Harrison, David K. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-19-518192-0.
Every two weeks, a language dies. Over the past several years there have been several books written about this sad phenomenon, ranging from popular works such as Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages to more academic coverage like Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. K. David Harrison’s When Languages Die has a universal appeal. The author, a professor of linguistics at Swathmore College, writes in an approachable style that emphasizes the human element of language death, the last speakers of languages who feel great pain at their loss, while giving a rigorous argument for language preservation.
One common point in favor of language preservation is that certain possibilities of human language are found only in small indigenous languages, and were they not attested there, we would not know the human brain could accept such features. Urarina, a language spoken in the Amazon that has OVS word order, is the standard example and is present here. Harrison, however, gives some original arguments. His fieldwork has taken him to several smaller populations of Eastern Europe, Siberia, the Philippines and Mongolia. He has visited populations who maintain a traditional way of life with complex folk techniques. Harrison’s first argument for language preservation is that the switch from an indigenous language and its useful terminology for local industry to an outside language creates inefficiency. He observes that older reindeer herders among Siberian peoples speaking their own language are able to express themselves about their duties much more concisely than a younger generation speaking Russian, who must resort to circumlocution. I like this argument. It does not resort to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines what you can say, for the younger generation can still speak of the details of reindeer herding, but it sees value in a language that can encode such information more efficiently.
Harrison’s second argument for action against language death is that traditional languages pass down useful knowledge through the generations simply by being used, and this knowledge is lost through adopting an outside language. He gives exhaustive coverage of various calendar systems throughout the world, where names for months are tied to the agriculture or hunting cycle. Simply by growing up speaking such a language, a young person is endowed with knowledge of the plant cycle or the breeding habits of local wildlife. He gives examples of Siberian populations who no longer remember details of certain natural phenonmenon because they have lost their traditional calendar and use only the Russian one. While in many cases this is applicable, this argument doesn’t hold when local peoples simply cease caring about traditional views of the natural environment. The same forces which encourage language shift, industrialization and urbanization, are those which tend to replace traditional ways of life altogether. When people are living in large blocks of flats in the city, going to work in offices or factories, is the traditional calendar any more meaningful than the new one?
In fact, this ties into one major objection I have to pleas for language preservation as usually formulated. As linguists, we can agree that languages are interesting and worthy of preservation. We might agree that some of what indigenous populations do, such as their agricultural lore, should be preserved. However, I don’t see how we must all believe that all indigenous ways of life are worth maintaining. This is especially true with regards to religion. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, religion is usually an issue of what is right against what is falsehood, and it doesn’t make sense to call for relativism. Have some priorities here, people. While less critical of missionary efforts than other books on this subject, even Harrison succumbs to this, writing on page 153 ‘We should be sensitive to the impending loss of so many more religions and worldviews as languages die.’ I would like to make linguistics my life’s work, but there’s no way I buy that.
The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of the speakers of threatened languages and with various diagrams. The author even includes sign languages alongside spoken languages, which no other work on the subject to my knowledge has done. Of the books I’ve read on the general phenomenon of language death and the worthiness of language preservation, Harrison’s When Languages Die is, while by no means perfect, probably the best.