Thursday, September 20, 2007

From whose bourn no babbler returns...

It's not that often that a linguistics story makes it into water-cooler conversations. But National Geographic has propelled the issue of language extinction into prime time and front pages. And here.

I saw this mentioned first at languagehat then I saw it discussed by Claire Bowern at Anggarrgoon.

The discussion at Anggarrgoon is of specific interest because the post is an honest and critical reaction to some of the methodology of the study and some of its claims as well as the implications/premises of the story as it has been covered by the media. Bowern observes:

It seems peculiar to me that I should have had lunch and dinner with [David] Harrison just about every day for the two weeks preceding his trip to Broome and he never mentioned (to one of 2 linguists actively working on these languages) that he was going there.
Better yet: Harrison has taken part in the exchange.

Go keep up with the discussion.


  1. I forsee a time in the relatively near future when the one language has come upon us, and I wonder: can there be active resistance? Can we predict that a group of rebels will "invent" a language in the interest of maintaining difference?

  2. We have met the rebel. And they are our children.

    Tho the whole "active resistance" part is probably not quite right.

    And the invention is really more of an innovation.

  3. Right, Michael -- but it isn't correct to say that our children speak a different language than us, really, is it? I mean, I suppose it's not exactly the same language, but it's not altogether different. When the case becomes: there is only one (ever-evolving) language in the world... then can we imagine the rebel inventing a language just for the sake of plurality or whatever?

    In fact: this is an interesting question because it has presumably never happened in history -- the organic differences in languages that sprung out of nomadic lifestyles during the stone age or earlier explain "all these languages" that we see now. But aren't we in a process of consolidation? And isn't the end almost certainly one world language?

  4. "...but it isn't correct to say that our children speak a different language than us, really, is it?"

    You're quite right. In most cases it's probably not even different enough to be another dialect.

    "But aren't we in a process of consolidation?"

    It's important to distinguish between all languages merging and several languages dying. I wouldn't say that we are in a process of consolidating. If we look at languages broadly it might look that way but if we look more closely we see that differentiation continues--and regional differences not only persist--they often get clearer.

  5. As long as there are Deaf people, I don't foresee that we will ever make it down to only one language.


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