Should Threats to Rare Languages Worry Us?

An eye-catching headline at Newser.com about rare languages leads to this story in Science Magazine: “Languages are being wiped out by economic growth.”

The world’s roughly 7000 known languages are disappearing faster than species, with a different tongue dying approximately every 2 weeks. Now, by borrowing methods used in ecology to track endangered species, researchers have identified the primary threat to linguistic diversity: economic development. Though such growth has been shown to wipe out language in the past on a case-by-case basis, this is the first study to demonstrate that it is a global phenomenon, researchers say.

Many people know about the threatened polar bear and extinct passenger pigeon, but few have heard of endangered and extinct languages such as Eyak in Alaska, whose last speaker died in 2008, or Ubykh in Turkey, whose last fluent speaker died in 1992, says Tatsuya Amano, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and lead author of the new study. It’s well known that economic growth or the desire to achieve it can drive language loss, he notes—dominant languages such as Mandarin Chinese and English are often required for upward mobility in education and business, and economic assistance often encourages recipients to speak dominant languages. 

This is really wrongheaded thinking.

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If all the exotic languages were preserved, what would be the result? The answer isn’t hard to see: more war and less peaceful trade. If one goes to more “primitive” areas one will find that there were hundreds of different languages in a relatively small area, each spoken by a tiny tribe. These are not places known for peace.

So while this article makes “economic growth” seem like an alien force, they are using selective data. When people can’t speak to one another they can’t get along with one another. At best they tend to isolate themselves from one another. At worst they fight and steal. In most of history “economic growth” hasn’t eliminated diverse languages; learning a common language has enable economic growth.

So when the “last fluent speaker” of a language dies out, what does that mean? Hopefully it means that he educated his children to be able to cooperate and thrive among a larger group of people.

After all, if rare languages are so valuable, then the ideal would be for us each to have our own and be able to communicate with no one else.

I’m not advocating abolishing languages. I’m advocating that we stop trying to obstruct social cooperation and let society decide these things in a free manner. There will probably always be more than one language on earth, but the fact that some languages are no longer spoken is not a humanitarian disaster. A humanitarian disaster would be a tribe speaking a language that prevented them from interacting with the rest of the world.

This is a different question than the issue of preserving great literature originally written in a dead language. Such works that warrant it are often translated into other languages and scholars perpetuate a group that is able to read such works in the original.

Languages are not people. When they “die out,” they only do so metaphorically. Real people thrive by being part of a larger community.