Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why We Should Care About Languages

Not long ago, I read a review of a new book on the loss of languages, entitled When Languages Die by K. David Harrison from Swarthmore College.

I admit that the first line of the review strikes me as ignorant: “Linguists have, in general, done a poor job of articulating why people should care that half of the approximately 6,900 languages spoken on the planet will be extinct in a century.” To me, it just seems obvious that there are many reasons why people should care, not least because, as I have said so many times before on this blog, languages all offer a different perspective on the world and that it is only beneficial to open ourselves up to more ideas and views.

A quote from the review gives evidence of the profusion of variety in human language: “local calendars, such as the lunar calendar of the Natchez, provide evidence of the diffusion of non-native plants like peaches and watermelons to the lower Mississippi, which became the names for months (along with “mulberries,” “great corn,” and “chestnuts”) by the 1750s. No one speaks Natchez anymore. Some languages with words for categories called “classifiers” demonstrate how varied the ways of parsing the world: in Nivikh, a Siberian language with 300 speakers, has 27 classifiers; in Squamish, a Pacific Northwest language with 15 speakers, you use a different number depending on if you’re counting humans or animals.”

I hope to get my hands on this book during my upcoming summer holidays!

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