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Are dying languages worth saving?

  • 15 September 2010
  • From the section Magazine

Language experts are gathering at a university in the UK to discuss saving the world's endangered languages. But is it worth keeping alive dialects that are sometimes only spoken by a handful of people, asks Tom de Castella?

"Language is the dress of thought," Samuel Johnson once said.

About 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. But the Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of those are spoken by only a handful of people. And every year the world loses around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade - a sad prospect for some.

This week a conference in Carmarthen, west Wales, organised by the foundation, is being attended by about 100 academics. They are discussing indigenous languages in Ireland, China, Australia and Spain.

"Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human," says Nicholas Ostler, the foundation's chairman.

"And when languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays we want access to everything but we don't want to be thought of as no more than people on the other side of the world."

Apart from English, the United Kingdom has a number of other languages. Mr Ostler estimates that half a million people speak Welsh, a few thousand Scots are fluent in Gaelic, about 400 people speak Cornish, while the number of Manx speakers - the language of the Isle of Man - is perhaps as small as 100. But is there any point in learning the really minor languages?

Last speaker dies

"I do think it's a good thing for a child on the Isle of Man to learn Manx. I value continuity in a community."

In Europe, Mr Ostler's view seems to command official support. There is a European Charter for Regional Languages, which every European Union member has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme, designed to protect the most threatened native tongues. At the end of last year the project received 2.7m euros to identify those languages most at risk.

But for some this is not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of how language works. The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is "irrational" to try to preserve all the world's languages.

Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died.

While it may seem sad that the language expired, says Mr Malik, cultural change is driving the process.

"In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous." And when governments try to prop languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards, he says.

If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them - it shouldn't be backed by government subsidy, he argues.

"To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don't see why it's in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter." In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. "If a language is one that people don't participate in, it's not a language anymore."

Wicked words

The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. "Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It's not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using 'wicked' to mean terrific then that has a big effect."

Image caption Minority language translators at work at the National People's Congress

The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation's regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular.

And Mr Howard says politicians make a "category mistake" when they try to interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he says is doomed to fail. "Offering Gaelic to children of people who don't speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It's very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense."

But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. "Some people take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish the fastest growing."

There are competing forces at work that decide whether smaller languages survive, Howard argues. On the one hand globalisation will mean that many languages disappear. But some communities will always live apart, separated by sea, distance or other barriers and will therefore keep their own language. With modern communications and popular culture "you find that if enough people want to speak a language they can".

In short, there is no need for handwringing.

"Language is not a plant that rises and falls, lives and decays. It's a tool that's perfectly adapted by the people using it. Get on with living and talking."

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