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TorgoX (1933)

TorgoX
  sburkeNO@SPAMcpan.org
http://search.cpan.org/~sburke/

"Il est beau comme la retractilité des serres des oiseaux rapaces [...] et surtout, comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre et d'un parapluie !" -- Lautréamont

Journal of TorgoX (1933)

Tuesday February 12, 2002
05:58 AM

ABQ

[ #2802 ]
Dear Log,

Living here in New Mexico is linguistically interesting, but not really because of the local (moribund) form of Spanish; instead because of the good dozen or so Native languages around here. Most are endangered to varying degrees (meaning that very few people born after 1950 can speak them), but some are doing fine, like Navajo (safety in numbers, there).

It's very hard to talk (especially in English) about what's interesting about those languages, because in a way that's something that requires a sort of introspection into each language, such as I think can come only from the speakers of the languages having the sort of "cultural confidence" about the languages, so that speakers have an interest in asking simple things like "Why do we use the same word for X as for Y? There must be a story there" -- and also in passing on the ideas they come up with. That's the raw material for everything else.

But when the US government really started running New Mexico in the late 19th century, it started applying its general perspective on Native cultures and languages, which was that they're sort of a family-transmitted form of mental retardation. So it was made clear to young parents that they really should not use their "native dialect" around their kids, and definitely should not encourage the kids to actually "talk Indian". So that started at least fifty years of NM Natives being told at every turn "YOU ARE NOT INTERESTING", starting in childhood. Most people by their forties or fifties resume a real interest in Native cultures, but by then it's not exactly easy to learn the literature of a language you had nearly no exposure to, except from hearing your mom say "sit down!" and "eat your bread!" when you were a toddler.

And it really doesn't help that if you say "okay, I do now want to learn Tewa" (or whatever), there's very little in the way of books to pull off the shelf that will get you anywhere.

It's surprising to most people to think about it, but an inch-thick Harrap's French<->English dictionary and a three-year track of French textbooks represents an immense investment of time (not man-hours, but man-millennia) on the part of teachers and students figuring out the best way to learn a language as an adolescent or adult.

Starting from nothing and producing comparable materials for languages that are about as unlike English as you can get, is a daunting task. It requires endless data collection, thought, and research, coming up with ways of explaining things but then throwing them out. And most damnably, it requires time. But hhe most fluent speakers of most Native languages are now over seventy years old. Some people around here do live past 100 either out of sheer stubbornness, but I do feel a certain need to hurry.

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  • by jhi (318) <jhi@iki.fi> on 2002.02.12 10:48 (#4389) Homepage Journal

    Yes, the death of smaller languages is a sad thing. Languages are pretty much what makes us; and us is what makes cultures; and languages dying is cultures dying.

    Being a native speaker of a small linguistic family has perhaps made me more sensitive to the issue: there's only five million of us Finns, and we are the second largest of Finno-Ugrian [helsinki.fi] speakers after Hungarian [harvard.edu]. Five millions is enough for "safety in numbers", but in Finland one is daily bombarded by English: and I do mean bombarded: sometimes ads can be all in English.

    But not all Finno-Ugrian [finland.fi] languages are as lucky as Finnish [finland.fi], Hungarian, and Estonian [muhu.www.ee] of having their own countries. The area of the Sami [scandinavica.com] (that's where the word "tundra" comes from) is spread over Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, and they were for centuries oppressed by being driven to the Ultima Thule, and their language being oppressed in administration and in schools. Nowadays things are getting better, they are getting more autonomy, their lands are being returned, Sami is taught in schools and they have news broadcasts [www.yle.fi] in their own language. About a dozen more Finno-Ugrian languages exist in the area of Russia, but they are not doing so well. Not so much because of active oppression, as was the case during the Soviet empire (the usual you-shall-not-speak-your-language-and-we-are-robbing-your-natural-resources routine), but because of more indirect (just the we-are-robbing-your-natural-resources part) ways. One has the choice of continuing one's traditional reindeer herder ways, or go work for the Russian oil company (which incidentally has spilled all the waterways with crude oil, so your reindeer wouldn't have anywhere to drink from, anyway). And those Finno-Ugrian groups are small: few thousands of people, they do not have the safety in numbers, and they are fighting a losing battle (there, against the Russian language: empires work that way, all over the world.)

  • Maybe this is me being ethnocentric (with a mix of naivete), but why can't we standardize on one language? Is spoken language like programming languages in that regard, where some tasks are better done in C++, some in Perl, and some in Assembly?

    I won't be so naive to suggest that English be the standard language - after all, Spanish is more widely spoken than English.

    I can sympathize with the loss of a language, but I suggest that Darwin's Rule of "Survival of the Fittest" applies. The outgoing langua

    • IMHO, it is precisely that way.

      Certain words in certain languages require whole paragraphs in other languages to accurately describe.

      The old saw of "forty words for snow" holds true in certain places. Some cultures that don't require/have advanced color needs have, say, three words for the entire color spectrum. Definition of various concepts in languages varies.

      Finally, certain aesthetics are nice to have. English has a certain sound, and it's radically different from, say, French or German. If y

      --

      ------------------------------
      You are what you think.
    • Zeroth off, thanks for playing devil's advocate. It lets me talk more, which I always enjoy.

      First off, "survival of the fittest" is the fishiest of theories. Without getting into its "unfalsifiability" problems, it's just plain tautological: it defines fittest as just a property of whatever survives, which ends up saying nothing more than that the survivors survived. But moving on:

      Second off, I see nothing wrong with a world where every person can speak English. But I see everything wrong with a worl

      • Just to provoke more thought: I (humbly) disagree with your assessment of "Survival of the Fittest." In your perception, SotF is an explanation of a result that has already taken effect. I see it more of a basic law of nature, which predicts trends as well, although I agree that we usually can't comprehend "fittest" until it has already survived. Fittest is not what merely survives (though that is true), but it also describes something that will survive the test of time.

        I'm short on brainpower right no

        • `Fittest', or more correctly, `best fitted' is precisely just those things which have survived. Evolutionary theory also doesn't really apply here as a language is subject to so many directed processes. Groups of people try to keep their language alive, and languages don't change through random processes in the same way. While it's interesting to note the parallels between the processes through which languages change over time, and those which affect the biological sphere, it is a little broken.

    • The worst part about the "survival of the fittest" is that it's not called "death of the weakest". In other words, it's usually seen from the viewpoint of the "rightfully" fittest-- completely missing the constantly dynamic aspect, and the multidimensionality. Horseshoe business did really well up until the combustion engine.

    • Recall that in Orwell's 1984, the main intellectual activity of Ingsoc was the perfection of the language NewSpeak, in which herectical ideas could neither be spoken nor thought. There is something very magical about language. It's not merely a pragmatic way to get information -- it's the cement of society itself. This extends into the animal kindom as well.

      Consider the bizarre symbotic relationship of a certain caterpillar and tree ants [mongabay.com]. The caterpiller has "dew patches" on which the ants feed. In return,

      • Interesting points and I don't know if I'm just too simple to come around to your points or if I can't convince you of mine - perhaps we're at a stalemate.

        I would argue, though, that if we've gleamed the nuggets out of a language that's doomed to die and recorded it for posterity, then what's wrong with destroying it for a common good (unifying humanity with language)? Look at Latin - it's a dead language, but we have recordings, we have books and we have classes on learning Latin. So we've destroyed La

        • No, we can't recreate languages. Languages are products of cultures, and recreating cultures would require being able to turn back time. We can create new variations from the remains of languages, that's all.

          Think of all the bazillions of loanwords [rice.edu] in the English language: tundra, sauna, payama, ketchup, katamaran-- would they have
          become part of the English without history, mainly trade, and largely because of two English-speaking empires, first the British economical and political, and then the Ame

          • No, we can't recreate languages.

            I can't agree with that statement. Hebrew was a dead [spoken] language until the end of the 19th Century. Today it's a living [spoken] language again, the native tongue of a significant population. It's probably the only counterargument though, being the only language to be revived from the dead. Unfortunately, that also means that Yiddish is pretty much pushing up the daisies...

            Languages are products of cultures, and recreating cultures would require being able

        • I would argue, though, that if we've gleamed the nuggets out of a language that's doomed to die and recorded it for posterity, then what's wrong with destroying it for a common good (unifying humanity with language)?

          What's wrong with that? A whole helluva lot!

          If you're approaching this problem as a native English speaker that thought in English when learning other languages that are substantially similar to English, then I don't know if I'm personally skilled enough to convey the abysmal sense of lo

          • Colours in various languages are a fascinating subject: anthropologists have done studies like showing patches of colours to people and asking what do they call them. Even within same cultures there are differences: we have a table cloth six people couldn't agree on whether it was blue or green, and I can guarantee it wasn't the question of the cloth not being washed :-) But, IIRC, spectra blue-green and red-orange-yellow-brown have been identified as rather fuzzy.

            Finnish examples: there is (still) no n
            • Colours in various languages are a fascinating subject

              Definitely! [demon.co.uk] And one of my fondest memories from grad school was the book Basic Color [mcgill.ca] Terms by Paul Kay [berkeley.edu] and Brent Berlin -- one of the few bits of linguistics I found that was actually accessible to anyone who hadn't already spent years reading up on theoretical backstory.

              The short story is this: collect all the color-terms in a language. For each one, ask "is [this term] a kind of [this other term]?" You get things like "pink ISA red", "beige ISA

        • The Catholic church would disagree with you that Latin is a dead language as there is modern and classical Latin. The pope issues nearly every written edict in Latin and up until Vatican II masses were conducted in Latin. No, Latin is quite alive and well, especially in the romance languages :) And don't forget the legal profession.

          Umberto Eco had a wonderful book Experiences in Translation [amazon.com] that would be of interest to anyone considering abolishing language for just one as it goes into the philosophy an