In Defence of Babel

Recently, BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme asked the question: What is lost when a language dies? This question is prompted by the prediction of an (un-named) US linguist that by the year 2100 90% of the world’s 7,000 currently spoken languages will be dead. The progressive march of dominant languages such as English is held to account for such changes in the world’s linguistic geography. Languages, like species, can now be listed as ‘endangered’: US organisation Ethnologue suggests that there are 473 such languages in the present day. Furthermore, it is suggested that 133 of the world’s languages now have less than 10 speakers.

The question, however, is should we care, and if so, why? Some might argue that homogenized linguistic practice enables greater capacity for communication between different peoples. There is a reason, after all, a moral to the Biblical story of Babel. However, French linguist Paul Hagege says:

What we lose is essentially an enormous cultural heritage, the way of expressing the relationship with nature, with the world, between themselves in the framework of their families, their kin people… It’s also the way they express their humour, their love, their life. It is a testimony of human communities which is extremely precious, because it expresses what other communities than ours in the modern industrialized world are able to express.

According to Hagege, languages are reflective, and indeed constitutive, of a cultural heritage: when they die, they take a culture with them. A further casualty of this may be a peoples’ sense of identity.

Philosophers, however, might fear the death of language for other reasons. A wide variety of languages may arguably be a more fertile ground for the evolution of philosophical ideas. Almost every language contains concepts untranslatable, perhaps even inexpressible, in others. It may be argued that the concepts available to us shape the way we think. When a language dies, then, possible ways of thinking may be lost, and with them ways of answering, and even resolving, certain philosophical concerns. The costs of losing languages, then, may well be higher than many appreciate.

Related Articles:

$1.99 - small Linguistic Competance Without Knowledge of Language
By John Collins, University of East Anglia
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
Philosophy Compass

$1.99 - small Demonstratives in Philosophy and Linguistics
By Lynsey Wolter, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
(Vol. 4, March 2009)
Philosophy Compass

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