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Linguistics Expert Warns: Languages will vanish

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Linguistics Expert Warns Of Language Extinction

Humans speak 6900 languages. Nearly all of them could be extinct in the next two centuries.,warns University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus Michael Krauss during his presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Francisco.

p-language-large.jpgSo what?

UNESCO estimates that over 50% of the world’s languages are endangered and that one language disappears on average every two weeks. It notes that 96% of the world’s 6000 languages are spoken by 4% of the world’s population and 90% of the world’s languages are not represented on the Internet. According to figures from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the most widely spoken language on earth is Mandarin which is used as a first language by nearly a billion people. Second on the list is English with around 358 million, followed by Spanish.

“I claim that it is catastrophic for the future of mankind,” says Krauss “It should be as scary as losing 90 percent of the biological species.” He emphasizes that languages contain the intellectual wisdom of populations of people. They contain their observations of and adaptations to the world around them. Humanity became human in a complex system of languages that interacted with each other… That is somehow interdependent such that we lose sections of it at the same peril that we lose sections of the biosphere… Every time we lose (a language), we lose that much also of our adaptability and our diversity that gives us our strength and our ability to survive.”

Response to the loss of language is at several levels.

Indigenous community and individuals react with (short-term) satisfaction, apathy, or denial, to sense of loss, even grief, often fighting more of less effectively against the shift.
Academic linguistics is beginning to respond with concern and growing recognition at least that documentation of endangered languages, and support and training for such work, is important and urgent. However, the question of whether or to what degree linguists can or should be involved in measures to retard the decline or extinction of languages remains controversial, apparently, especially insofar as that may entail involvement in or effect on the internal affairs of nation-states.
General public response may to some extent be one of satisfaction, that linguistic and ethnic diversity is diminishing, not only in the US and Japan, for example, where a strong linguistic majority dominates, but also in some countries with the greatest linguistic diversity, such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. There at least those who rule may favor the expansion of national languages and the reduction of diversity. At the same time, however, there is a movement for tolerance and even support for indigenous languages. Two major obvious and most influential avenues for improving public response are sure the media, particularly as most of the actually existing languages know of no writing.

Every time a language dies, the world loses irreplaceable scientific knowledge as well as cultural richness. Hence, languages on the brink of extinction are being recorded for future revival – such as that of the Chulym, a tribe of hunters and fishers in Siberia. A master-apprentice program is rejuvenating some of the 50 threatened aboriginal languages in California.

The Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski-Hypothesis claims that the structure of a language defines the way a person behaves and thinks. Contested by many cognitive scientists, including Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, after all the subject refers to a hypothesis, not a theory, and certainly not fact (yet).

Regardless of academic quarrels, the words and ideas of our language can’t help but influence how we perform in the world. True, thoughts don’t depend on words, but words depend on thoughts (how else do new words get into the lexicon?) If you don’t have the words or symbols to describe your thoughts (regardless of how instinctive), you will simply have no way to convey them to your fellow humans. nor of conceptualising your perceptions at all. There simply exists no way to understand the multitude of everyday or scientific problems unless you have a basic understanding of language. This in no way implies that a person, regardless of what language he or she speaks, does not have the instinct or the neurological means to understand mathematics, e.g. But language is a system of symbols, acting in the opposite direction too. Wrongful ideas about the world could affect the way you feel, make decisions about, and act in front of other people. The powerful beliefs exist nowhere except within the brain and are expressed and spread through langauge.

After all, Korzybski’s non-aristotelian system theory points out at yet another aspect of language: the time-binding self-correction, conserved in its own evolution. Unlike religions with their circular intransigence, Korzybski’s general semantics wants to gain awareness of abstractions, insisting that modifications, major as well a minor, must occur as newly acquired information arrives.

Hence, despite the real loss of inestimable cultural knowledge caused by every extinct language, and despite the influence this loss has on the whole system of interacting language systems, Krauss’ catastrophic prophecies would be entirely justified only in the case, that every of those languages contains exclusively specific semantic entities, never reflected in any other. To my mind, it is particularly the remarcable redundance among the world’s cultural systems that, regardless of all idiosyncrasies and mutual exclusivism, keeps the worst loss at bay.cooling-action.gif

Written by huehueteotl

March 5, 2007 at 10:48 pm

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