Why should endangered languages be saved? Delegates at the Trinity College Carmarthen conference explain - using nine different languages
Language experts are gathering at a university in the UK to discuss saving the world's endangered languages. But is it worth keeping alive dialects that are sometimes only spoken by a handful of people, asks Tom de Castella?
"Language is the dress of thought," Samuel Johnson once said.
About 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. But the Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of those are spoken by only a handful of people. And every year the world loses around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade - a sad prospect for some.
This week a conference in Carmarthen, west Wales, organised by the foundation, is being attended by about 100 academics. They are discussing indigenous languages in Ireland, China, Australia and Spain.
"Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human," says Nicholas Ostler, the foundation's chairman.
"And when languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays we want access to everything but we don't want to be thought of as no more than people on the other side of the world."
Apart from English, the United Kingdom has a number of other languages. Mr Ostler estimates that half a million people speak Welsh, a few thousand Scots are fluent in Gaelic, about 400 people speak Cornish, while the number of Manx speakers - the language of the Isle of Man - is perhaps as small as 100. But is there any point in learning the really minor languages?
Last speaker dies
"I do think it's a good thing for a child on the Isle of Man to learn Manx. I value continuity in a community."
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I speak one of the endangered languages in the world - Chabakano - of which there are several dialects Zamboanga , Cotabato , Ternate, Davao and Ermitaâ��
End Quote Toots Contributor to BBC's Your Say discussion on language and identity
* BBC Your Say - language and identity
In Europe, Mr Ostler's view seems to command official support. There is a European Charter for Regional Languages, which every European Union member has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme, designed to protect the most threatened native tongues. At the end of last year the project received 2.7m euros to identify those languages most at risk.
But for some this is not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of how language works. The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is "irrational" to try to preserve all the world's languages.
Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died.
While it may seem sad that the language expired, says Mr Malik, cultural change is driving the process.
"In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous." And when governments try to prop languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards, he says.
If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them - it shouldn't be backed by government subsidy, he argues.
"To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don't see why it's in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter." In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. "If a language is one that people don't participate in, it's not a language anymore."
The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. "Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It's not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using 'wicked' to mean terrific then that has a big effect."
Minority language translators at work at the National People's Congress Minority language translators at work at the National People's Congress
The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation's regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular.
And Mr Howard says politicians make a "category mistake" when they try to interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he says is doomed to fail. "Offering Gaelic to children of people who don't speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It's very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense."
But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. "Some people take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish the fastest growing."
There are competing forces at work that decide whether smaller languages survive, Howard argues. On the one hand globalisation will mean that many languages disappear. But some communities will always live apart, separated by sea, distance or other barriers and will therefore keep their own language. With modern communications and popular culture "you find that if enough people want to speak a language they can".
In short, there is no need for handwringing.
"Language is not a plant that rises and falls, lives and decays. It's a tool that's perfectly adapted by the people using it. Get on with living and talking."
This caught my eye because Trinity Carmaerthen is my Uni
My view is that any diversity of species, peoples or languages enriches life and contributes more to our evolution. The loss of these languages is part of the pathway to sameness and part of the bad part of globalisation.
Saving languages is important because the nuances in different language is inherently linked to the way people express themselves.
Once a language is lost a whole community also loses an important link to the past. Keeping indigenous languages appears to help reduce alienation of minority groups too.
If we had just a few languages society would be very bland.
I'll just see if I can remember the language of the Old People.......
Ok.. I remember what the Old People from my country used to say in their Native Tongue
Change is Good
Is history worth saving?
If you feel like it is, then you have your answer.
However, what a great hub!
"Are dying languages worth saving?"
If someone wants to go to the time, expense, and trouble; sure,why not?
Just so long as there is no taxpayer money involved…
by Arthur Russ 2 years ago
Which English Language and or dialect do you speak, and is it Your Native Tongue? I often have difficulties in fully understanding Americans during ‘in-depth’ correspondence on topical subjects because we speak two different languages e.g. American English and British English. Prima facie the...
by Obinna Donald Ogba 4 years ago
Why are people able to speak a language, but cannot write or read it?
by suncat 10 years ago
How many different languages would you want to know? ( whether you could learn them easily or...not ). Which ones?
by NewYorker 11 years ago
This interests me, since we're only allowed to speak English here.I, myself, speak English as a primary language. But I also speak Spanish, Icelandic, Swedish and Danish.Your turn!
by Gous Ahmed 11 years ago
I'm interested to know how many peopl can speak different languages?I can speak, English (obviusly!), Bengali, Hindi and i can speak a small amount of French.I can also read arabic.How many can you speak?
by Elena 8 years ago
How many (what) Languages do you speak? Has it helped your life in a Major way?
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