The debate surrounding language death and the preservation of endangered languages contains numerous opinions, some which are emotive, and others that are based on more concrete evidence.
In a study on endangered native American languages, James Crawford lists four common arguments amongst linguists which outline why we should care about language death. Crawford’s first point outlines how the death of a language results in linguists missing out on valuable information that could have otherwise contributed towards their science (1995, p. 31). For the second reason, Crawford discusses an argument shared by many others, i.e. “the loss of linguistic diversity means a loss of intellectual diversity” (1995, p. 33). The third reason is the loss of cultures, and the fourth reason, which Crawford (1995, p.33) describes as being the most important one is “the human costs to those most directly affected,” as in the loss of a culture’s and individual’s identity. This therefore creates challenges when it concerns the solutions to family, poverty, and school issues, and ultimately jeopardizes the success of small communities in the modern world (1995, p.33).
Such losses are a reality for many communities across the world, especially in linguistically diverse countries like Nigeria. Take Kasabe, a language spoken in Mambilia (which is a region in Cameroon), for instance. On November 4th 1995 Kasabe existed, but with the death of its last speaker, it disappeared by the 6th of November 1995 (Crystal, 1999). The linguist who analyzed Kasabe, Bruce Connell, remarks how the last speaker told him that “his mother had been born in the same village where he himself grew up [therefore] indicating several generations had passed” (Connell, 1997), but all is assumed to be lost with the death of the last speaker.
Yet, not everyone shares Crawford’s list of concerns about language death. As Nettle and Romaine explain in their book Vanishing Voices (2000), some argue that instead of trying to save endangered languages, it would make more sense to spread and encourage the use of dominant languages so that smaller communities can experience the same high standards of living as people speaking the dominant languages (2000, p.151). Nettle and Romaine further define this line of argument as being the benign neglect position: those who would prefer to let endangered languages gently disappear over time think that it would be right to do so because of the correlation formed between language death and the extinction of species. They argue that extinctions have occurred throughout history, so why worry about the loss of languages? (2000, p.153). Even though Nettle and Romaine do not support the benign neglect position, and go to great lengths to undermine it in their book, there are other linguists who do, to some degree, support part of it. For example, the linguist Peter Ladefoged argues that in some countries, such as Tanzania, tribalism goes against what it is that they are trying to achieve – unity (1992, p. 809). Thus, attempts at preserving endangered languages in places such as Tanzania would not benefit communities in a way that linguists would originally hope.
But what about the people who purposefully choose to speak a more dominant language? According to James Harbeck, some speakers of endangered languages choose to speak a dominant language because they “see their language as limiting: if they or their children are to be successful, they need to know the language of education, of science, of business” (2015). And just as Ladefoged discusses in his own study, not everyone sees their language as being sacred like some linguists suggest (1992, p. 809). For example, young speakers of Dravidian, which is spoken in southern India, want to be a part of modern India and simultaneously honour their ancestors. But in order to be a part of both, they have decided to stop using Dravidian on a regular basis (Ladefoged, 1992, p. 810).
Whilst it is easy to get caught up in the debate, I think it is important to consider the opinions of all those affected by language death, and what it is that they desire. But overall, the question still remain – should we preserve endangered languages?
JESSICA WOOLLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK