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  Written by
  Salikoko Mufwene


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A University's Lexicon


 


Languages don't kill languages;
speakers do

>>Linguist Salikoko Mufwene

Globalization often conjures up the image of reduction of diversity, a trend towards homogenization that affects every aspect of a community's culture, including its language. Several linguists fear that within a century or so the total number of languages spoken around the world will be reduced from close to 6,700 today to around 200. The biggest losers in this competition will be the indigenous languages spoken in territories colonized by Europe over the past four centuries. The winners are the languages of the leading colonial powers (English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish), those of major industrial powers (which makes Japanese very safe), those spoken as vernaculars by millions of people (varieties of Arabic, Chinese, and Indic languages, for example), and those Third World languages that function as national or regional lingua francas (such as Swahili in East Africa).

Although some linguists have identified hegemonic languages such as English and French as killer languages, this is a misconception. Languages do not kill languages; speakers do. A language is transmitted and maintained in a community through continuous use. Languages die when their speakers give them up. It is like having a population whose members refuse to produce offspring. The only difference is that speakers do not deliberately refuse to use their languages but are often compelled to speak other languages that offer practical or material advantages: being integrated in a mainstream society, finding a good job, and getting opportunities for socioeconomic ascension. Speakers could, of course, also keep their ancestral languages, but often wind up speaking only the more advantageous language-especially if they move out of their native communities. Then their knowledge of their ancestral languages suffers a form of atrophy. When more and more speakers adopt this behavior and only the older generations speak them for some traditional communicative functions, linguists say such languages fall into attrition. As the older speakers die, so do the languages.

How do populations find themselves in such predicaments? For the past 400 years, European colonization has been the main culprit. This is true especially in settlement colonies, where Europeans came to develop other Europes outside Europe. In each such territory, the language of the colonial ruler prevailed as the main language of industry and economy. Pressure increased on immigrants and natives to acquire that language in order to function in the new world order. Population reduction caused by illnesses brought from the Old World and wars with the colonizers, coupled with opportunities for socioeconomic integration and speakers' flights from their native communities, have precipitated these languages' course toward extinction.

Such linguistic consequences are an old concomitant of the history of mankind, which is marked by layers of population movements and domination. It may be faster today, but it has been there all along and explains why only remnants of Celtic languages are still spoken, and barely so, in France, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom (e.g., Breton, Welsh, Gaelic). Increased awareness of this predicament has led linguists to treat languages-and rightly so-as natural resources that must be protected. Programs have been launched to preserve some moribund languages and maintain linguistic diversity, more or less like protecting biotic diversity in an ecological niche. But preservation in literary productions and linguistic descriptions is quite different from revitalization. Languages that have prevailed over others show substantial vitality. Among the questions that must be addressed is why some people give up their ancestral languages-it's usually not because they wish to do so. In a way, such people are victims of globalization; but one can also argue that they reflect advantageous adaptations to changing ecologies-as cynical as this observation may sound. Once scholars decide to face them from such an ecological perspective, challenges for revitalizing moribund languages become monumental.

Salikoko Mufwene, PhD'79, is professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics. He is author of The Ecology of Language Evolution (Cambridge, 2001).


  DECEMBER 2000

  > > Volume 93, Number 2


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