A Whole Earth Forum of Compassionate Linguists

Article excerpt

Kenneth Hale


The loss of a language is like the loss of a cherished museum or library: a language bears, in its lexical and semantic features, in its ways of saying things, a significant measure of the civilization of its speakers. The loss of Damin, for example, the initiates' language of the Lardil people of Morninton Island, North Queensland, amounts to the loss of a tradition of semantic relations comparable to that embodied in the very best thesaurus, or in the entire output of the anthropological tradition of componential analysis of the fifties and sixties.

While languages are being lost at an alarming rate, this is not a time for pessimism. Many local language communities are mobilizing to maintain and foster their linguistic traditions, and there are successes, including among many others the immersion programs of Maori, Hawaiian, and Mohawk, the Irish of Belfast, and the language reclamation project of the Miami-Illinois people of Indiana.

Ken Hale edited The View from Building 20 (MIT Press, 1993), and is professor of linguistics at MIT. He and Leanne Hinton have just edited The Green Book, celebrating practical forms of language revitalization

Elena Benedicto

I like to focus on people, and the effect the loss of their language can have on them. Indigenous persons are often viewed as museum entities, as things objectified, that don't really coexist with us in our Western world. But they do. The work I do in Nicaragua focuses on the empowerment of the people(s).

You may hear the argument that it is actually more "useful" for a given minority language group to just forget about its language and use the dominant language in order to have better access to "success." You often see this argument in discussions about African American English. In the end, this discussion is about assimilation: "if you don't assimilate, you don't survive" (mostly in economic terms). But this is a total fallacy. It is true that some individuals succeed by assimilating--that is, by associating with the ways and language of the dominant group--but the majority, the group, the people, won't. And these people will still be marginalized (will not "succeed")--AND will have lost one of their treasures, one of their principal sources of identity and pride: their language.

All languages can express abstract ideas, science, and art equally, though maybe differently. No language is better suited than any other to be used for science; technical vocabulary has been introduced in every language. Every language had to adapt to new realities. But that doesn't mean that a given language is less apt to be used for "success."

When a language is lost, people and peoples are deprived of one of the major assets of cultural identity. It is part of what is often referred to in Latin America as "acculturation": in other words, cultural genocide. Among the basic rights of humans is the right to their own culture, and to their own language. Let's defend that right.

Elena Benedicto, professor of linguistics at Purdue University, conducts comparative language studies of the Misumalpan, in Nicaragua.

Douglas Whalen

There is still a great deal of debate about whether culture and language are separable, and, even deeper, whether language forces you to think in particular ways. You can talk with many people--the Irish come to mind, for example--who have adopted English as their language but still consider themselves to be part of their heritage culture. So it is clearly possible to have the culture survive without the language. But language is clearly the most efficient carrier of a culture--it is virtually impossible to speak the language and not carry on the culture. This is not to say that cultures don't change--there is nothing odd about a Native American using a camcorder to tape a dance competition. …