this is why “saving” endangered languages is doomed

in a word, because there’s so much more enthusiasm for making stuff up about “aliens” that’s only slightly exotic than for taking the trouble to learn from real people about languages that are really different from ours.

[this is not a criticism, just a comment about human nature.]


7 responses to “this is why “saving” endangered languages is doomed

  1. Well put. This hits rather close to home for me, as both a linguistics student and a conlanger. For myself, my interest in constructed languages lead me towards a greater concern for language endangerment: As a young conlanger I started searching the Web to learn more about linguistics and found your blog along the way; pretty much as a direct result of that I am now studying towards being a field-worker. (I should thank you for that, by the way.) But I recognize that my individual experience doesn’t exactly reflect the general trend, here. It’s hard to hear.

  2. I have a slightly more sanguine view of the situation. In our host’s model, if I understand it correctly, there is a certain pool of enthusiasm and energy that is available to spend on helping endangered languages, and that mass-media conlang efforts (like Tolkien’s elvish languages, Fromkin’s Paku, Okrand’s Klingon, and (most recently) Frommer’s Na’vi) only serve to divert some of that pool.

    If this model were correct, I would share our host’s distress. But I think that the people roped in by the allure of fictional languages are mostly people who wouldn’t have thought much about linguistics if it weren’t for this rather subversive popularization. Certainly it was that way for me: I came by my interest in linguistics via Tolkien.

    I don’t find it terribly unlikely that some of the teen fans of Na’vi will wind up in linguistics classrooms ten years from now. They might never have thought of it, if it weren’t for the charismatic blue giants who entertained them for a few hours in 2009.

  3. Alan, that’s not really my model, I agree with you. My ‘model’ (or to be more exact, the thought that prompted the post) is not that the conlang enthusiasm diverts attention from real languages, but more that more people get really enthusiastic about learning new made-up languages than they do about learning real ones. For example, I bet there wasn’t the same rush for lots of people to go and learn Navajo when Code-talkers came out (granted, it was a terrible movie), or to learn Lakhota when Dances with Wolves was released. I’m certainly not anti-conlang (I’m a big Tolkein fan too), it’s just a wry comment about there apparently being more energy for promoting and learning languages like Klingon and Na’vi than there is for Adyghe and Karajarri. It would be fun to try to pass off a real language as a blockbuster conlang to test this theory. If we take the ‘pool of enthusiasm’ model too far we could argue that fiction is bad because it takes away from news reporting, which of course isn’t true.

    Thanks Leland! Always happy to bring over more people to the dark side…

    I’m curious what it is about fictional languages like Na’vi that make them more alluring than, say, Navajo. Is it that they have a very well-defined niche, coupled with often quite good language learning materials and an accessible community of ‘speakers’ at roughly the same language competence level?

    • Surely it’s the lack of real-people baggage. There are no Na’vi around to remind you that they have feelings about having their language learned.

      nullius terror in terra nullius, as it were? These are geeks we’re talking about here.

  4. Felicity Meakins

    Yep and I thought we were all geeks. These guys really are a notch above us in geek stakes. At least we have real people we work with to anchor us.

  5. Nicholas Ostler

    Eugepae, Wiliiam! A new Latin tag, with pervasive pun, and an interesting thought behind it. Tacitus would be proud of you. nullius terror in terra nullius – amen.

  6. Surely the motivation behind creating a new language is completely different from that behind learning an existing one? It’s the difference between designing a model train layout and taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

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