The language of language death

[Alex writes:]

This article on the BBC Today Programme’s website brings the idea of ‘language death’ to public attention once again. This is one of those issues that pops up on the radar of mainstream news sources every now and then in the UK, but that is a fairly persistent concern among some professional descriptive linguists and sociolinguists (see, for example, this research centre dedicated to documenting and describing ‘endangered’ languages).

The article throws up a few thoughts.

1. Relevant to weak signals in futures work generally: a reminder that awareness can flicker in and out of mainstream notice before breaking through decisively. The social life of language is one of those topics that does well on slow news days. Other issues have more extended periods of higher profile then retreat to the fringe for a while.

2. Relatedly: there are no shortage of efforts to map language loss. As far as I know, nobody is looking at the distribution of interest in language death. What conditions are necessary for the emergence of widespread concern about language choice? We have examples of such concern at sites of ethnic/political tension (especially Slovakia, where there has been a legal crackdown on the use of Hungarian in public, a situation no-one seems to be monitoring), but also in places where no significant language risk exists (the UK, for example), suggesting that concern about language loss does not necessarily correlate to rates of loss.

3. The language used to describe language trends it itself worth studying for the insights it offers. This is from the BBC article:

Far from inspiring the world to act, the issue is still on the margins, according to prominent French linguist Claude Hagege.
“Most people are not at all interested in the death of languages,” he says. “If we are not cautious about the way English is progressing it may eventually kill most other languages.”

This is not uncommon: dominant languages as expansionist aggressors or pathogens. This is inherent in the widely-used term ‘language death’. What generates the strongly-felt sense that something ‘living’ is ‘lost’ or ‘killed’ when people no longer speak a language? People interested in language death, and hence mainstream reporting of these issues, often seem to use an ecological or environmental framework to organise their thinking and talking – hence ‘endangered languages’ and the treatment of languages as precious resources for encoding ideas about the world which are unreproducible in other languages. (This is a version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and its strong forms are not now well regarded among linguists more generally.) Sometimes the language also feels postcolonial – the idea that some languages colonise, and others are subjugated. Much of the scholarly work on language death has been done in languages – English, French, German – that are literally and figuratively colonial.

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