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Language death: evolution, natural selection or cultural genocide?

We humans live in a world of just 194 countries, give or take, but speak between 7,000 and 8,000 languages.

That linguistic diversity is fast disappearing. By one estimate, a language dies every two weeks.

Hundreds of years ago, a handful of European countries colonized whole continents and organized once independent or loosely related peoples into nation-states, under a common colonial language. More recent empires followed suit.

And now the globalization of media and technology are hastening the trend toward linguistic homogeneity. But is this really cause for alarm?

Kans, a French-Cameroonian who blogs at Le Blog du Presi, wrote a post responding to a Rue 89 article on the subject, “A language is extinguished every fifteen days” (Fr).

According to Collette Grinevald, a linguist at the University of Lyon II quoted in the Rue 89 article, 90% of local languages will disappear by the end of the 21st century. Despite the thousands of languages that exist today, 80% of the planet communicates in just 83 languages. Around the world, indigenous languages are giving way to colonial ones.

Comments by French and francophone Rue 89 readers (mostly anonymous) run the gamut, with some arguing that the death of languages is inevitable, and in some ways necessary, in ethnically diverse societies; others that it amounts to nothing less than cultural genocide.

Language has long been a contested issue in France, where the onslaught of anglicisms and the rise of English as the preeminent international language have caused concern in some quarters.

Official policies helped facilitate the death of several regional languages in favor of a common, national one. In the francophone world, that process is just unfolding.

Language death: evolution, natural selection or ethnic cleansing?

“C'etait mieux avant…” encore et toujours… c'est fatiguant. J'aime qu'on me parle de l'evolution des choses, pas seulement d'empecher la destruction de ce qui existait… On ne construit plus d'edifices Romans ou Gothiques… Mais on en a garder avec le temps de tres beaux. Le temps a le merite de faire le trie, c'est vrai dans l'art, la culture et la nature…

“It was better before…” forever and always…I'm tired of it. I'd rather you speak to me about how things evolve, rather than only trying to stop the destruction of what once existed…We no longer build Roman or Gothic buildings…But we have preserved them over time to beautiful effect. Time has a way of sorting things out, that's true in art, in culture, and in nature…

Rue 89 reader, Alzaz:

Peu importe qu'une langue devienne moribonde et disparaisse. C'est de la sélection naturelle, appliquée à la culture. La plus forte l'emporte.

It matters little when a language becomes moribund and disappears. It's natural selection, applied to culture. The strongest wins.

Rue 89 reader, photosieste:

L'ethnocide est la destruction d'une culture.

C'est comparable à un être vivant qui naît, vit, meurt.
S'il meurt de mort naturel après avoir eu une belle vie, très bien.
Mais si on l'assassine, ou que l'on ne porte pas assistance à personne en danger, c'est autre chose…

C'est pareil pour les langues menacées d'extinction…

Ethnic genocide is the destruction of a culture.

You can compare it to a living being who is born, lives, and dies.
If he dies a natural death after a long and beautiful life, very well.
But if we kill him, or we don't help him when he is in danger, that's something else…

It's the same with languages in danger of extinction.

Another reader:

La mort d'une langue est grave non pas pour ce qu'elle est mais surtout pour ce qu'elle pouvait apporter. Une langue qui disparait emporte avec elle un schème de pensé, une vision du monde qui n'augmente que l'apauvrissement de la culture humaine et de la capacité des hommes à comprendre le monde sui l'entour.

What matters is not the death of a language in itself, but what that death can bring. When a language disappears, a whole way of thinking, a vision of the world disappears with it, which can only impoverish human culture and the capacity of people to understand the world around them.

Another reader:

Ce n'est qu'un problême d'entropie linguistique. On ne va quand même pas se suicider quand on pense à tout ce qui a disparu depuis 50000 ans en laissant la place à d'autres choses. Vous pensez en conservateur, en accumulateur, bref en capitaliste. Pensez en horloge civilisationnelle, pas à l'échelle d'une vie humaine. Dans 500 ans tout aura encore évolué, et alors ? Au profit de ce que l'époque voudra, et alors ? Il n'y aura peut-être plus un chat sur Terre, et alors ?

This is nothing more than a problem of linguistic entropy. We aren't going to commit suicide when we think of everything that has disappeared in the last 50,000 years to make room for other things. You think as a conservationist, accumulator, in short, as a capitalist. Think in a time scale of civilizations, not a single human life. In 500 years, everything will have evolved, so what? To the benefit of what that age wants, so what? Maybe there won't be cats left on Earth, so what?

Rue 89 reader, jean jacques louis:

“… en biologie, la diversité fait la richesse” : oui mais la biologie ne connaît qu’une seule langue vieille de trois milliards d’années et qui est le code ADN car c’est bien une langue avec un alphabet de quatre lettres et des mots de trois lettres.

“…in biology, diversity enriches”: yes, but biology has known only one language, over 3 billion years old, and that's the ADN code, a language with an alphabet of four letters and three-letter words

Of course as old languages die, new ones are created:

…combien de nouvelles langues apparaissent, pour chaque langue qui disparaît ? Il serait intéressant de faire un inventaire des nouvelles langues apparues ces dernières décennies, qui forment à peine des siècles. Les créoles des diverses îles, qui se basent sur l’anglais, le hollandais ou le français, et leurs multiples variantes, ou les diverses évolutions de la Darija en Afrique du nord…Au Maroc par exemple, la Darija, arabe dialectal marocain, est la vraie langue universelle, qui se base sur l’arabe, le français et l’espagnol, mais compte elle-même de multiples variantes suivant les régions, notamment sous l’influence du berbère.

…How many new languages appear, for each one that disappears? It would be interesting to do an inventory of the new languages that have appeared in recent decades, that have only just developed after centuries of formation. The various creoles of the islands, that are based on English, Dutch or French, and their many variants, or the various evolutions of Darija, in North Africa…In Morocco, for example, Darija, a Moroccan Arab dialect, is the real universal language, based on Arab, French and Spanish, but which itself has many regional variants, notably because of the influence of Berber.

Kans tells us that in Cameroon, a country with two hundred local languages, just two are official: English and French. But Pidgin English (for the anglophones) and “Camfranglais” (for the francophones) are the “two most widespread and known languages” and preferred by most urban youth to both the official languages and their maternal, local language.

He gives an example of camfranglais, a rich fusion of English, French and local languages:

Moi je vous tchat que si on ne lookot pas, meme le camfrang là on va loss all. Mais popo, je mimba que les langues du lage là, francho il faut laisser tomber le way. Sauf si on veut go speak avec les anciens pour know un peu les divers du mboa, mais qui va meme do tous leurs divers là encore? Déjà que le christiannisme les avait bien bolè, il reste meme quoi nooon?! akaa!

Colonial languages a necessary evil?

Many African countries are home to hundreds of different peoples and languages. Designating a small number of official languages, at the expense of indigenous ones, according to Kans, is often a necessary, if unfortunate, measure:

Mise en cause, la non-officialisation de ces langues. Et donc, anglais, francais, espagnol, portugais, etc. à la barre! Mais comment pouvait-il en être autrement dans des contextes sociaux tels que l'on se retrouve avec autant de langues que d'individus? Il s'impose la necessité de faire un choix, pas toujours heureux pour les langues non-choisies condamnées de facto à la disparition.

The cause [of languages dying out]? Languages remaining unofficial. And so English, French, Spanish, Portugues, etc. to the front! But how could it be otherwise in contexts where there are as many languages as there are people? It becomes necessary to make a choice, not always happy for the languages that are not [made official] and thus condemned to disappear.

Alain Colbert, a Rue 89 reader:

Si un Indien d'Amazonie ne parle pas le portugais, il n'a aucune chance de faire reconnaître ses droits de citoyen à part entière du Brésil, face aux riches et aux pauvres venus, du reste de ce pays, détruire son environnement et qui parlent cette langue, maternelle pour eux.

If an Indian in the Amazon does not speak Portuguese, he has no chance to learn his rights as a citizen of Brazil, in the face of the rich and poor, who come from the rest of this country, and destroy his environment, and who speak Portuguese as their native language.

Kans think new technologies contribute significantly to the homogenization of language, in particular the global preference for English:

…les langues “primaires” (selon l'expression consacrée), sont aussi peut-être victime du transfert de technologie. Où comment une langue se dope de barbarismes imposés par une autre porteuse de science. Je vois à ce titre nos société africaines qui n'ont inventé ni l'avion, ni la voiture, ni les ordinateurs; y a qu'à voir les noms donnés ou adoptés pour lesdits objets pour comprendre. Et c'est la meme comparaison pour le francais vis-à-vis de l'anglais, avec des mots tels que “car”, “wagon”, “PC”, etc. Et de voir l'acharnement d'auto-proclamés défenseurs de la langue francaise, je me demande si ce n'est pas simplement peine perdue, mais bel idéalisme quand même!

…”primitive” languages (as the expression goes) are also probably victims of technological transfer. Witness how a language is injected with barbarisms imposed by another bringing science. I see [in the headline of this article] our African societies that invented neither the airplane, or the car, or computers: one need only look at the names given or adopted for the aforementioned objects to understand. It's the same with French and English, with words like “car,” “wagon,” “PC,” etc. And to see the knee-jerk proclamations of the defenders of the French language, I wonder if it's not a lost cause, beautifully idealistic though it is!

In a comment, one of Kans’ readers, Keo, objects to the characterization of langauges as primitive or developped:

…objection, avec O majsucule!

Je suis d'avis qu'il n'y a ni langues primaires, ni langues développées, mais plutôt des langues négligées et des langues privilégiées…Parce que quand on parle de langues primaires, c'est comme si elles ne pouvaient jamais se développer, alors que si on les privilegiait, eh bien elles se déveloperaient comme toute les autres.

…objection, with a capital O!

I'm of the mind that there are neither primitive or developed languages, but rather neglected and favored ones…because when we speak of primitive languages, it's as though they can never develop, but if we gave them a privileged position, they would develop like all the others.

What would a world of few languages look like?

Que deviendrait le monde si tous ses habitants parlaient la même langue ? Pourrait-on espérer que les humains, se comprenant mieux entre eux, s’entendraient mieux, et, par exemple, se feraient moins la guerre ? Certes pas, l’histoire le montre, qui a toujours vu, et voit des guerres, y compris entre « colocuteurs ».

What would the world become if all its inhabitants spoke the same language? Could we hope that humans, by being able to communicate better, would understand each other better and, for example, have less war? Certainly not, as history shows, we have always seen, and see, wars even between those who speak the same language.

Vive la mondialisation ! Extinction de 25% de la vie et des espèces vivantes au niveau mondial, extinction des langues vivantes, pollution, extension de la pauvreté généralisée. Elle est pas belle la vie ?

Long live globalization! Extinction of 25% of life and living species at a global level, extinction of living language, pollution, extension of generalized poverty. Isn't life beautiful?

On cultural preservation

Rue 89 reader, gemrien, referring to France, writes that languages may die but they are hardly forgotten:

Les langues sont un patrimoine, aux même titre que les monuments historiques, mais aimerions nous vivre dans des chateaux forts ou dans des huttes ?

Notre devoir est de conserver un patrimoine pour le transmettre à nos enfants pour savoir qui ils sont et d'où ils viennent, mais est ce pour autant qu'il faudrait utiliser courament le patois de chaque région.

Languages are [a people's] heritage, in the same way that historical monuments are, but would we still want to live in castles or huts?

We should conserve our heritage so that it can be transmitted to our children so that they may know where they come from, but does that mean that we must use fluently the patois of each region?

The problem with this argument, as a francophone Rue 89 readers point out, is that in other parts of the world, not every dying language will leave behind monuments to its existence:

Pour prendre un cas que je connais bien, celui de l'Afrique, il faut savoir que moins de 10% – et je suis large – des 1000 langues du continent (estimation généralement acceptée) sont correctement décrites. Seule une infime minorité de ces langues sont écrites (pour les autres, il faut se contenter du boulot des évangélistes). On estime que d'ici la fin du siècle seules 10% des langues actuelles auront survécu. Pour nombre d'autres, il ne nous restera qu'une traduction du Nouveau Testament: génial!

Comprenez-vous l'urgence? Même des langues parlées par plusieurs millions de personnes sont en danger: c'est le cas du gikuyu, au Kenya, par exemple. Et encore, il s'agît d'un pays relativement stable politiquement. Mais allez travailler en RDC ou sur les mines anti-personnel du Mozambique!

Personnellement, pour reprendre votre métaphore, je ne tiens pas vraiment à vivre dans un château. En revanche, je tiens à pouvoir le visiter si j'en ai envie, et à ce que certains aient la possibilité de travailler sur son architecture, par exemple. Sur tous les continents, des châteaux disparaîssent. Sans laisser la moindre trace. Sans fossile.

To take a case that I know well, Africa, you have to understand that less than 10% – and I'm being generous – of the continent's 1,000 languages (the generally accepted estimate) are properly documented. Only a tiny minority of these languages are written (for the others, we have to be happy with the work of evangelists). It's estimated that between now and the end of the century, only 10% of existant languages will have survived. For most of the others, there will only remain a translation of the New Testament: great!

Do you understand the urgency? Even languages spoken by several million people are in danger: that's the case of gikuyu, in Kenya, for example. And moreover, that's in a country that is relatively politically stable. Imagine working in the DRC or on land mines in Mozambique!

Personally, to use your metaphor, I wouldn't really want to live in a castle. But on the other hand, I can always visit one if I want to, and others have the possibility of studying its architecture, for example. On all the continents, castles are disappearing. Without leaving a single trace. Without leaving fossils.

There has been a growing movement within France to preserve regional languages after many years of neglect. However the French concern about the survival of languages like Breton or Corse does not apparently extended to languages endangered in French overseas departments.

Rue 89 reader, Sylvius:

la guyane est une region francaise au meme titre que la bretagne – 6 langues amazoniennes (sur la quinzaine de langues locales parlees dans cette region )mais les amerindiens sont isoles peu nombreux et non belliqueux…n'y a t il pas egalite et fraternite dans la doctrine francaise?pardon ca ne doit pas etre vrai pour les departements et territoires d'outre mer ! alors si on vt preserver les langues especes coutumes et peuples , pourquoi laisser tomber les ultra marins

French Guiana is a region of France in the same sense that Brittany is [with] 6 Amazonian language (in addition to the 50 some-odd local languages spoken in this region) for the Amerindians are isolated, few and peaceful…is there no brotherhood in the French doctrine?…if we are going to preserve kinds of languages, customs, and peoples, why forget the [overseas departments]

An anonymous reader agrees:

C'est vrai. Mais il se trouve que l'histoire…a fait que quelques langues “amazoniennes” doivent également être considérées comme minoritaires et menacées en France : les langues amérindiennes parlées en Guyane française, passablement oubliées elles aussi. Le basque (qui a une presse, des médias audio-visuels, une édition, un enseignement de la maternelle à l'Université…) à côté pourrait faire figure de langue dominante…

It's true: that history has made it such that some “Amazonian” languages should be equally considered as endangered minority languages in France: the Amerindian languages spoken in French Guinea, are also reasonably forgotten. Basque (which has a press, audio-visula media, a publishing house, is taught at university) could be considered a dominant language by comparison…

Madagascar: An assault on the Malagasy language?

In France, government policies promoting French as the official language did most of their damage to regional languages long ago; there the debate is more abstract.

Global Voices author Mialy Andriamananjara writes about how in Madagascar, as elsewhere in Africa, policies are being put in place that may, over the long run, endanger the health of non-European languages.

The Malagasy Government has decided that it will no longer advertise official tenders or disseminate official articles in any newspapers that do not circulate at least 10000 units a day, and do not publish in at least two of the three official languages (Malagasy, French, English).

Jentilisa sees in this policy a missed opportunity for the Malagasy Government to support Malagasy speaking newspapers, and worse, a willful intention from the Government to eliminate the Malagasy language.

Dia ny fanjakana eritreretina mba hanampy ireo gazety teny malagasy ireo indray ity no vao maika mampivoitra izany fomba fisainana manao valalan’amboa ny teny malagasy izany. Nantenaina hanery ny hafa aza izy mba ho ny gazety mpiteny malagasy ihany no amoahana izay tian’ny fanjakana avoaka izay, zavatra aloa vola manko izany mba ho fanohanana ilay teny malagasy, nefa dia nivandravandra fotsiny aho sisa. Farafaharatsiny mba ho ohatra halain’ny rehetra tahaka nefa dia nanara-driandrano tahaka ny deba rehetra ihany.

The government that one hoped would support these Malagasy speaking newspapers are now reinforcing this mentality of ostracizing the Malagasy language, and treating it like a stepchild. One hoped they would force the publishing of official tenders and offers in Malagasy speaking newspapers only, because those official advertisements would zhave financially supported the Malagasy language, but I am left with only my eyes wide open. At least, that would have been setting an example for all to follow, but now they are just following the flow.

Rajiosy, a new Malagasy blogger, is less pessimistic.

Dia hoy aho hoe : tsy mila tsotsofina akory anie ny teny malagasy fa “velona sy mahery” arak’ilay hiram-piangonana iny e. Ny isan’ny mpiteny azy andavan’andro fotsiny dia ampy haha-mafy aina azy : 17 tapitrisa mahery be izao tsy manana eritreritra ny hiova fiteny ! Ho anay mipetraka aty an-dafin-dranomasina aloha dia mahatsapa tsara izahay rehefa sendra tody any an-tanindrazana iny fa miaina ny teny malagasy.

Koa aza dia kivy ambony ihany rey olona : ny mpitondra fanjakana mbamin’ny didim-panjakana mandalo ihany fa ny fiteny malagasy mbola ho lava velona !

So I say : the Malagasy language does not need any help, because it is “Alive and strong” as one Protestant hymn would say. The sheer number of speakers suffices to strengthen it : 17 millions of people who have no intentions of switching languages ! Those of us who live overseas feel when we come back home that the Malagasy language is alive.

So do not despair people : government leaders and laws are being passed but the Malagasy language long lives!

27 comments

  • nu

    Is it a fact that those dying languages are replaced by colonial ones ?

    Aren’t Swahili and Lingala killing smaller ones too ?

    • Carrie Mortimer

      I believe that Swahili and Lingala were chosen by colonials, who arrived in and remained relatively small groups of foreigners who needed large local work forces. These two “local” languages were the only ones europeans felt they might gain a rudimentary speaking skill in and so they were imposed upon the other language groups. So the power behind the shift was no from any African but rather from colonial decisions for business.

  • […] Language death: evolution, natural selection or cultural genocide? We humans live in a world of just 194 countries, give or take, but speak between 7,000 and 8,000 languages. […]

  • Bob

    is it a fact that those dying languages are replaced by colonil ones

  • I think any time you make a language the official language of a country and stipulate that all children will be educated in that language, it will eventually crowd out other languages.

    So for sure you see the same thing happening with languages like Swahili in East Africa or Mandarin in China.

    But in most postcolonial countries (Tanzania being a notable exception) it happens to be the colonial language that is given that privileged status.

  • nu

    i think that’s simplistic.
    Most african cities are multiethnic and in such a setting the lingua franca, be it official or not will dominate.
    Urbanization or even trade do kill minor languages.

    I mean, even with the status of french in DRC, lingala and swahili and to a lesser extend kituba and tshiluba are becoming dominant local languages killing the small ones.
    In the republic of Congo, Mboshi, Bembe or Vili youth are more fluent in lingala (north) or kituba (south) than their own languages.

    So yeah, I think the impact of the official languages is exagerated. but then again, you quoted cameroonians discussing it and they don’t have any linga franca or even regional dominant languages. So pidgin wins.

  • People who hold on to old and fleeting languages as anything but an important piece of cultural heritage are silly to me. Why would anyone want to retard the pace in which we all speak one (or a few) languages. One of the main problems is we don’t communicate very well across cultures and countries. Why prolong that? This very online community is succesfull because of the spread of english as a language. Colonial or otherwise.

    Also, related but not as material, let’s save words like “genocide” and “poverty” and “war” for the times when we really need them. Using words like “genocide” as hyperbole only weakens the effectiveness of these words when we really need to call on their discriptive strength.

    B.

    • Carrie Mortimer

      I think that holding on to language is more than expedient communication dear fellow. It’s not an issue limited to speaking but rather one of an evolved world view, words that express from out of that world view and so speak to the modern generations of whence they come. If the language has been suppressed, interrupted, then it is a matter of fetching what can be found still, knowing what can be gleaned from that and then taking that into one’s future. Gosh, I’ll bet you sell insurance or something.

  • graceydou

    In my opinion, Language death is one part of Globalization. We can not escape from it, so the only thing we can do is trying our best to protect the linguistic diversity.

  • @Nu: This post is not specifically about Africa nor is it meant to describe what is happening in all cases. I agree with you. I don’t think that African languages are going to be replaced by colonial ones any time in the near future for the simple fact that even if in some African countries English or French is the official language of instruction, so few children attend school.

    But Africa is a big continent and it really depends on which countries we choose to illustrate our point, right?

    I do think the officialization of language has had a big impact elsewhere–in certain countries in Latin America, for example, and in France, Ireland, and China. Educating people in a single language plays a critical role in successful nation-building, brutal as that process can be.

    And if in Africa, more and more children attend school through secondary, and are taught in English or French, then yes, my personal opinion is that what has happened elsewhere in the world can happen in Africa. It only takes two generations for a huge shift to occur. How many languages did my grandparents speak that I cannot?

    Will it happen? I have no idea.

    At any rate, the observations about indigenous languages losing ground to colonial ones or the impact of recognizing certain languages as official were not really mine. They were made by several of the Rue 89 commenters and the Cameroonian blogger (or his reader). It’s but one of the many trends (globalization of media, technology, trade, etc. are some others) that have contributed to the disappearance of so many languages.

    In the case of the former, I think they were probably referring to English, Portuguese or Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas or French overseas departments, where many indigenous languages are spoken by small, marginalized populations and integrating into society requires speaking the colonial language.

    So is it a “fact” that dying languages are being replaced by colonial ones? I don’t really know and it’s not really my point to argue. But some netizens think they are.

    @Ben: I agree with you about the use of the term cultural genocide. It is in reference to a reader who used the term “Ethnocide” The wikipedia page makes note of the common criticism of the word, the same point you made, that it waters down the term genocide. I think it’s interesting that the terms ethnocide and cultural genocide were both used in the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    Thank you all for your comments!

  • Every language belongs to those who actually use it
    When it’s not used there’s no choice but to ditch it
    Any language today has to be functional or must have economic value attached to it
    After all language is a mere tool of communication and that’s basically all to it

    (C) Samuel Goh Kim Eng Sun. 7th Oct. 2007
    http://MotivationInMotion.blogspot.com

    • Carrie Mortimer

      I believe that ditching languages for this reason would indeed be precipitous. It depends on why one doesn’t speak their own language as to whether or not the choice has actually been theirs. Language is more than a mere tool of communication or rather it communicates more than what kind of coffee we’d like to order or the colour of the shoes we’ve got on.

  • Even as a linguist, I would argue that language death per se is not as worrying as the erosion of culture and traditional knowledge which that death represents.

    I know people will hate me for saying this, but I would also question whether there is necessarily a conflict between the majority language and minority languages.

    Take the Philippines for example. English is the dominant language of business and science. Tagalog is the language of public education and mass media. Yet over 100 native languages thrive locally among friends and family.

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