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Extinct languages: lamentable, or simply the natural order of things?
Thread poster: Orrin Cummins

Orrin Cummins  Identity Verified
Japan
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Jul 6, 2013

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1248754/Last-member-65-000-year-old-tribe-dies-taking-worlds-earliest-languages-grave.html

My first thought upon reading the above article was "Wow, that's a shame." But then I started thinking more about it. Is it really? Extinction is quite common in the natural world, and has been since long before humans came along (although we certainly have a regrettable habit of accelerating it). Is there any reason to be sad about natural processes? I'm curious as to what everyone else thinks.


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
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A very tricky question indeed Jul 6, 2013

This a really tricky matter. Indeed, as a translator I cannot help feeling that something got lost in the rush of modern human society when a language goes extinct, but I have the same feeling when I learn about extinct trades and professions from the past that --back then-- made use of the resources available at the time and turned them into useful items or services for the population (there would be endless examples).

Language is so intimately linked to the soul of every human being that when a language is lost we also lose a whole mindset, a set of beliefs, and a whole interpretation of the universe, so it is definitely a loss.

Should we however invest time and effort to preserve extinct languages? In my opinion there are more urgent things to do, if we think of the many millions of people who suffer cruel diseases, famine, early death, and oppression in the world. Those are far more pressing matters than the loss of a language if you ask me. Although every person is free to do whatever they want with their time and money, spending time and money rescuing extinct languages feels a bit like rescuing cats from the street and spending a pile of money on them while, two streets away, there are parents who have no food for their children.

[Edited at 2013-07-06 05:07 GMT]


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
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In many cases it is not a natural process Jul 6, 2013

Orrin Cummins wrote:
My first thought upon reading the above article was "Wow, that's a shame." But then I started thinking more about it. Is it really? Extinction is quite common in the natural world, and has been since long before humans came along (although we certainly have a regrettable habit of accelerating it). Is there any reason to be sad about natural processes? I'm curious as to what everyone else thinks.


In many cases language extinction is not a natural process. The extinction of the languages in north America (the Red Indian languages) and those of many of the indigenous societies of south America, were the direct result of genocide and extermination carried out by the European invaders - Spanish, Portuguese, British, French etc.

So in these case the extinction of these languages is a great human crime as well as a tragedy.

In other cases also, where the extinction is a more gradual erosive process by external dominant cultures, it a sad thing and an immense loss for humanity. The reason is that languages are repositories of experience gained by its users which are codified into written text, oral traditions and tribal memories for future use. If a language dies away, all this knowledge is lost. Some of this knowledge can be absolutely priceless because the kind of experience that a particular community experienced and which went extinct, can never be replicated, because the conditions that prevailed then are now changed and these cannot be at any cost replicated. For example a tribal community may be aware of a plant that could cure illnesses like cancer or HIV. If their language dies, this knowledge would be gone too.

So these extinct languages carry down into their graves a lot of wisdom and knowledge that could have been useful to the entire humanity. That is why the death of any language is a sad thing for everyone concerned.


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
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Why in that order? Jul 6, 2013

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
In many cases language extinction is not a natural process. The extinction of the languages in north America (the Red Indian languages) and those of many of the indigenous societies of south America, were the direct result of genocide and extermination carried out by the European invaders - Spanish, Portuguese, British, French etc.

I know this is off-topic, but I resent the order in which you list the invaders. Clearly the British and their colonists were far more damaging for native Americans than Spaniards, Portuguese, and French (go find native Americans in the US or Canada, while they are everywhere in the Spanish-speaking countries), but you list the British in third position.


 

Jeff Allen  Identity Verified
France
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language death Jul 6, 2013

Orrin Cummins wrote:
Extinction is quite common in the natural world, and has been since long before humans came along (although we certainly have a regrettable habit of accelerating it). Is there any reason to be sad about natural processes? I'm curious as to what everyone else thinks.


Here are my thoughts in previous posts in other threads on this site.

English might be declining, but lots of other languages are dying
http://www.proz.com/post/310023#310023

definition of language is vague
http://www.proz.com/post/300125#300125

If you change any part of the factors on the right of the formula, then this impacts linguistic longevity.

Jeff


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
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English to Hindi
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Spain and Portugal were the first and the worst Jul 6, 2013

Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
In many cases language extinction is not a natural process. The extinction of the languages in north America (the Red Indian languages) and those of many of the indigenous societies of south America, were the direct result of genocide and extermination carried out by the European invaders - Spanish, Portuguese, British, French etc.

I know this is off-topic, but I resent the order in which you list the invaders. Clearly the British and their colonists were far more damaging for native Americans than Spaniards, Portuguese, and French (go find native Americans in the US or Canada, while they are everywhere in the Spanish-speaking countries), but you list the British in third position.


The most vicious of the colonizers were the Spanish, Portuguese and the Dutch. They believed in physical extermination of the population to occupy newly discovered lands. They also brought with them deadly diseases like smallpox and plague into north and south America which did much of the extermination work for them, as these diseases were not earlier known in these continents and the people there had no immunity to these diseases. They just died off like flies.

The British and French entered the colonial game much later, mainly because Napolean was busy colonizing Europe and the other Europeans were busy fighting him off. The British were busy colonising their neighbours - Ireland for example, and only after they had succeeded in this that they turned their baleful eyes on the other parts of the world.

However calamitous the effect of the British may have been on their colonies, it is a fact that they were much more civilized in their dealings than the earlier colonists - the Spaniards, the Portuguese and the Dutch. All this is well recorded in history.

The latter two arrived on the shores of India too and people in Goa and Kerala still have horrifying memories of their deeds.

The effect of the British may have been extremely dehumanizing for Africans, though, because, sometime in the middle of their imperialistic career they took to slave trade and decimated hundred of peaceful societies in the African coasts for this.

But all this is extraneous to the topic under discussion and I still don't understand why you raised it.


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
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How do you explain... Jul 6, 2013

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
The most vicious of the colonizers were the Spanish, Portuguese and the Dutch. They believed in physical extermination of the population to occupy newly discovered lands. They also brought with them deadly diseases like smallpox and plague into north and south America which did much of the extermination work for them, as these diseases were not earlier known in these continents and the people there had no immunity to these diseases. They just died off like flies.

Still off-topic. Sorry, but I really think you should read about the history of native Americans in North America. And I insist: if the Spanish were so viciously exterminating all native Americans in sight, how do you explain that you can find native Americans everywhere in Spanish-speaking countries in South America, compared to the difficulty of even seeing one native American in the US and Canada?


 

Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
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Slave trade Jul 6, 2013

The fact is not often mentioned, maybe for political reasons, but the slave traders in Africa were mostly Arabs. Europeans were their customers, also reprehensible of course, but the British were the first to abolish the trade, and they also, probably illegally, used the Royal Navy (in the days when Britannia really did rule the waves) to stop any ship suspected of carrying slaves, and set the slaves free

 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:33
Hebrew to English
Human arrogance Jul 6, 2013

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
In many cases language extinction is not a natural process.


I resent the assumption of human behaviour being unnatural. This is where human arrogance blurs things. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of the animal kingdom. Naked apes. Now, one of our closest relatives the Chimpanzees also have a habit of murdering one another. When they do, researchers don't jump in to stop them or claim it's "unnatural". They write it off as the natural order of things, however brutal and/or tragic.

Being the masters of mass-production, humans murder each other on an industrial scale, whatever the reasons (land, ideology etc) this behaviour is as natural as the Chimpanzees (who also murder for land and territory btw).

Therefore, if a language is wiped out through some human act of conquest or genocide, it's tragic, but it is natural.


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:33
Hebrew to English
Anyway.... Jul 6, 2013

In about 5 billion years, when our Sun starts to die, unless we have mastered space travel, every human language, along with every human will become extinct. (I think it's far more likely we'll have killed ourselves or our planet long before we have the ability to leave it though).

 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
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A species of survivors Jul 6, 2013

Ty Kendall wrote:
In about 5 billion years, when our Sun starts to die, unless we have mastered space travel, every human language, along with every human will become extinct. (I think it's far more likely we'll have killed ourselves or our planet long before we have the ability to leave it though).

My view is that humans are experts in survival, or we wouldn't have made it to this point in the midst of a harsh nature and all kinds of other beings who would have loved to chew our ancestor's bones if they had had a chance. In this sense, we will be hard to wipe from the universe. As for us here, we are bound to become an insignificant link in a long future evolution that of course will mean leaving many older cultures behind.

Maybe this sounds a bit strange, but I think mankind is one way by which matter tries to become spirit (call it intellect if it sounds better to you). It leave it to you all to judge whether we are achieving it or not...


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
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The south Americans had reached higher levels of civilization Jul 6, 2013

Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:
If the Spanish were so viciously exterminating all native Americans in sight, how do you explain that you can find native Americans everywhere in Spanish-speaking countries in South America, compared to the difficulty of even seeing one native American in the US and Canada?


The reason for this is quite simple. The South Americans had reached high levels of civilization and urbanization. Think of the Incas and the Azetecs. This meant higher levels of population. After the cities were destroyed and plundered, the population scattered across the countryside and survived somehow.

India went through a similar experience during her colonial interlude. After the loot of Bengal and destruction of the weaving industry began under the British, the once prosperous cities of Bengal and other parts of the country collapsed and India which had once been controlling 25% of the world trade before colonialism and had extensive urban centres, was reduced to an agrarian country.

In contrast, the north American Indians were still at the hunter-gatherer stage subsisting mainly on buffalo meat. This level of civilization could not support high population levels and they were easily exterminated once the buffalo had been wiped out.

Had the south Americans been at a similar level of civilization, they too would have suffered a similar fate under the Spaniards.

But the American Indians did have the last laugh on the Europeans. By introducing them to tobacco, they extracted (and continue to extract) a heavy casualty numbering into millions every year, and would have by now more than evened the score in terms of death.

And when such cataclysmic events take place in any society, languages easily become casualty.

Look at what has happened in south America where now Spanish and Portuguese rule. No one even knows how many indigenous languages were supplanted by these two European languages.

The very fact that south American Portuguese has undergone extreme modifications to the extent of it being considered by some as a separate language is indicative of the fact that it has suffered strong interference from local languages which it replaced.


 

Orrin Cummins  Identity Verified
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TOPIC STARTER
This is exactly what started me wondering about this Jul 6, 2013

Ty Kendall wrote:

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
In many cases language extinction is not a natural process.


I resent the assumption of human behaviour being unnatural. This is where human arrogance blurs things. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of the animal kingdom. Naked apes. Now, one of our closest relatives the Chimpanzees also have a habit of murdering one another. When they do, researchers don't jump in to stop them or claim it's "unnatural". They write it off as the natural order of things, however brutal and/or tragic.

Being the masters of mass-production, humans murder each other on an industrial scale, whatever the reasons (land, ideology etc) this behaviour is as natural as the Chimpanzees (who also murder for land and territory btw).

Therefore, if a language is wiped out through some human act of conquest or genocide, it's tragic, but it is natural.


I have to agree, and that's why I considered it a natural process for a language to become extinct. I don't think that any amount of human technology can change the fact that we are part of the natural world, no matter how "unnatural" we try to make ourselves look or how large a distance we try to put between us and animals.

As Tomás said, this is a very tricky question because at the heart of it lies a deeper, more fundamental question revolving around our own individual perceptions of our place as a species in the modern world. Obviously, something with such profound implications as this cannot be answered so easily. A person's reaction to the disappearance of a language will ultimately be shaped by much more than mere linguistic concerns - which is precisely why the responses will undoubtedly vary wildly even on a forum populated almost entirely by language professionals. It is quite interesting to hear different views and thoughts on the subject, and I think that most of us can learn something just by thinking about it, even if we don't agree. I appreciate all of the responses thus far.

Also, thank you Jeff for the links to the other threads (which are filled with other interesting links as well).


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
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That is ingenious logic Jul 6, 2013

Jack Doughty wrote:

The fact is not often mentioned, maybe for political reasons, but the slave traders in Africa were mostly Arabs.


The British had very significant financial interest in the slave trade and they were making massive money in this ghoulish trade.

Ninety percent of the slaves were transported on British ships which fetched them huge money. The slaves were meant to be sold in British colonies in the US, West Indies and other territories controlled by the British.

The British banished slave trade not because they had suddenly become holy, but because they wanted to spite the Americans who had declared their independence from them and wanted to harm their slave-based cotton cultivation industry.

Moreover, they had by now discovered others less obvious forms of human trafficking such as that of indentured labourers from India who did the work of slaves. These indentured labourers now constitute much of the population of countries like West Indies, Guyana, and Mauritius.

The linguistic significance of the trafficking in indentured labourers from India is that Hindi is the main language in several parts of this region as most of these labourers originated from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India which are Hindi speaking areas.

The celebrated English author V S Naipaul who is also a Nobel laureate for literature is a descendant of such indentured labourers.


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
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Don't agree at all Jul 6, 2013

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:
If the Spanish were so viciously exterminating all native Americans in sight, how do you explain that you can find native Americans everywhere in Spanish-speaking countries in South America, compared to the difficulty of even seeing one native American in the US and Canada?

The reason for this is quite simple. The South Americans had reached high levels of civilization and urbanization. Think of the Incas and the Azetecs. This meant higher levels of population. After the cities were destroyed and plundered, the population scattered across the countryside and survived somehow.

Sorry my friend. I really think you should learn more about South American history. You would soon see that Spaniards and native Americans coexisted in most places (that is why their descendants coexist today). I wonder whether you are really prepared to admit that Spaniards --while of course in today's terms abusive and unfair as any other powerful rulers at the time-- were not set to kill every native American they found.

As for native Americans in North America, those who depended upon the buffalo were not a majority as far as I can see and have read. There were quite a lot nations in Northamerica, and not only those depicted in the movies. Their total population in North America at the time of the arrival of the British and French was of many tens of millions of people with well established regions and grounds, not a bunch of scattered tribes roaming around hunting buffalos. May I add that native Americans in North America were not underdeveloped people: their whole stance towards nature and human interaction with cosmos was simply different, and not based upon building huge stone temples or accumulation of wealth.


 
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