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let them die

prospect, november 2000

There are around 6000 languages in the world today. Shortly there will be one less. Eighty-one year old Marie Smith Jones is the last living speaker of Eyak, an Alaskan language. When she dies, so will her language. Over the past few decades a huge number of languages have died in this fashion. When Ned Madrell died on the Isle of Man in 1974, he also took the ancient Manx language to the grave. The death in 1992 of Tefvic Escenc, a farmer from the Turkish village of Haci Osman, killed off Ubykh, a language once spoken in the northern Caucasus. Laura Somersal died in 1990, the last speaker of a native American tongue, Wappo. Six years later another Native American language, Catawba, passed away with the death of Carlos Westez, more popularly known as Red Thunder.

At least half of the world’s 6000 languages are expected to disappear over the next century; some pessimists suggest that by the year 3000 just 600 languages will be left. According to the American Summer Institute of Linguistics, there are 51 languages with only one speaker left - 28 of them in Australia alone. A further 500 languages are spoken by fewer than 100 speakers, and another 1,500 by fewer than 1,000 speakers. Most will be lucky to survive the next decade. Such accelerated disappearance has galvanised into action an increasingly vocal campaign to preserve 'linguistic diversity'. In an obituary to Carlos Westez, the writer Peter Popham warned that 'when a language dies' we lose 'the possibility of a unique way of perceiving and describing the world.' Despairing of the 'impact of a homogenising monoculture upon our way of life', Popham worried about the 'spread of English carried by American culture, delivered by Japanese technology and the hegemony of a few great transnational languages: Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Hindi.' The linguist David Crystal echoed these sentiments in a Prospect essay last year. 'We should care about dying languages', he argued, 'for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.'

Now a new book, Vanishing Voices, by the anthropologist Daniel Nettle and linguist Suzanne Romaine, links the campaign to preserve languages to the campaign for fundamental human rights, and for the protection of minority groups, in the face of what they regard as aggressive globalisation and cultural imperialism. 'Linguistic diversity', they argue, 'is a benchmark of cultural diversity'. Language death 'is symptomatic of cultural death: a way of life disappears with the death of a language.' 'Every people', Nettle and Romaine conclude, 'has a right to their own language, to preserve it as a cultural resource, and to transmit it to their children.'

Campaigners for linguistic diversity portray themselves as liberal defenders of minority rights, protecting the vulnerable against the nasty forces of global capitalism. Beneath the surface rhetoric, however, their campaign has much more in common with reactionary, backward-looking visions, such as William Hague's campaign to 'save the pound' as a unique expression of British identity, or Roger Scruton's paean to a lost Englishness. All seek to preserve the unpreservable, and all are possessed of an impossibly nostalgic view of what constitutes a culture or a 'way of life'.

The whole point of a language is to enable communication. As the renowned Mexican historian and translator Miguel Leon-Portilla has put it, 'In order to survive, a language must have a function'. A language spoken by one person, or even a few hundred, is not a language at all. It is a private conceit, like a child's secret code. It is, of course, enriching to learn other languages and delve into other cultures. But it is enriching not because different languages and cultures are unique, but because making contact across barriers of language and culture allows us to expand our own horizons and become more universal in our outlook.

In bemoaning 'cultural homogenisation', campaigners for linguistic diversity fail to understand what makes a culture dynamic and responsive. It is not the fracturing of the world with as many different tongues as possible; it is rather the overcoming of barriers to social interaction. The more universally we can communicate, the more dynamic our cultures will be, because the more they will be open to new ways of thinking and doing. It is not being parochial to believe that were more people to speak English - or Chinese, Spanish, Russian or Hindi - the better it would be. The real chauvinists are surely those who warn darkly of the spread of 'American culture' and 'Japanese technology'.

At the core of the preservers' argument is the belief that a particular language is linked to a particular way of life and a particular vision of the world. 'Each language has its own window on the world', write Nettle and Romaine. 'Every language is a living museum, a monument to every culture it has been vehicle to.' It's an idea that derives from nineteenth century Romantic notions of cultural difference. 'Each nation speaks in the manner it thinks', wrote the German critic and poet Johann Gottfried von Herder, 'and thinks in the manner it speaks.' For Herder, the nature of a people was expressed through its volksgeist - the unchanging spirit of a people. Language was particularly crucial to the delineation of a people, because 'in it dwell the entire world of tradition, history, religion, principles of existence; its whole heart and soul.'

The human capacity for language certainly shapes our ways of thinking. But particular languages almost certainly do not. Most linguists have long since given up on the idea that people's perceptions of the world, and the kinds of concepts they hold, is constrained by the particular language they speak. The idea that French speakers view the world differently from English speakers, because they speak French, is clearly absurd. It is even more absurd to imagine that all French speakers have a common view of the world, thanks to a common language.

But if the Romantic idea of language has little influence, the Romantic idea of human differences certainly does. The belief that different peoples have unique ways of understanding the world became, in the nineteenth century, the basis of a racial view of the world. Herder's volksgeist developed into the notion of racial makeup, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential, and the basis for division and difference within humankind. Today, biological notions of racial difference have fallen into disfavour, largely as a result of the experience of Nazism and the Holocaust. But while racial science has been discredited, racial thinking has not. It has simply been re-expressed in cultural rather than biological terms. Cultural pluralism has refashioned the idea of race for the post-Holocaust world, with its claim that diversity is good in itself and that humanity can be parceled up into discrete groups, each with its own particular way of life, mode of expression, and unique 'window upon the world'.

The contemporary argument for the preservation of linguistic diversity, liberally framed though it may be, draws on the same philosophy that gave rise to ideas of racial difference. That is why the arguments of Popham, Crystal, Nettles and Romaine, on this issue if not on anything else, would have found favour with the late Enoch Powell. 'Every society, every nation is unique', he wrote. 'It has its own past, its own story, its own memories, its own ways, its own languages or ways of speaking, its own - dare I use the word - culture.' Language preservers may be acting on the best of intentions, but they are treading on dangerous ground, and they carry with them some unpalatable fellow-travellers.

The linguistic campaigners' debt to Romanticism has left them, like most multiculturalists, with a thoroughly confused notion of rights. When Nettle and Romaine suggest, in Vanishing Voices, that 'the right of people to exist, to practice and produce their own language and culture, should be inalienable', they are conflating two kinds of rights - individual rights and group rights. An individual certainly has the right to speak whatever language he or she wants, and to engage in whatever cultural practices they wish to in private. But it is not incumbent on anyone to listen to them, nor to provide resources for the preservation of either their language or their culture. The reason that Eyak will soon be extinct is not because Marie Smith Jones has been denied her rights, but because no one else wants to, or is capable of, speaking the language. This might be tragic for Marie Smith Jones - and frustrating for professional linguists - but it is not a question of rights. Neither a culture, nor a way of life, nor yet a language, has a God-given 'right to exist'.

Language campaigners also confuse political oppression and the loss of cultural identity. Some groups - such as Turkish Kurds - are banned from using their language as part of a wider campaign by the Turkish state to deny Kurds their rights. But most languages die out, not because they are suppressed, but because native speakers yearn for a better life. Speaking a language such as English, French or Spanish, and discarding traditional habits, can open up new worlds and is often a ticket to modernity. But it is modernity itself of which Nettles and Romaine disapprove. They want the peoples of the Third World, and minority groups in the West, to follow 'local ways of life' and pursue 'traditional knowledge' rather than receive a 'Western education'. This is tantamount to saying that such people should live a marginal life, excluded from the modern mainstream to which the rest of us belong. There is nothing noble or authentic about local ways of life; they are often simply degrading and backbreaking. 'Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial for a Breton or a Basque to be a member of the French nationality, admitted on equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship... than to sulk on his own rocks, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world.' So wrote John Stuart Mill more than a century ago. It would have astonished him that in the twenty-first century there are those who think that sulking on your own rock is a state worth preserving.

What if half the world's languages are on the verge of extinction? Let them die in peace.