greater Challenge.  Ed. Piet van Sterkenburg.  Johns  Bejamins, Philadelphia, 2004.


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