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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Living in the age of language death

David HARRISON: Of 6,800 languages existing today, only 3,000 will still be around in 2100
11 November, 2010 - 00:00

In September, some Verkhovna Rada deputies launched an attempt to change the status of the Russian language in Ukraine under the cover of the purported desire to guarantee preservation and unfettered development of regional languages. Unfortunately, the people’s elected representatives have forgotten the sad experience of Ireland and Belarus. In these countries, the desire to introduce English and Russian at the official level (as it is proposed in Ukraine), respectively, brought about tragic linguicide — today the Irish and Belarusian languages belong to category of “the languages on the verge of extinction.” Ultimately, the process of “language death” itself is inevitable and natural. And herein lies the tragic essence of a language: having been born, it must die one day.

So our goal is to keep the language alive at any price, to prevent it from extinction, because the disappearance of a language means the death of a nation, as the latter always exists through language. Russians understand this perfectly, so they respect their language, support it at an international level, while we, Ukrainians, strive to do everything to eliminate our own history, mentality, and ethnicity, with our own hands. In our case, the Ukrainian language is under considerable pressure from Russian language. Well, it is historically conditioned. The Crimea will not start to speak Ukrainian in a day or a year. But we really need to teach Russophones respect for the national language. Otherwise it will be a phantom, existing only on paper, but dead in the mental space.

In the context of these considerations, it is important to return to the comprehension of the nature of language death and identify, in a professional manner, the differences between regional languages, “endangered languages” and the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. We offer an interview with Professor, Dr. David Harrison (Swarthmore College).

On what major problems are you working now, as a linguistics scholar?

“As a theorist of language, I, above all, study phonology (sound structure) and morphology (inflection). I also deal with the harmonization of the sounds in words in different languages. The examples that I’ve found provide interesting precedents, challenging the classical linguistic theory and helping to model general cognitive functions of language, such as image recognition. I study these samples empirically (during fieldwork in Siberia or India) as well as by means of computer simulations.

“I am a linguist, so I accept the position that languages exist exclusively within the cultural matrix, i.e., to study them, I need to know the cultural context. It is languages that form the structure of our knowledge. My ethnographic research is based on information about the natives, folklore, oral epics, speculative system, for example (as with the Chulym language) within the context of Asian nomads’ domestic life.

“Sometimes I imagine myself a zoologist, who is discovering new species. It’s an amazing feeling. “As a scholar I can not remain indifferent, seeing dozens of languages disappear every year. The two languages that I currently study, Tofa and Os, have only 40 native speakers each. About half of the world’s languages will disappear this century. The loss will be catastrophic.”

Are forecasts really so dire? Can anything be done to save the endangered languages?

“This question has recently been discussed by linguists from around the world in Seattle at the annual linguistic conference. It is very hard to answer it.

“We can definitely state that at least half of the 6,800 contemporary living languages will disappear by 2050. The most recent example is the Chulym language, which I had found in the half-dead state. Today this language is used by about 40 people in central Siberia, and all native speakers are at least 50 years old. The distinct features of the language are its grammar rules: for example, the construction of sentences containing negation, or forms of interrogative sentences. You see, every language has its own ecosystem, and we have no right to destroy these areas.

“For example, speakers of this newly-discovered Chulym language practice hunting, collecting, and fishing — all that our ancestors did thousands of years ago. They have their legends, folklore, are brilliantly versed in medical herbs (having not read any books on them!). They live in six-people families, with their homes far away from each other, often they mix with Russian population. Only 35 people still speak the language perfectly. To reconstitute the grammar of the language, I have found one speaker, member of the tribe, who had invented, only imagine it, his own writing system. I plan to use it with minor modifications to publish the first book of grammar for this language. But in a few years, there will be no language, it will disappear forever. Russia ought to do everything to keep such languages from extinction, but is something actually being done? We, linguists have to record these languages, their grammar, so that they may sometime be revived. But linguists are not able to manage languages and ethnicities! We need strong support from governments. But the fact remains: a large part of living languages is gradually fading. And we should come to terms with it, because the process is irreversible. Another thing is that the pace of the process can be different, and sometimes linguistic policies accelerate these processes. You know, it’s not only the loss of a language, it is also the death of an ethnic group. This is very dangerous in terms of culture, because we lose the knowledge related to traditions, models of philosophy rooted in human consciousness. It is bad from the scholar’s point of view, since we cease to understand how the processes of perception of the world through language is organized.”

Why is there such a rapid elimination of languages and their speakers in the world today?

“The reasons for the disappearance of languages can be described as ethnic wars and genocide, natural disasters, the assimilation of small ethnic groups and their transition to the dominant languages, including English, French, Chinese, and Russian in their respective areas. Monster states are not interested in the development of minority languages, languages which are unique, as some of them exist over the millennia in constant form (existing before English and Russian even appeared!). But we sometimes forget the natural flow of things and bring some sense to our life with political documents that do not reflect the nature of phenomena. According to our institute, of 6,800 languages existing today, only 3,000 will still be around in 2100.

“There were cases when each week a language ‘died’ somewhere on the planet and this trend is considered normal. The problem is that now the figure is growing exponentially. Over the next century, about 6,200 languages, dialects and subdialects can disappear from circulation.”

To which peoples is this process especially dangerous?

“Oblivion threatens, firstly, languages of small ethnic groups. According to UNESCO, a language may be transmitted from generation to generation, when the number of its speakers is no less than 100,000. Currently, the Eyak language of indigenous inhabitants of Alaska is used by only one inhabitant of the same state, the Udege dialect of Siberia is spoken by about 100 people, and only six Brazilian Indians language communicate in their tribe’s Arikapu language. You see, the statistics are sad. Interestingly, more than half of all the world’s languages are found in just eight countries: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, Mexico, Cameroon, Australia and Brazil. But despite the languages’ deaths, the reverse process is also happening. So, for example, Hebrew was once revived and is now spoken by more than five million Israelis. Over 10,000 people in Hawaii speak their native language, almost forgotten just a decade ago; Mexicans want to restore lost languages of the Mayan tribes, and New Zealanders do it with the Maori language. But the proportion of the dead languages to the revived is catastrophic.”

But if the pace of language extinction is not reduced, will the mankind come to speak a universal language?

“In reality, a universal language can only be imposed if it is easy to communicate in, for example, as for English in the academic world or the business world (and you notice that in our history all the time there were attempts to impose on societies some universal language: Latin, French, and now English). But linguistic differences can not be canceled. On the contrary, we constantly see new internal differences in spoken languages, so that spoken English today, for example, in the Appalachians is different from Standard English. This is a live intralingual process. Convergence and divergence are natural phenomena. It is completely another thing that extralinguistic intervention in these processes leads to disaster. Imagine only, in the 21st century about half of the languages that exist today in the world will go into oblivion! These are the survey’s data, which we published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Linguistics.

“Globalization of the world and especially languages is associated with very serious problems. A global language is a global problem. I want to draw attention to the dangers that are hidden in this process. Worldwide, the projects are now discussed, under which secondary schools will teach only one foreign language, English. Several years ago many countries abolished the quota for foreign languages, so parents and children began to freely choose the language, and number of English learners have increased by 60-80 percent. This is a serious problem. Imagine what it would be, if all of us saw the world through English-speaking peoples’ eyes? The language globalization is dangerous for English-speaking peoples, too. I have the impression that now culture, embedded in the English language, and even national identity of English-speaking nations is an open display, they are the world’s property. Look at how much effort and money is spent by America and Britain to establish centers of learning English in the world. But to be, I am sure, we need even more money to be spent on saving small ethnic groups’ half-dead languages, such as the Tofa, Arikapu, etc. I think such projects are relevant to the Ukrainian language policy as well. You could do more to increase the number of Ukrainian studies centres abroad, as it is the main means to promote one’s cultural policy in the world. The English have the British Council, the Germans have the Goethe-Institute, and the Americans have a whole network of centres. Speaking as a linguist, it seems to me that in Ukraine there is a lot of talk about language, but few meaningful decisions at the government and presidential level to support the Ukrainian language at the state level.”

Mr. Harrison, what could you say about the situation of the Ukrainian language? Now Ukraine is engulfed in a fierce debate on granting Russian strong support as a regional language, not so long ago, the bill “On Languages in Ukraine” was announced...

“You know, this bill is built on a non-linguistic (or even anti-linguistic) basis. I oppose such political interference in the language affairs, knowing in particular the history of the Ukrainian language itself. They’d do better by registering a bill to support the Ukrainian language, to increase the hours of teaching the Ukrainian language in secondary school! The history of the Ukrainian language is a history of linguicide, that is, conscious, deliberate destruction of language as the main feature of an ethnic group, nation. Linguicide is a prerequisite for mass denationalization and mankurtization1 because otherwise loss of historical memory and ethnic immunity is simply impossible, and without this loss there could not be assimilation, that is, absorption of one people by another one. That is why the enslaver never forgets to destroy the language of the oppressed people. Given Ukraine’s history, today your state should follow the language policy of France, not that of the US or Russia. It ought to be understood by the Verkhovna Rada and Viktor Yanukovych himself, who, despite all things to the contrary, impressed the US during his visit. He must become a statesman who understands that the political and electoral flirting is one thing, while the real national language support is quite another. Without Ukrainian Ukraine can’t exist within itself and the world.” 

 1 Mankurts are characters of the famous Soviet Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov’s novel; according to his narration, they were young men captured during intertribal warfare in the steppes who were tortured in order to transform them into obedient slaves not remembering anything from their past, not even their mothers’ names. The word became the pejorative term for “traitors of the nation” in the post-Soviet countries, especially Russified natives.

By Dmytro Drozdovsky, Vsesvit, special to The Day