Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Language death

Emma wonders why Marka is interested in preserving Sorbian language.


Emma: How many are regular users of Sorbian?

Marka: 15,000 in Upper Lusatia, particularly used in churches.

Emma: Do they use it in your church?

Marka: Of course. They don’t in Lower Lusatia, but here all the clergy speak Sorbian.

Emma: Who would care if Sorbian just, well, disappeared?

Marka: Linguists would care. Many young people in Upper Lusatia would care.

Emma: So why would they care? The numbers are declining.

Marka: It’s not a question of numbers. It’s not just a question of mere words going extinct. There’s the culture, the customs, the events, the stories.

Emma: Ah. To lose the stories!



Language attrition leads to language death. Why is language death so important? Surely there are plenty of other languages in the world that are not threatened by extinction and do the job equally well?

If the Sorbs lose their language, it will be an intellectual disaster for their culture. In universal linguistic terms, perhaps a micro-disaster.

David Crystal uses the analogy of ecology, arguing that languages which are endangered should be at the top of environmental agenda.

He argues that a world which recognized English as the single global language which displaced all others would be the greatest intellectual disaster the world has ever known. Perhaps a macro-disaster.



Bill Chapman said...

I think there is a role for Esperanto in saving the world's smaller languages.

What do your blog's readers think?

Pencellist said...

I'm just wondering how it could help, Bill. Sorbian may be struggling now with about 50,000 speakers, but it has been around for nearly 20 centuries. 130-year-old Esperanto is sometimes reported to have as many as a million occasional users, but probably only 100,000 use it regularly, and only 1,000 in preference to anything else. Speakers of smaller languages are nearly always bilingual. Unless they have unlimited educational and financial resources their best chance of keeping their language alive is to preserve it in domains where it comes into its own (home and family, folklore and histories)while using a larger language for other domains (state education, business, law). I think the Wends may be able to work something out between Sorbian and German, especially if they get some help from the EU, but I'm not sure adding Esperanto to their repertoire will make much difference. Anybody got any suggestions?