who cares if languages die out?

From Sri Lanka’s Daily News:

In a message to the first celebration [of International Mother Language Day in 2000] United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said “the Day raises awareness among all peoples regarding the value of languages.” He called for increased efforts to conserve languages as a shared heritage of humanity.

A brief examination of various PR blurbs related to this event demonstrates that Annan is not telling the truth. There actually seems to be no discussion of the value of linguistic diversity, and even the question of whether economic value can be assigned to it is left untouched. No answers, then, to really interesting questions like how much languages are worth, to whom, whether some languages are worth more than others, and whether language differences are all cost, no benefit, and should be allowed to disappear peacefully once decent reference works have been written, leaving us all speaking Catalan or !Kora or whatever and leading incredibly happy and productive lives. Here is a scrabbled-together list of objections:

  1. If the language goes, so does our sense of ethnic togetherness. This argument is very popular here, but the Welsh experience refutes it: most Welsh rugby supporters cannot speak Welsh and have no intention of ever doing so, but a trip to Cardiff Arms Park is still an unnerving experience for English teams.
  2. There are concepts in my language that simply cannot be expressed in your language. Professional translators disprove this on a daily basis. Anthropologists who claim that such-and-such a language revolves around the concept of waterfalls, and that pronouncements in it cannot be understood by anyone who has not grown up with this experience (apart from themselves) are just failed poets and should be ignored.
  3. Someone told me that some French bloke said that the global village is like a big linguistic market and that if it’s not regulated like other markets it will grey out or something and the Americans will rule the world. That’s based on an elementary confusion re the different usage of concepts like value and trade by economists and linguists.
  4. I earn more money because I also speak English. The value of additional, universal languages to individuals is decreasing rapidly as language learning and machine translation become more efficient.
  5. Dropping the odd Dutch expression at parties makes women look at me with new respect. Substitute ‘polite boredom’ and clean those stains off your shirt.
  6. Speaking Welsh enabled us to communicate secret messages without the Kaiser’s spies having the faintest idea what we were on about. Thanks, grandad.

Anything else?

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  1. The preservation of rare languages is like that of endangered species, except that one is speaking of human beings, who should not be caged specimens of diversity value. It implies totalitarian power; that officials may do all that is necessary to save the endangered languages. In this connection, it is little known that this cause, the preservation of rare ethno-linguistic groups, was made a central goal in the national socialist plans for the governance of the world. That the issue is raised again by professors in the pay of official discretion may indicate the abyss that is opening up before us. Do people want to die for diversity’s sake? It doesn’t seem likely that anyone would, yet this issue is raised as if were not immoral and unrealistic to ask such things.

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