Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Today, in response to Google’s announcement of the Endangered languages project, the topic of linguistic diversity shot briefly to the forefront of the mind for people around the internet. After a post went live about this on Slashdot, a variety of commenters all asked the same question: Why is linguistic diversity a good thing?

Even though it’s not a question a trained linguist would really think to ask, it’s a fair question, answerable on several fronts.

First, you can think about linguistic diversity as being like biodiversity: More species, each with different adaptations and ways of life, provide more information for which to understand how life works. For a linguist interested in “Typology”, the comparison of different languages, examining the differences across many different, unrelated (or nearly so) languages gives better insight into Language (with a capital L) on the whole. It allows us to ask interesting questions like “Around the world, do people prefer to have lots of sounds at the start of a syllable, or at the end”, or “What’s the most common ordering of the Subject, Object and Verb in sentences in human language?”.

Sure, losing an individual language doesn’t destroy everything, but each language that’s lost is one less (incredibly rich) datapoint which can be used to better understand how people do language, and what other ways things can be done in language. In addition, individual languages have plenty to teach us as well.

For instance, in Wichita, a language which may or may not be dead based on the health of its last few speakers, one could express “the buffalo ran up and down the village several times while scaring people” using a single, very long, very complex word. There are other languages which act like this (“polysynthetic languages”), but Wichita is really, frighteningly good at it. Don’t you think that it’d be fascinating to do some MRI studies to see how Wichita people are parsing words, compared to speakers of, say, Mandarin Chinese, which isolate nearly every morpheme (“chunk of meaning”), grammatical or otherwise, into single words?

In addition, as other people have pointed out, when you lose the language, you lose the culture very easily (and vice versa). Even if you’re not interested in the specifics of how language works in the mind (or just in general), understanding different cultural approaches to the world provides more information on the human condition. If your culture doesn’t permit or believe in the idea of “selling land”, that’s interesting data, and food for thought for most other cultures.

Add to it the fact that most languages right now are being lost as a result of imperialist or assimilationist policies, either in the past or in the present, and preserving language (and the cultures that come with it) is an important means to preserving cultures which might otherwise be lost of past political mistakes.

In short, if you’re looking at things in a cold, detached way (in terms of trade or war or politics, say), there’s little reason to have a group of 50,000 people speaking three languages rather than one. But if you’re interested in how human language, culture, and cognition works. that diversity and those comparisons offer data that a homogenous group would not. And that, no matter how you slice it, is a good thing.

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