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Why Do Languages Die?

January 4, 2012

Tags Global EconomyWorld HistoryInterventionism

The history of the world's languages is largely a story of loss and decline. At around 8000 BC, linguists estimate that upwards of 20,000 languages may have been in existence.[1] Today the number stands at 6,909 and is declining rapidly.[2] By 2100, it is quite realistic to expect that half of these languages will be gone, their last speakers dead, their words perhaps recorded in a dusty archive somewhere, but more likely undocumented entirely.[3]

What causes this? How does one become the last speaker of a language, as Boa Sr was before her death in 2010? How do languages come to be spoken only by elders and not children? There are a number of bad answers to these questions. One is globalization, a nebulous term used disparagingly to refer to either global economic specialization and the division of labor, or the adoption of similar cultural practices across the globe.

The problem with globalization in the latter sense is that it is the result, not a cause, of language decline. Another bad answer, encompassed in the former definition of globalization, is trade and capitalism. Trade does not kill languages any more than it kills any other type of cultural practice, like painting or music. Trade enhances the exchange of cultural practices and fosters their proliferation; it does not generally diminish them. Historically, regional trade has fostered the creation of many new lingua francas, and the result tends to be a stable, healthy bilingualism between the local language and the regional trade language. It is only when the state adopts a trade language as official and, in a fit of linguistic nationalism, foists it upon its citizens, that trade languages become "killer languages."

Most importantly, what both of the above answers overlook is that speaking a global language or a language of trade does not necessitate the abandonment of one's mother tongue. The average person on this planet speaks three or four languages. Must youth in Japan abandon Japanese in order to partake in global English commerce? Must a business executive in Germany stop speaking German to her kids in order to be successful at her English-speaking office? Why bother giving up one language for another when you can just speak both?

The truth is, most people don't "give up" the languages they learn in their youth. They tend to speak those languages either until they die or they no longer have someone to speak them with. Instead, languages are lost when the process of intergenerational transmission is altered or interrupted. To wipe out a language, one has to enter the home and prevent the parents from speaking their native language to their children. Given such a preposterous scenario, we return to our question — how could this possibly happen?

One good answer is urbanization. If a Gikuyu and a Giryama meet in Nairobi, they won't likely speak each other's mother tongue, but they very likely will speak one or both of the trade languages in Kenya — Swahili and English. Their kids may learn a smattering of words in the heritage languages from their parents, but by the third generation any vestiges of those languages in the family will likely be gone. In other cases, extremely rural communities are drawn to the relatively easier lifestyle in cities, until sometimes entire villages are abandoned. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The first case of massive language die-off was probably during the Agrarian (Neolithic) Revolution, when humanity first adopted farming, abandoned the nomadic lifestyle, and created permanent settlements. As the size of these communities grew, so did the language they spoke. But throughout most of history, and still in many areas of the world today, 500 or fewer speakers per language has been the norm. Like the people who spoke them, these languages were constantly in flux. No language could grow very large, because the community that spoke it could only grow so large itself before it fragmented. The language followed suit, soon becoming two languages. Permanent settlements changed all this, and soon larger and larger populations could stably speak the same language.

Quite impressively for someone with little to no knowledge of the linguistics of his day, Mises had already come to understand these connections between language decline, community growth, and economic exchange even in his earliest writings:

In primitive times every migration causes not only geographical but also intellectual separation of clans and tribes. Economic exchanges do not yet exist; there is no contact that could work against differentiation and the rise of new customs. The dialect of each tribe becomes more and more different from the one that its ancestors spoke when they were still living together. The splintering of dialects goes on without interruption. The descendants no longer understand one other.… A need for unification in language then arises from two sides. The beginnings of trade make understanding necessary between members of different tribes. But this need is satisfied when individual middlemen in trade achieve the necessary command of language.[4]

Thus urbanization is an important factor in language death. To be sure, the wondrous features of cities that draw immigrants — greater economies of scale, decreased search costs, increased division of labor — are all made possible with capitalism, and so in this sense languages may die for economic reasons. But this is precisely the type of language death that shouldn't concern us (unless you're a linguist like me), because urbanization is really nothing more than the demonstrated preferences of millions of people who wish to take advantage of all the fantastic benefits that cities have to offer.

In short, these people make the conscious choice to leave an environment where network effects and sociological benefits exist for speaking their native language, and exchange it for a greater range of economic possibilities, but where no such social benefits for speaking the language exist. If this were the only cause of language death — or even just the biggest one — then there would be little more to say about it. For as Mises so lucidly states,

Since nobody is in the position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people's aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow's will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.[5]

Far too many well-intentioned individuals are too quick to substitute their valuations for those of the last speakers of indigenous languages this way. Were it up to them, these speakers would be resigned to misery and poverty and deprived of participation in the world's advanced economies in order that their language might be passed on. To be sure, these speakers themselves often fall victim to the mistaken ideology that one language necessarily displaces or interferes with another. Although the South African Department of Education is trying to develop teaching materials in the local African languages, for example, many parents are pushing back; they want their children taught only in English. In Dominica, the parents go even further and refuse to even speak the local language, Patwa, to their children.[6] Were they made aware of the falsity of this notion of language displacement, perhaps they would be less quick to stop speaking their language to their children. But the decision is ultimately theirs to make, and theirs alone.

Urbanization, however, is not the only cause of language death. There is another that, I'm sad to say, almost none of the linguists who work on endangered languages give much thought to, and that is the state. The state is the only entity capable of reaching into the home and forcibly altering the process of language socialization in an institutionalized way.

How? The traditional method was simply to kill or remove indigenous and minority populations, as was done as recently as 1923 in the United States in the last conflict of the Indian War. More recently this happens through indirect means — whether intentional or otherwise — the primary method of which has been compulsory state schooling.

There is no more pernicious assault on the cultural practices of minority populations than a standardized, Anglified, Englicized compulsory education. It is not just that children are forcibly removed from the socialization process in the home, required to speak an official language and punished (often corporally) for doing otherwise. It is not just that schools redefine success, away from those things valued by the community, and towards those things that make someone a better citizen of the state. No, the most significant impact of compulsory state education is that it ingrains in children the idea that their language and their culture is worthless, of no use in the modern classroom or society, and that it is something that merely serves to set them apart negatively from their peers, as an object of their vicious torment.

But these languages clearly do have value, if for no other reason than simply because people value them. Local and minority languages are valued by their speakers for all sorts of reasons, whether it be for use in the local community, communicating with one's elders, a sense of heritage, the oral and literary traditions of that language, or something else entirely. Again, the praxeologist is not in a position to evaluate these beliefs. The praxeologist merely notes that free choice in language use and free choice in association, one not dictated by the edicts of the state, will best satisfy the demand of individuals, whether for minority languages or lingua francas. What people find useful, they will use.

By contrast, the state values none of these things. For the state, the goal is to bind individuals to itself, to an imagined homogeneous community of good citizens, rather than their local community. National ties trump local ones in the eyes of the state. Free choice in association is disregarded entirely. And so the state forces many indigenous people to become members of a foreign community, where they are a minority and their language is scorned, as in the case of boarding schools. Whereas at home, mastering the native language is an important part of functioning in the community and earning prestige, and thus something of value, at school it becomes a black mark and a detriment. Given the prisonlike way schools are run, and how they exhibit similar intense (and sometimes dangerous) pressures from one's peers, minority-language-speaking children would be smart to disassociate themselves as quickly as possible from their cultural heritage.

The result is that, two generations ago, after the Prussian model of compulsory education had firmly taken root in countries across the world, an entire generation of minority peoples decided that their language was worthless, and when they had children of their own, refused to teach it to them. The impending die-off of languages is no less the result of processes put in motion a century ago by the state as it is the result of continuing hegemony today.

Mises himself, though sometimes falling prey to common fallacies regarding language like linguistic determinism and ethnolinguistic isomorphism, was aware of this distinction between natural language decline and language death brought on by the state. In fact, the entire first chapter of one of his earlier works, Nation, State, and Economy, is devoted to issues of language and the state. He notes,

Quite distinct from natural assimilation through personal contact with people speaking other languages is artificial assimilation — denationalization by state or other compulsion.… If individuals are put into an environment where they are cut off from contact with their fellow nationals and made exclusively dependent on contacts with foreigners, then the way is prepared for their assimilation.[7]

This is precisely what the Bureau of Indian Affairs accomplished by coercing indigenous children into attending boarding schools. Those children were cut off from their culture and language — their nation — until they had effectively assimilated American ideologies regarding minority languages, namely, that English is good and all else is bad.

Nor is this the only way the state affects language. The very existence of a modern nation-state, and the ideology it encompasses, is antithetical to linguistic diversity. It is predicated on the idea of one state, one nation, one people. In Nation, State, and Economy, Mises points out that, prior to the rise of nationalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of a nation did not refer to a political unit like state or country as we think of it today. A "nation" instead referred to a collection of individuals who share a common history, religion, cultural customs and — most importantly — language. Mises even went so far as to claim that "the essence of nationality lies in language."[8] The "state" was a thing apart, referring to the nobility or princely state, not a community of people (hence Louis XIV's famous quip, "L'état c'est moi.").[9] In that era, a state might consist of many nations, and a nation might subsume many states.

The rise of nationalism changed all this. As Robert Lane Greene points out in his excellent book, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity,

The old blurry linguistic borders became inconvenient for nationalists. To build nations strong enough to win themselves a state, the people of a would-be nation needed to be welded together with a clear sense of community. Speaking a minority dialect or refusing to assimilate to a standard wouldn't do.[10]

Mises himself elaborated on this point. Despite his belief in the value of a liberal democracy, which would remain with him for the rest of his life, Mises realized early on that the imposition of democracy over multiple nations could only lead to hegemony and assimilation:

In polyglot territories, therefore, the introduction of a democratic constitution does not mean the same thing at all as introduction of democratic autonomy. Majority rule signifies something quite different here than in nationally uniform territories; here, for a part of the people, it is not popular rule but foreign rule. If national minorities oppose democratic arrangements, if, according to circumstances, they prefer princely absolutism, an authoritarian regime, or an oligarchic constitution, they do so because they well know that democracy means the same thing for them as subjugation under the rule of others.[11]

From the ideology of nationalism was also born the principle of irredentism, the policy of incorporating historically or ethnically related peoples into the larger umbrella of a single state, regardless of their linguistic differences. As Greene points out, for example,

By one estimate, just 2 or 3 percent of newly minted "Italians" spoke Italian at home when Italy was unified in the 1860s. Some Italian dialects were as different from one another as modern Italian is from modern Spanish.[12]

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This in turn prompted the Italian statesman Massimo D'Agelizo (1798–1866) to say, "We have created Italy. Now we need to create Italians." And so these Italian languages soon became yet another casualty of the nation-state.

Mises once presciently predicted that,

If [minority nations] do not want to remain politically without influence, then they must adapt their political thinking to that of their environment; they must give up their special national characteristics and their language.[13]

This is largely the story of the world's languages. It is, as we have seen, the history of the state, a story of nationalistic furor, and of assimilation by force. Only when we abandon this socialist and utopian fantasy of one state, one nation, one people will this story begin to change.

Notes

[1] Michael Krauss, "The World's Languages in Crisis," Language 68.1 (1992).

[2] M. Paul Lewis (ed.), Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth Edition (2009), Dallas, TX: SIL International.

[3] Krauss, " The World's Languages in Crisis"; Christopher Moseley (ed.), Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. (2010), Paris, UNESCO Publishing.

[4] Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy (Online edition, 1919; 1983), Ludwig von Mises Institute, p. 46–47.

[5] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Scholar's Edition, 2010) Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, p. 19.

[6] Amy L. Paugh, Playing With Languages: Children and Change in a Caribbean Village (2012), Berghahn Books.

[7] Mises, Nation, State, and Economy, p. 55

[8] Mises, Nation, State, and Economy, p. 37.

[9] "I am the state."

[10] Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity (Kindle Edition, 2011), Delacorte Press, p. 132.

[11] Mises, Nation, State, and Economy, p. 77.

[12] Greene, You Are What You Speak, p. 141.

[13] Mises, Nation, State, and Economy, p. 77.


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