Friday, 5 October 2007

Goodbye to all that

There is an interesting article about the extinction of languages here:

For the languages these researchers are worried about, extinction means the death of the last speaker, since most indigenous aboriginal languages are not written down, only spoken, so when the last speaker goes, that's pretty much it for the language. But how do we define extinction more generally? Is Latin, a so-called 'dead' language, extinct because no-one uses it as their mother tongue now? Or do the thousands of people reading, writing and speaking it (yes, speaking - go to the Vatican website if you don't believe me) mean that it is not extinct, just sleeping? In any case can we call a language which is no longer extant mainly because it evolved into other forms (in this case Italian, French, Spanish etc) extinct?

Perhaps we should count the language as dying out when the last native speaker dies? There is some definite fun to be had here: reportedly the last native speaker of Cornish died in 1984 and was not a person, but a parrot! The last human speaker of Cornish was the parrot's owner.

A few years ago the Irish were very worried that Irish Gaelic was going to die out: fewer and fewer people were learning it at their mother's knee, and the prevalence of English was increasing. Determined to protect their heritage the Irish government made the learning of Irish compulsory for all school age children, a strategy which has reversed the downward trend, and is widely held to be an exemplary way to save a language. There are now even 'second-gen' native speakers - that is children whose first tongue is Irish, but whose parents are Irish learners. Which raises the question whether any language which is written down (or which has been recorded comprehensively on audio tape or digital media) can ever be truly extinct? If second-gen native speakers are native speakers, then any language could be rescued.

Related to this, but not quite the same, is an argument I was having the other day with a linguist. We all know that English is the most widely used language in the globe. Likewise we mostly all acknowledge that this is not because Britain is best, but because one of our little colonies has done rather well for itself (some place called America, I believe) and exported the language worldwide. The linguist was arguing that if you measured where a language belonged by the number of people who spoke it, then you could see English as belonging to India, or China and therefore that the 'standard' should be set by them. One of the reasons that 'English' is said to be dominant is its use on the web; however, large parts of that 'English' use are in fact world English dialects, such as Chinglish, which, while they are based on the language we use, would be virtually unintelligible to someone in, say, Newcastle. So maybe English will develop all over the world into new languages based on it, similar but not overlapping, and English will be like Latin, a dead language. Well, it's a thought.