A language goes extinct every twenty-two minutes. Maybe. It might be less frequent; in fact, they probably don’t go extinct but once a week or something. But once every twenty-two minutes is a much better meme. You watch. It will get around.
Whatever the rate at which languages are going extinct, when you take a language offline, a lot goes with it. Like the sum of all human knowledge. A whole way of thinking, of viewing, of knowing, lost forever, a little universe collapsing past the event horizon. Forgotten. Or if preserved, shadows of meaning on word lists and reels of tape, unused, unfelt, unknown, lost to the hearts of man.
“Efforts to stanch extinctions of linguistic, cultural, and biological life have yielded a ‘biocultural’ perspective that integrates the three,” blog Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin over at Seedmagazine.com. “Efforts to understand the value of diversity in a complex systems framework have matured into a science of ‘resilience.'” So we’re left with the question, “How much diversity is enough?”
I think for people who study diversity, they can’t have too much of a good thing, except for sameness. Too much sameness lacks diversity. But not everyone sees it that way.
Razib Khan, who blogs about Gene Expression on Discover, thinks all linguists on board the linguistic preservation ark are missing the boat.
“The distribution of languages and the number of speakers they have follows a power law trend, the vast majority of languages have very few speakers, and these are the ones which are going extinct.
“We are then losing communal identity, a thousand oral Shakespeare’s are turning into Beowulf’s and Epic of Gilgamesh’s, specific stories which have to be reduced to their universal human elements because a living native speaking community is gone. Let me acknowledge that there is some tragedy here. But this ignores the costs to those who do not speak world languages with a high level of fluency. The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs).
“Language binds us to our ancestors, and to our peers, but also can separate us from others. A common language may not only be useful in a macroeconomic context, reducing transaction costs and allowing for more frictionless flow of information, but it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict.”
Very convenient for well-educated and affluent global citizens. Ethnic groups caught on the wrong side of the glittering edge of the planetary culture have been getting some hard usage over the last few centuries. As these groups face demographic and cultural catastrophe, preservation is the razor’s edge between assimilation and survival―or extinction. Do the preservationists respect the young indigene (person of indigenous extraction) whose avenue of access to the large culture is Alice Cooper, even if it means he spends his time learning guitar licks instead of studying Grandmother’s grammar?
Razib says that the “patchwork is being torn about, but smaller pieces are being reassembled. There are more combinations as the fuller possible parameter space is being explored, despite the decrease in the number of modes across the distributions.”
Commentor Chris T is more pointed:
“Most of what is claimed to be ‘preservation of diversity’ is moral preening and in the interest of personal gratification. Rarely is it ever taken into consideration what would actually be best for the people in question or what they want. One would note that most of the unique cultures in question are trying to adopt modern civilization and integrate themselves culturally as fast as they can. Such advocates don’t want diversity; they want a zoo.”
Me? I like to visit the zoo, although it seems like I always end up in the Hall of Rodents at the Rat Race Exhibition.