Language extinction not equal to cultural extinction

Futurismic points to a piece by John McWhorter:

[…] the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English.

Elsewhere – judging by Futurismic’s summary – McWhorter seems to suggest that language extinction is a function of globalisation and reduced isolation, and therefore shouldn’t be regarded as bad.

This seems to me to run directly contrary to the arguments about linguistic diversity and biodiversity being related. I don’t think I know McWhorter – Alex, does he have form?

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About thenextwavefutures

Andrew Curry is a consultant who specialises in futures for The Futures Company, based in London. All views are personal, etc.

One comment

  1. Alex Steer

    Yes – he’s a reputable sociolinguist, good on language contact, on the conservative side politically (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McWhorter). In terms of the culture/language connection and isolation I tend to agree, though I don’t agree that languages necessarily die when cultures do, and cultural death is a tricky enough concept – for example, did the Latin-based culture of the Roman Empire die in the 5th, 8th, 12th, 16th or 18th or 20th century? Was it the Saxons or AE Housman? Take your pick, really.

    However, I think he’s ignoring some important connections between culture and environment – cultures (material and linguistic) as crucibles for ecological husbandry, localised identity, etc.

    Sorry I’ve been quiet on this blog for the last few weeks – settling into the pace of life in Cape Town, and now hoping to be more active.

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