Languages and cultures have always come into being and disappeared, but today’s situation is without parallel: a massive silencing of linguistic diversity on every continent, related to the ongoing “sixth extinction” of biological species. Some languages fall silent due to genocide; others because of language planning, migration education policy, and persecution; and still others for economic or cultural reasons. Hundreds of the world’s languages are down to just a few speakers, and a significant percentage of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are set to vanish before the end of the century. Only in the last two decades have communities, linguists, policymakers, and the general public recognized the scale of the problem, and the work is just beginning.
As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them. Ken Hale, an MIT professor and language activist once said that losing any one language “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre”. Our knowledge of prehistorical human migrations and contact relations is largely based upon analysis of relations between languages. It is through language, for instance, that we know that the Polynesians and other Austronesian-speaking peoples of the Pacific began their enormous sea-faring journey from Taiwan roughly 6,000 years ago.
Every language carries with it immense reserves of cultural, historical, ecological and botanical information, vital for local communities and potentially to the broader world. In much of the world, languages are central to communal identity and multilingualism has been the historical norm.
When we speak of loss of knowledge, we also refer to the contribution each grammar makes to our understanding of how languages can vary from one another. Much of linguistics since the 1960s has focused on universals of linguistic structure, that is, inviolable rules that hold across all known languages. However, it is not uncommon that single languages overturn what were once thought to be universals.
While many linguists today appear to support the idea of an activist role for documentary linguistics, dissenting opinions exist as well (Ladefoged 1992, Newman 1998). Newman (1998:15) states:
The justification for doing research on an endangered language has to be the scientific value of providing that documentation and in preserving aspects of that language and culture for posterity. The purpose cannot be to make the few remaining speakers feel good.
It must be noted that this view actually reflects the status quo accurately when it comes to institutional support. None of the major funders for endangered language documentation and research directly support revitalization, and as scientific institutions they should perhaps not be expected to. The real question is whether researchers should go beyond research. More in line with the views expressed by Rice (2010) and others, we believe that it is an ethical responsibility for those linguists working on endangered languages to contribute to their perpetuation as spoken languages if such a will exists in the community. This of course should not imply that all linguists are ethically obliged to work on endangered languages no more than all biologists are obliged to fight for the preservation of bio-diversity. Nonetheless, in a society that puts so much value on academic degrees, wider institutional support for endangered languages and their communities will not be forthcoming if such support does not come first from academia. As others have also argued, the work that emerges from community projects of the type Newman refers to as linguistic “social work” have proven just as valuable to linguists as to teachers and learners.
In the following we outline three fundamental reasons for working to stem the tide of language death: Human Rights, Communal Identity and Science.