Extinct Languages

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Orleander, Sep 19, 2007.

  1. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    25,817
    How is this possible?? Wouldn't you only need a tape recorder and one person to explain the words. I know you wouldn't get every word, but...most of them.
    Or have them go through a dictionary and see if there is a correlating word in their own language

    Scientists Race Around World to Save Dying Languages

    ...Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.

    The hot spots listed at Tuesday's briefing:

    — Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal Australia holds some of the world's most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag.

    — Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, very little documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.

    — Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S., 54 languages. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.

    — Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan — 23 languages. Government policies in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages and, as a result, some have only a few elderly speakers.

    — Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico — 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent.
     
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  3. nietzschefan Thread Killer Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    7,721
    I'd Like Baron Max to weigh in on this, very important human endeavour.
     
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  5. maxg Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    710
    I just read this too. I do see how it's possible--there's more to human language that just a vocabulary and even with a vocabulary and a dictionary you may not be able to reproduce the nuances of a word using words from another language.

    What I was curious about was to what extent this should be a concern. It may be that language diversity is disappearing all over the world and some day everyone will speak the same language (except perhaps for some academics, like today's speakers of Latin and Ancient Greek). I think that would be a loss. Languages do shape the way we think and the loss of a plurality of languages may result in limiting the diversity of thought.

    However, I can't support the claim that diversity of languages is good for it's own sake. There is a reason why many of the people from these communities don't bother learning their indigenous languages anymore, since in the contempory world they will survive much better if their primary language is English, or Russian, or Mandarin Chinese. This is not just because it enables them to communicate with the majority. Their indigenous language is probably not capable of handling some of the concepts that are needed in a modern world.
     
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement



    to hide all adverts.
  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    For one thing, getting the words isn't good enough. I have a Chinese dictionary with probably 20,000 words (you can't count them the same way in a fully synthetic language like Chinese). It tells me more about Chinese than an English dictionary tells me about English, since by their nature the words in a synthetic language display their own etymology. Still, although it might hint at the structure and syntax--nothing but nouns and verbs, no inflections, etc.--it wouldn't illustrate the power of the language or the way of thinking that it encourages. Vocabulary is only the beginning. You have to know how the language is used to express thoughts, and how its limits (or in Chinese often its lack of limits) shape those thoughts.

    But furthermore, most people are not very good at explaining how their language works. They can translate words, but if you give them a sentence to translate they often can't explain why certain words were chosen when apparent synonyms were available. People who have little or no formal education in their language cannot explain things like inflections and word order.
    I'm sure you've used a bilingual dictionary and discovered that there are usually two words to choose from, and often many more. In fact the standard way to translate is to pick one of those words and then go look it up in the other side of the dictionary, examine the list of English "equivalents," and see if it really expresses the meaning you want. Repeat that step until you find your best choice.

    It's almost impossible to sit down with a speaker of a language you don't know and start cataloguing it. In order to know enough about the language to do that successfully, you have to know the language itself passably well, maybe a 7 on my scale: 3,000 words with enough grammar and syntax to use them correctly.

    Some of the things noted in the article illustrate my point: In one of the languages of Paraguay, the word for "eleven" is literally "arrived-at-the-foot one," meaning "I used up my fingers plus one toe." The word for "twenty" is "finished-the-feet." This tells us a lot about that culture.

    I've always been fascinated by French using the Latin words for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty and sixty... but then when they should get to seventy they say sixty-ten, sixty-eleven, etc. And for eighty they say four twenties. Ninety-nine is four twenties-nineteen. Doing math in French must be as hard as doing it with Roman numerals.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    I agree. People who can speak and think in two languages have a tremendous advantage over others. A civilization that has 83 different languages and 83 different ways of thinking is going to be more dynamic and successful than one that has only one, or only three or four. Those other 3,500 languages are a treasure trove of philosphy and alternative thinking.

    Look at the way people discipline their children. We say, "Stop that." Germans say, "Get in line." Hopi Indians say, "That is not the Hopi way."
    I think this advantage will disappear, since I have no doubt that translation software will be perfected in another couple of decades and it will just be a matter of building databases in additional languages. First written language, then spoken language. Of course no translation can capture the essence of the thought in the source language. Diplomats and psychiatrists will need to communicate without translation and people who want to read poetry or talk to their mail-order spouse will have to become bilingual. But I think computers will topple the language barrier for most people in most milieus, and perhaps decrease the pressure for linguistic homogeneity.
    From what I've read, indigenous languages have proven to be remarkably adaptable. Remember that the U.S. military in WWII employed Navajo Indians ("Code-Talkers") to broadcast messages in their native language because it was harder for the Germans to break than any code. But it also means that the language was able to express all the required information without borrowing English words, which would have defeated the purpose.

    One reason for saving as many languages as possible, purely from our parochial perspective as linguists, is that they may help us solve the mystery of the origin of language. Research using massively parallel processing has uncovered cognates in language families that were thought to be unrelated, presenting the tantalizing hypothesis that all non-African languages are descended from a single ancestor. This would mean that the technology of language is at least 70,000 years old.

    Analysis of more non-African languages will help prove or disprove this hypothesis. Moreover, analysis of more African languages may help determine whether all languages are related--whether language was invented only once and gave its speakers a survival advantage, or whether, like civilization, it sprang up independently in multiple locations. Linguists have begun to wonder whether language is more-or-less exactly 70,000 years old, and it was the key technology that gave that one band of humans the planning and organizing ability to successfully migrate out of Africa.
     
  8. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    25,817
    well, we now understand lots of extinct languages. Inca, Aztec, Egyptian hieroglyphics. Is it because they were written and some of these others are not? If they were written down, why wouldn't that save them?
     
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    We understand those languages because they were each the primary language of one of Earth's six independently developed civilizations. They were spoken by literally tens of millions of people. Foreigners by the score studied them and catalogued them.

    We don't just know Egyptian hieroglyphics (which is not precisely a phonetic writing system), we know how those words sounded because Greek and Roman scholars transcribed them phonetically. Famous Greeks like Alexander the Great and famous Romans like Mark Anthony visited or made war on Egypt; there was plenty of contact between Egyptian civilization and the Greco-Roman branch of Mesopotamian civilization.

    The Aztec and Inca civilizations were destroyed only 500 years ago, and millions of their people survived to live in ignominy under the European occupation. The languages continued to be spoken. Even today there are languages in South America that are modern descendants of Inca. I'm not as certain about the Aztecs; since their empire was smack-dab in the middle of modern Mexico they may have been totally obliterated by assimilation and genocide. But there are still people who speak Mayan languages in southern Mexico.

    BTW, the Aztecs had indeed developed the technology of written language and the Christians had quite a job set out for them to burn down all those "heathen" libraries; but the Incas had not.
    Writing does indeed help save a language. We know very little about the Etruscans, a pre-Indo-European people who established an outpost of civilization in southeastern Europe a couple of centuries before the Greeks did it. We can't even make a guess to their ethnicity: were they related to the Basques or the Picts or the people who built Stonehenge or that guy they found buried in a glacier? But the Romans managed to save for us a few precious shards of inscriptions on stone in their language. Not enough to write a grammar or even translate the Lord's Prayer, IIRC, but enough to know that it is indeed not Indo-European.

    Chief Sequoia invented an alphabet for his people; no matter what direction fate takes for the Cherokees, their language will never be lost.

    I was pleased to see that the map that came with that article did not have any brown spots in Africa. Apparently those languages are not in imminent danger of extinction. I know many of them have been studied exhaustively and categorized in families, but there may be a few left to be written down. They may hold the key to the question of when the technology of spoken language was first invented, and whether it was invented more than once.
     
  10. Baron Max Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    23,053
    ...LOL!

    It is interesting ....almost everyone here is a staunch believer of evolution, yet here we are advocating trying to save something from the very thing that they believe in ....extinction and evolution.

    I read about this story of saving languages, and the first thing that popped into my head was ....Why? Who gives a shit?

    Baron Max
     
  11. Baron Max Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    23,053
    Fraggle, is there any topic about which you can't write long, long, involved, bullshit posts about?

    Baron Max
     
  12. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Messages:
    30,644
    By the same argument, stopping, say, the panda from going extinct, or a polar bear, or a dodo, is an exercise with no value. Is that what you think?
     
  13. Baron Max Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    23,053
    Yes, as a matter of fact. I know of no animal that man has ever helped in such a way ....other than putting them into little prisons!

    The panda? The polar bear? What the fuck good are they to anyone? And just look at the dodo ...it's gone, did anything happen? Did the world suddenly stop turning or did the weather change or did major earthquakes occur because the dodo went extinct?

    If one believes in evolution, then one must, almost be definition, allow it to occur naturally. And anything that man does is part of evolution, including polluting the world, and killing off other animals. If one fights evolution, then one can't have much faith in it, huh?

    Baron Max
     
  14. superluminal . Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    10,717
    You're my hero.
     
  15. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Messages:
    30,644
    Baron Max:

    Indeed. Something to think about.

    To who? To you? Of course not. It was just one less useless kind of animal in the world, right?

    Do you think that possibly the humans killing all the dodos might have been a bad idea, then? Or is that "natural"? Oh, wait...

    By that argument, making efforts to preserve species is also "part of evolution".

    You talk yourself in circles. No wonder you're confused.
     
  16. nietzschefan Thread Killer Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    7,721
    I hear what you are saying....but you know we gotta find jobs for these university trained types...you know keep that fuckin useless "economy" going.
     
  17. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    24,457
    I like to look at them. My price for allowing you to kill them all is one million dollars.

    Capitalism. You have to pay to take away a stream of benefits - and the stream of benefits from living kinds of beings extends to infinity. That means it is not discounted.
     
  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    Baron, you make it your mission to strip life of its details, to summarize everything so no one has to put forth the Herculean effort of reading anything longer than two column inches. I would assume that you love the sound bites on TV, "The News For People Who Can't Read." But the devil is in the details, and simplification is precisely the way that misunderstandings occur.

    The word "believe" has multiple meanings, but by pretending that it does not, you conveniently lead yourself to a premise that is bogus. You're hardly going to get away with such a cheap rhetorical trick in the Lingistics subforum.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!



    To "believe" in free speech, marriage, democracy, communism or the Boy Scouts is to judge that the practitioners of that institution will achieve worthwhile results in life.

    To "believe" in evolution is merely to follow the logic of the scientific method and accept the near-certainty that evolution is the way the universe works. It says nothing about whether we think evolution is "fair," any more than we think gravity, relativity, quantum mechanics or String Theory is "fair."

    We have been thwarting evolution for ten or twelve thousand years, by overriding the instincts that evolved in our midbrains, and using the reason and learning in our forebrains to guide our lives. This is simply Homo sapiens's unique ability to transcend nature. We have been thwarting natural processes by destroying rain forests, polluting seas, changing the composition of the atmosphere, and just generally perturbing the ecosystem that evolution built. What's the qualitative difference if we now try to undo some of those changes and prevent the extinction of species caused by our own activities? This does not mean that we don't believe in evolution--or even that we do. It just means that we at last recognize our own power over the planet. And as a previous post pointed out, it means that a great many of us simply love pandas (because they're beautiful and gentle) and polar bears (because they're beautiful but we hope never to meet one close up). Notice that no one except a biologist who specializes in ecology would object to a campaign to drive rats or cockroaches to extinction.
    What an odd sentiment to express on the Linguistics boards. If you don't "give a shit" about language diversity, then why the hell did you come here???
    I'm the moderator of this subforum. Do you think maybe that means I might know something about languages and linguistics, and the other aspects of human culture that relate to them? Perhaps some of my opinions will be proven to be "bullshit," but only by provoking a lively discussion, which is the nature of science. Isn't that why we're all here on SCI Forums?
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2007
  19. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    25,817
    If the people who spoke it didn't care enough to save it, why should the people who don't speak it care?
     
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    Because it's a rich treasure of cultural information. Because it gives us insight into a different way of thinking. Because it might give us a clue into the origin of language and language families. At the very least, because it's just interesting!

    How can you not know this??? Can you think in a foreign language or do you just think in English and translate? Once you find that you are forming your thoughts according to the rules and structure of a second language, a whole new universe opens up. You start cursing the pivotal generation of your immigrant ancestors who decided not to teach their language to their children. For me it was my own mother! I could be fluent in Czech, a language far more different from English than Spanish, which I speak only passably well anyway.

    A lot of the people who didn't "save" their languages didn't make that decision deliberately. They just became marginalized and the only way to move out of the margin was to assimilate. If their communities were not sufficiently advanced for their language to be written, or not sufficiently large or strategically important for someone else to have transcribed it, then when the last person who remembers how to speak it dies, the language is dead. If you look at the regions on that map where many of those languages are found, you'll notice that almost all of the people they represent are Neolithic tribes in out-of-the-way places.

    Arguably, no people has a stronger sense of community than the Jews, but they stopped speaking Hebrew more than 2,000 years ago and adopted Aramaic. Those who left the Middle East in the Diaspora then gave up Aramaic and picked up German or the language of one of the other host countries. The only reason Hebrew survived is that all of their religious texts were written in it and their scholars (rabbi in Hebrew) kept up with it, much as European scholars kept up with Latin. When the founders of modern Israel decided to make Hebrew its national language, they had to reconstruct it from the torah, talmud, and other ancient writings. It was not easy adapting it to the 20th century. They had to be very creative and democratic. To ogle pretty girls is to dizengof because men used to sit outside Diesengoff's Department Store and watch the ladies go in and out.

    If this was the fate of Hebrew--as one infamous professor called it, "The language that God spoke"-- imagine what will happen to the language of a small Stone Age tribe in Siberia when they leave the boondocks and migrate to the cities.
     
  21. Baron Max Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    23,053
    Ahh, nice sentiments, Fraggle, but can you explain just who this "us" you're talking about? And can you estimate just how many of the "us" there actually are in the world today?

    Would the "us" include the redneck, beer-swillin', gun-totin', racist, good-ol'-boys of the south?

    Would the "us" include the beach-goin', surfin', valley girls of California?

    Who is this "us" of whom you refer? Please explain .....especially how many of them there are in the world.

    Baron Max

    PS - I see you're still workin' on getting that "Most Wordy" poster award.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

     
  22. madanthonywayne Morning in America Staff Member

    Messages:
    12,461
    It is kind of sad to think that an entire way of looking at the world will be lost forever. It seems like it wouldn't be that hard to "save" most of these languages if someone really wanted to.

    Send out some linguist with a tape recorder and interview the last few members who can speak the language. Better yet, live with those who can speak it and speak only that language until you know it backward and forward.

    But that would be a lot of work, and obviously no one is that interested.
     
  23. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    25,817
    Listen here Mr Grumpy Butt, I didn't say I thought it was stupid, I just asked why.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!



    growing up next to so many Native Americans, I know and understand what was lost and what continues to be lost. I find it sadder that they care less than the ones who's heritage it isn't.
     

Share This Page