Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Language Preservationist Wins Award

A short post over at Language Log reports on the recognition Leanne Hinton recently received for her work preserving and revitalizing languages.

Leanne has long worked with California Indian tribes who are on the point of losing, or have lost, their heritage languages. Her famous Master-Apprentice program has been adopted by communities in which a few elders still speak the tribal language fluently; her regular Breath of Life workshops at Berkeley are an important resource for communities whose languages are no longer spoken but are sufficiently well documented that they can (with hard work and some luck) be revived.

I introduce no controversy to the value of such work. I laud and appreciate her efforts. Such work is one of the most important and pleasing applications of Linguistic study.

Here's the balancing act: Does this value make it necessary that linguists contradict themselves when they scoff at or dismiss the claims of prescriptivists who say language is deteriorating and non-standard dialects are the bane of our language's beauty?

It isn't so horrible that Middle English reflects the influence of French is it? Is it tragic that English no longer uses 'seo' as a feminine article?

To one who claims such an award is hypocritical the challenge may go in several directions.

1) To lose a language is different from seeing the language change

2) It is a fair distinction to make between a language that is on the verge of disappearing and a language that is changing while thriving.

3) When the language is on the verge of disappearing because no succeeding generation has a reasonably intelligible grasp of the language's grammar we are no longer talking about language change.

4) Linguists in fact do work to preserve the so called "dead" languages and if we could somehow travel back in time to get more information from L1 speakers -- and encourage them to teach and propogate the language, we would do so (if in fact we trusted such time travel to be safe).

5) When a language fades because political, social, economic, and martial forces have historically sought explicitly to subjugate and extinguish a culture, it is a fair (i.e. just? i.e. beautiful?) principle that leads to an interest and investment in a contrary force.

And better arguments than these can be made by better minds than mine.


  1. This is probably the wrong place for this (barely related), but it's Friday, and I can't wait to ask you in the office on Monday:

    How does one properly pronounce "thither?" And don't give me a lecture on prescriptive versus descriptive phonology.

    Is it like "the," or, "thought?"

    Doesn't it have something to do with aspiration? Tonight at Von's one of the two guys at the desk said to the other, "How do you pronounce "thither?"

    (Incidentally, he pronounced it more like "thought" than like "the.")

  2. Like "the". That's standard.

    The question you're asking is whether the dental fricative is voiced or voiceless. In this case it's voiced.


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