In the same way that we would mourn the loss of an endangered species like the blue whale or the panda, should we also mourn the death of a language? Many linguists argue that language death is a widespread problem across the globe that we should be striving to prevent. But how exactly does one define language death? Crystal (2000: 11) quite simply states that ‘a language is said to be dead when no one speaks it any more’. To put this into some kind of perspective, Krauss predicted that 90% of the world’s languages will die within a century (Hale et al., 1992). But the question is, should we really bother getting upset about it, or not?
Well, David Crystal, a popular British linguist, certainly thinks so. He believes that all languages are worth saving and gives five reasons for why this is so in his book Language Death (2000). Firstly, Crystal argues that language very much needs diversity as it inspires creativity that leads to not just the creation of new languages, but is something that inspires new movements, trends and fashions in all kinds of different cultures. He goes on to state that language ‘lies at the heart of what it means to be human’ (2000: 33-34), which leads straight into his next main argument, that ‘languages express identity’ (2000: 36). If we do not have a diverse range of languages, then how will all the different cultures in the world express their own unique identities?
Crystal’s third argument is that ‘languages are repositories of history’ (2000: 40), documenting it carefully and ensuring that it survives from one generation to the next. His next argument is that ‘languages contribute to the sum of human knowledge’ (2000: 44); not only historically, but scientifically, philosophically, and of course, linguistically. Crystal goes so far as to claim that ‘Westerners are infants in their knowledge of the environment’ (2000: 47), suggesting that indigenous peoples can provide the answers we seek. Crystal concludes his series of arguments by declaring that ‘languages are interesting in themselves’ (2000: 54), insisting that all languages, regardless of any other factors, are fascinating and important entities that must be preserved.
On the other side of the debate, there are those who would happily watch each and every endangered language die without a second’s hesitation. McIntyre says that one global language would ‘make travel easier, […] international communication more straightforward [and] it would provide more economic opportunities’ (2009: 76). Crystal elaborates upon these views by explaining that some believe ‘that sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity’ (2000: 27), a notion which some may find rather naive. Unfortunately for those that encourage language death, thousands of languages still currently exist.
So, are endangered languages worth being protected? Undoubtedly, my answer is yes. Thankfully, as Dalby (2003: 146) explains, ‘there are 5000 or so languages in the world, and fewer than 200 nation states, [therefore] anyone can see that linguistic nationalism still has some way to go’, which gives us time to act. Nevertheless, it is absolutely crucial that we do something sooner rather than later, or else future generations will not be able to enjoy the rich abundance of culture and knowledge that we do today.
SEAN HARRIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Hale, K., Krauss, M., Watahomigie, L. J., Yamamoto, A.Y., Craig, C., Jeanne, L. M. and England, N. C. (1992) Endangered languages. Language, 68(1), pp. 1.