When a language dies, so what?

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When a language dies, so what?

Postby Sleeper » Sat Jun 09, 2012 8:14 am UTC

Apparently there's about 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the world, and just like with the decline of biodiversity there's also an ongoing loss of linguistic diversity. Many languages are going extinct. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Linguists )It's said that the loss of these languages will bring a loss of cultural knowledge.

To play the devil's advocate: So what? What practical effect will this have? We couldn't understand those little-known languages anyway, so what are we losing when they disappear?

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Twelfthroot » Sat Jun 09, 2012 4:19 pm UTC

Practical in what sense? People also generally try to avoid extinction of living things when we can help it, but most endangered species don't give us a 'practical' benefit by sticking around. It's true that bigger languages edging out smaller ones is the cycle of life in action, so to speak, but I find it very concerning when languages die because another language is forced upon them or an outside language group pressures the community to abandon or devalue their heritage language. Imagining the world's minority languages dying out pains me in a way akin to thinking of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

In part, the reason is what you mentioned - loss of cultural knowledge. A language is a living representation of how a community conceptualizes the world around them -- what things they find the need to distinguish and what things they don't, where they draw the line (if they draw one) between things and events, what their codified rituals and social structures were. But for me personally, I'd hate to see us lose languages because the more languages we know about, the more we know about language. What if there's a minority language that has little or no capacity for embedding clauses; how do they express such ideas instead? What if there's a language that has no word for oneself, or has a dramatically different division of time for tense formation? A language where curses are considered to have such power that cursed people psychosomatically sicken themselves? What interested me in linguistics in the first place was the study of language to learn more about consciousness and human reasoning and expression, and 'exotic' languages can have some of the most interesting and unexpected expressions of the human language instinct.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Sat Jun 09, 2012 5:21 pm UTC

Sleeper wrote:It's said that the loss of these languages will bring a loss of cultural knowledge.


Is it? It's still possible for people to communicate their cultural knowledge even if their language has died.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Jun 10, 2012 4:55 am UTC

Personally, I think the loss of linguistic knowledge is bad enough, whether or not any cultural knowledge also disappears. Imagine how incredibly impoverished the science of linguistics would be if everyone spoke one of a tiny handful of languages, or even just one single language.

The thought gives me the same icky feeling as Asimov's Foundation stories set so far in the future that humanity's natural origin on a single planet has become little more than a barely acknowledged myth.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby PM 2Ring » Sun Jun 10, 2012 8:44 am UTC

David Crystal says that language is the lifeblood of culture, and when a language dies, a culture dies.
And we lose yet another opportunity to study the origins of language & human culture.

Every language embodies a particular solution that humans have found to the problem of connecting with each other via the process of putting thoughts into words. Obviously, language allows members of a community to interact with each other and to connect to their cultural heritage. Of course, people don't need to use any particular language for this, OTOH, the variations in languages embody different solutions to the Language Problem. We do not yet have a perfect theory that describes how people think and speak, and every language contains data that can be used to test any such theory. So when a language dies we lose valuable data that could inform our future theories of the evolution of human language and conscious thought.

Cultures & languages die for various reasons. Although language death saddens me, I'm not saying we should artificially prop up dying cultures & languages, but dying languages should certainly be recorded & preserved while we still have the chance. And if people want to maintain &/or revive their traditional language, I believe that they should be offered expert assistance.

I can't put it any clearer than Crystal: :)

David Crystal wrote:We should care for the very same reason that we care when a species
of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet. We're
talking about the intellectual and cultural diversity of the planet now, of
course, not its biological diversity. But the issues are the same.
Enshrined in a language is the whole of a community's history, and a large
part of its cultural identity. The world is a mosaic of visions. To lose
even one piece of this mosaic is a loss for all of us.

We can learn so much from the visions of others. Sometimes the learning is
eminently practical, such as when we discover new medical treatments from
the folk medicine practices of an indigenous people.

Sometimes it's intellectual, an increase in our awareness of the history of our world,
such as when the links between languages tell us something about the
movements of early civilisations. And of course, very often we learn
something new about language itself, the behaviour that makes us truly
human, and without which there would be no radio, no Melbourne Writers'
Festival, no talk at all. That's why it is so important to document these
languages as quickly as possible. With every language that dies, another
precious source of data about the nature of the human language faculty is
lost, and don't forget, there are only about 6,000 sources in all.

So there are good ecological, social and linguistic reasons why we should
care about language death.

(From a talk given at the Melbourne Writers' Festival in 2000?)

Also see Language Death and Diversity

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Adacore » Fri Jun 15, 2012 12:57 am UTC

The two reasons that seem important to me are that you'd lose access to any historical documents written in a language that disappeared, and you'd reduce the field of languages that can be studied by anthropologists, linguists, &c. which could negatively impact all sorts of things regarding the understanding of the formation of society, development of communication, and the like. A combination of the two would also cause loss of knowledge of things like human migration in the past.

All that assumes, though, that you'd lose the ability to translate the language. I think that's pretty unlikely, for a language with a significant written record. Losing small spoken-only languages could be problematic, though.

Even so, I personally wouldn't be terribly upset to see all languages but one die. It would make so many things easier and more efficient that I think the benefits would largely outweigh the costs.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby The Mighty Thesaurus » Fri Jun 15, 2012 6:07 pm UTC

Should we force people to speak dying languages to satisfy our academic curiosity?
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby skullturf » Sat Jun 16, 2012 2:16 am UTC

The Mighty Thesaurus wrote:Should we force people to speak dying languages to satisfy our academic curiosity?


That's an interesting point.

Although it might not be the case that anybody is literally trying to force people to speak dying languages, certainly it does happen sometimes that small languages die out because no individual speaker sees value in continuing to speak them.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Sleeper » Sat Jun 16, 2012 2:18 pm UTC

The Mighty Thesaurus wrote:Should we force people to speak dying languages to satisfy our academic curiosity?


No, but has that ever happened anywhere? Or even been proposed?

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby PM 2Ring » Sun Jun 17, 2012 7:20 am UTC

Sleeper wrote:
The Mighty Thesaurus wrote:Should we force people to speak dying languages to satisfy our academic curiosity?


No, but has that ever happened anywhere? Or even been proposed?


That depends on how you define "forced". As a modern antidote to the colonial era attempts to suppress traditional languages, in recent decades there are / have been various programs around the world to teach children the language of their traditional culture, and primary schoolchildren don't have a lot of choice in such matters. These programs have met with mixed reactions, both from the students and the adults of their communities.

In many cases, the kids want to participate in the modern world and they want to talk like their movie & pop music idols, not like their grandparents. And the parents want their kids to be fluent in the dominant language, to improve their job prospects and general social standing in the wider community.

But in some places, these programs are quite successful, since the kids want to reclaim and connect with the ancestral culture, and they've learned that language is a key element of that cultural connection.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby lorb » Mon Jun 18, 2012 11:32 am UTC

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis makes a good argument for preserving linguistic diversity. With any language that dies humanity loses a portion of possible cognitive processes. It's like this: diverse languages lead to diverse thinking (leads to more creativity/inventiveness/...)
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Mon Jun 18, 2012 11:51 am UTC

That argument has an awful lot of dubious premises...
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Sir Novelty Fashion » Mon Jun 18, 2012 1:32 pm UTC

I'd say a language encompasses a manner and structure of thought. When it dies, we lose access to the living tradition of that way of thinking.

On the subject of dying languages, I'd argue that Latin was kept alive artificially by the Catholic Church, really up until the 1960s, when it started to lose interest in doing things in Latin. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was conducted almost entirely in Latin, despite no-one alive being a native speaker.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Jun 18, 2012 2:43 pm UTC

Makri wrote:That argument has an awful lot of dubious premises...
Such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the first place?

Any cognitive process that's possible for humans, is possible in whatever human language an individual happens to speak. (If a word doesn't exist for the concept you want, make a new word.)
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Mon Jun 18, 2012 4:32 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Makri wrote:That argument has an awful lot of dubious premises...
Such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the first place?

Any cognitive process that's possible for humans, is possible in whatever human language an individual happens to speak. (If a word doesn't exist for the concept you want, make a new word.)


So why is it that when an anthropologist spent several months trying to teach tribesmen who only spoke Piraha to count (using words borrowed from other languages), they could not?

Piraha does not contain any words for specific numbers, only two words currently thought to be most reasonably translated "few" and "many" but, even when given words to describe numbers, they could not learn it. Now, I think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis certainly is significantly in terms of the evidence to justify it however I cannot see any other explanation for this particular observation.

Of course, this observation would still only provide a justification for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in languages lacking an entire system in their language (such as numerals, colours, size etc.) rather than more specific things such as people whose language has no word for snow not being able to conceptualise it.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Mon Jun 18, 2012 5:43 pm UTC

Alternative explanations: They didn't actually want to learn it. (Everett isn't your most trusted source among linguists.) Or there is a critical period for learning to count. Or they all have dyscalculia. Or something I haven't just thought of off the top of my head.

Yes, it's totally a puzzling fact. But it doesn't much strengthen my confidence in a hypothesis that has been disconfirmed time and again. Especially if the hypothesis doesn't even directly predict that people would be unable to learn.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Jun 18, 2012 6:37 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:So why is it that when an anthropologist spent several months trying to teach tribesmen who only spoke Piraha to count (using words borrowed from other languages), they could not?
Because they come from a culture where there's no need to count so none of them really see the point, perhaps? It's hard to get *anyone* to learn an entire vocabulary for concepts they've lived perfectly fine without for their entire lives so far. The difficulty one anthropologist had in teaching numbers to a group of people who'd never needed numbers before really shouldn't surprise anyone who's ever tried explaining, say, computer terminology to their grandparents.

It's also not implausible that counting is another of the many things it's far easier for children to learn than adults.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Mon Jun 18, 2012 9:31 pm UTC

Makri wrote:Alternative explanations: They didn't actually want to learn it. (Everett isn't your most trusted source among linguists.) Or there is a critical period for learning to count. Or they all have dyscalculia. Or something I haven't just thought of off the top of my head.

Yes, it's totally a puzzling fact. But it doesn't much strengthen my confidence in a hypothesis that has been disconfirmed time and again. Especially if the hypothesis doesn't even directly predict that people would be unable to learn.


Fair enough. I just looked up an article discussing the original work and it mentioned there the evidence that there seemed to be a cultural bias against learning it.

gmalivuk wrote:
eSOANEM wrote:So why is it that when an anthropologist spent several months trying to teach tribesmen who only spoke Piraha to count (using words borrowed from other languages), they could not?
Because they come from a culture where there's no need to count so none of them really see the point, perhaps? It's hard to get *anyone* to learn an entire vocabulary for concepts they've lived perfectly fine without for their entire lives so far. The difficulty one anthropologist had in teaching numbers to a group of people who'd never needed numbers before really shouldn't surprise anyone who's ever tried explaining, say, computer terminology to their grandparents.


Could it not be argued that this is, some sort of weakened, circular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? They've never had need for numbers so their language doesn't have any which makes it harder to them to learn them.

It is interesting that Piraha still hasn't borrowed any numerals (even a word for "one") into itself so clearly something interesting (even if it is just cultural stubbornness) is going on.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Jun 18, 2012 9:58 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:Could it not be argued that this is, some sort of weakened, circular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
I suppose, but weakening a hypothesis to the point of useless obviousness kinda makes it, well, useless.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:01 am UTC

eSOANEM wrote:Could it not be argued that this is, some sort of weakened, circular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Does the weakened version even involve language?
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:23 am UTC

eSOANEM wrote:Could it not be argued that this is, some sort of weakened, circular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? They've never had need for numbers so their language doesn't have any which makes it harder to them to learn them.


I'm even skeptical of this. Their language doesn't have certain words so it's hard for them to learn those words?

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Tue Jun 19, 2012 7:06 am UTC

TheGrammarBolshevik wrote:
eSOANEM wrote:Could it not be argued that this is, some sort of weakened, circular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Does the weakened version even involve language?


Not much, I'll admit. As gmalivuk says, it's weakened to the point of uselessness.

goofy wrote:
eSOANEM wrote:Could it not be argued that this is, some sort of weakened, circular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? They've never had need for numbers so their language doesn't have any which makes it harder to them to learn them.


I'm even skeptical of this. Their language doesn't have certain words so it's hard for them to learn those words?


Even if the impediment is small, most people (other than young children) who are learning by teaching rather than immersion tend to learn by analogy to a language they do speak. When I took Spanish for example, many people couldn't get their heads around the fact that "to have" (used in perfect construction) as "haber" was different from "to have" (used for ownership) as "tener" and just used "tener" whenever they would use "have" in English.

I'm not saying learning the words would be hard but that, learning the meaning, without anything to compare it to in your native language, does add some impediment (even if that is small).
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby ri.kenji » Thu Jun 21, 2012 9:24 pm UTC

When I think of language loss, the first thing that pops into my head is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. For those who haven't read it, it's about a world in a very sad state of affairs: a secretive government keeps itself in power through careful control of its citizens' minds. One of the ways this is achieved is control of the language. By reducing the number of words "in circulation," the concepts that the words describe die out. Anarchists can't organize an overthrow of the government if no such word exists to communicate the necessary concepts.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby PM 2Ring » Fri Jun 22, 2012 7:33 am UTC

Sir Novelty Fashion wrote:I'd say a language encompasses a manner and structure of thought. When it dies, we lose access to the living tradition of that way of thinking.

So would Sapir & Whorf. :) I don't think that anybody (apart from a few fanatics) believes in the original full-strength version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis these days, but a weaker version isn't unreasonable, IMHO.

As has been mentioned earlier in this thread, concepts that are expressible in a given language are expressible in any other language. However, some concepts are going to be easier to express in some languages than in others, what may seem natural and straight-forward in one language may seem artificial and convoluted in another. Thus a language has an influence on the manner and structure of verbalized thought of its users, but that's a far call from claiming that the language forces its users to think in a particular way or prevents them from having certain thoughts.

A favourite example of James Cooke Brown (the founder of Loglan) was grammatical tense. Some languages have a strong tense system: every verb must have a tense, thus it's natural for speakers of such languages to make utterances that qualify a claim in terms of its time frame, and Brown claimed that it's not easy for them to express themselves in a time-free way, since their language makes it difficult to avoid the temporal aspect of a claim. However, it's quite common (in English, and I suspect many other languages) for people to make time-free claims via the present tense. OTOH, I guess it's fair to say that such utterances are still "tainted" by connotations of tense, and may be misinterpreted as to apply only to the present, whereas speakers of a language that has a voluntary tense system can easily make time-free claims without that taint.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Fri Jun 22, 2012 8:32 am UTC

English present tense sentences where it's unclear whether the statement is generic (that's presumably what you mean by time-free, and it's not actually time-free: you can have past generics) or properly present. I don't even have that problem in German, where there is no obligatory distinction between simple present and present progressive. I suspect the tense system is actually an exceptionally poor example of different modes of thought facilitated by different languages. (Also, the presence of morphological tense should not be confused with the presence of semantic tense!)

A better example might be the perception/categorization of spatial events, particularly movement events, since there are known differences between languages in what they encode: some obligatorily encode manner of movement, others don't.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 22, 2012 8:41 am UTC

PM 2Ring wrote:As has been mentioned earlier in this thread, concepts that are expressible in a given language are expressible in any other language. However, some concepts are going to be easier to express in some languages than in others, what may seem natural and straight-forward in one language may seem artificial and convoluted in another. Thus a language has an influence on the manner and structure of verbalized thought of its users, but that's a far call from claiming that the language forces its users to think in a particular way or prevents them from having certain thoughts.


Even with your caveat about ease of expression, this is not the case; at least, not in its absolute form.

Piraha has no mechanism with which to express numbers, a concept present in all of the world's most spoken languages.

Now a weakened form of this statement, that a concept expressible in a given language almost certainly expressible in almost all other languages is reasonable however using the absolute form of it is demonstrably not.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Fri Jun 22, 2012 1:34 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:Piraha has no mechanism with which to express numbers, a concept present in all of the world's most spoken languages.


But that's just a matter of adding words. It's easy to add words.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 22, 2012 2:07 pm UTC

Irrelevant.

The statement directly implies that any language can express numbers. Piraha cannot unless you introduce concepts loaned from other languages. Therefore, in its absolute formation, the statement is false.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Fri Jun 22, 2012 3:31 pm UTC

If you want a more challenging exercise, argue the point without reference to the annoyance that is Pirahã. :wink:
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 22, 2012 4:51 pm UTC

True, I certainly do not know any other examples however seeing as the statement was absolute, either it is false (as a counter-example was provided), Piraha isn't a language or both.

Now, Geoff Pullum reportsthat Warlpiri has no native number system and that its speakers borrow the English numbers. This would seem to suggest that, unless the native system was completely forgotten during Western settling (which seems unlikely even if the English system did become widely adopted which again seems unlikely given the area in which the Warlpiri people live, in the outback far from the main centres of English-speaking population) that pre-colonial Warlpiri would be another example of a language unable to express certain concepts.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby lorb » Fri Jun 22, 2012 5:04 pm UTC

Makri wrote:If you want a more challenging exercise, argue the point without reference to the annoyance that is Pirahã. :wink:


Many languages have no seperate terms for blue and green.
The guugu yimithirr language does not know relative directions (eg: left, right ..)
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Fri Jun 22, 2012 5:18 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:The statement directly implies that any language can express numbers. Piraha cannot unless you introduce concepts loaned from other languages. Therefore, in its absolute formation, the statement is false.


Not concepts, words. Pirahã cannot express numbers unless you introduce words loaned from other languages. I'm claiming that every language has the ability to express numbers, assuming it has the vocabulary. Just like how, 100 years ago, English lacked the words needed to deal with the evaluation and comparison of sampled properties of groups. Now it has those words.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Fri Jun 22, 2012 5:21 pm UTC

Now, Geoff Pullum reportsthat Warlpiri has no native number system and that its speakers borrow the English numbers. This would seem to suggest that, unless the native system was completely forgotten during Western settling (which seems unlikely even if the English system did become widely adopted which again seems unlikely given the area in which the Warlpiri people live, in the outback far from the main centres of English-speaking population) that pre-colonial Warlpiri would be another example of a language unable to express certain concepts.


Thanks! That is, to my mind, much more interesting, because these people are obviously able to deal with numbers and still didn't have words of their own. That seems more remarkable to me than the across-the-board absurdity of the Pirahã situation. :wink:

lorb wrote:Many languages have no seperate terms for blue and green.


"color of leaves", "color of the sea/the cornflower/whatever"

The guugu yimithirr language does not know relative directions (eg: left, right ..)


Funny!

goofy wrote:I'm claiming that every language has the ability to express numbers, assuming it has the vocabulary.


There's a bit of a problem with that claim: to the extent that it's about languages, and not about the minds of their speakers, it's entirely trivial. By the way, I don't buy the comparison of Pirahã (non-)numbers with expressions from statistics; or rather, the comparison works only too well: despite the presence of the requisite vocabulary in English, the vast majority of English speakers are still intuitive probabilistic illiterates. And this includes professional statisticians. Brains are no good for probability.
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Fri Jun 22, 2012 5:48 pm UTC

Makri wrote:There's a bit of a problem with that claim: to the extent that it's about languages, and not about the minds of their speakers, it's entirely trivial.


But it's the only claim I'm prepared to make, because I have no idea what's going on in the minds of speakers. At least we can measure words.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Fri Jun 22, 2012 5:49 pm UTC

But it's empty beyond the statement that every language can adopt new lexical items. Not really a claim worth making, is it? ;)
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby lorb » Fri Jun 22, 2012 5:58 pm UTC

Makri wrote:
lorb wrote:Many languages have no seperate terms for blue and green.


"color of leaves", "color of the sea/the cornflower/whatever"

Which may only work if there is a word for "color". Also this:
Guy Deutscher¹ wrote:Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language.


¹http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Deutscher_%28linguist%29
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Jun 22, 2012 6:00 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:The statement directly implies that any language can express numbers. Piraha cannot unless you introduce concepts loaned from other languages. Therefore, in its absolute formation, the statement is false.


Not concepts, words. Pirahã cannot express numbers unless you introduce words loaned from other languages. I'm claiming that every language has the ability to express numbers, assuming it has the vocabulary. Just like how, 100 years ago, English lacked the words needed to deal with the evaluation and comparison of sampled properties of groups. Now it has those words.


There is a difference in those two cases though; Piraha lacks an entire system whereas English already had a system of comparisons and, the fact that the new vocabulary could be defined without reference to other new vocabulary demonstrates that the concept was already expressible.

So I am talking about concepts. Piraha clearly has no concept of numbers and, unless the Warlpiri can define English numbers using solely native vocabulary, neither did pre-colonial Warlpiri (and, depending on how you judge loan words, even modern Warlpiri).
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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Fri Jun 22, 2012 6:05 pm UTC

Makri wrote:But it's empty beyond the statement that every language can adopt new lexical items. Not really a claim worth making, is it? ;)


It goes further than that: something that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in all languages (assuming the vocabulary is available, and words are easy to get). I've spoken to lots of people who would disagree with this, so I don't think it's completely trivial.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby goofy » Fri Jun 22, 2012 6:10 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:There is a difference in those two cases though; Piraha lacks an entire system whereas English already had a system of comparisons and, the fact that the new vocabulary could be defined without reference to other new vocabulary demonstrates that the concept was already expressible.


I'm not sure what you mean by "already expressible".

eSOANEM wrote:So I am talking about concepts. Piraha clearly has no concept of numbers


I'm not sure what it means to say that a language has no concept of something.

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Re: When a language dies, so what?

Postby Makri » Fri Jun 22, 2012 6:20 pm UTC

It goes further than that: something that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in all languages (assuming the vocabulary is available, and words are easy to get). I've spoken to lots of people who would disagree with this, so I don't think it's completely trivial.


You know, you're right. It's not trivial. For instance, in the area of degree morphology (various ways of expressing different nuances of comparatives, for instance), it's conceivable that something would be in principle unavailable in a language.
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