Why We Should Interrogate the Agenda of Indifference Surrounding Language Loss

By Pallavi Krishnamurthy

This post was developed as part of the Columbia University course “Multilingual Technologies and Language Diversity” taught by Smaranda Muresan, PhD and Isabelle Zaugg, PhD.  This cross-disciplinary course offering was a joint effort between the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Department of Computer Science, developed through the generous support of the Collaboratory@Columbia.

In response to the heavily circulated statistic that “one language is driven to extinction every 14 days” in the era of digital technology, James Temperton considers in his article “Languages Are Dying, but Is the Internet to Blame?” whether “[h]istory suggests that language loss, much like language change, is inevitable” (Temperton). Notably, indeed, language loss is often defined as inextricably tied to the progression of humanity. John McWhorter, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, summarizes this stance quite succinctly: “at the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together” (McWhorter 67). As humans exist, McWhorter suggests to us, so too does the ebb and flow of language, a natural consequence of the way in which humans operate in and move through civilization with or without technology. To be certain, no single language has remained constant throughout the millennia in which humans have populated Earth; and yet, this assertion of inevitability perhaps risks nullifying the importance of any and all ethical scrutiny altogether. If an event is inevitable, is an emotional or ethical response to that event—whether positive or negative—anything more than a waste of effort? What use is resistance in the face of inevitability? If language loss is inevitable, then why should anyone care?

The assertion of inevitability without careful qualification, whether purposefully or not, allows for two assumptions: first, that the application of ethical scrutiny to the issue of language death, digital or otherwise, as an inevitable or ‘natural’ phenomenon is somehow irrelevant or inappropriate, and second, that resistance to language death is ultimately a futile endeavor.

To address the first point: invoking the notion of inevitability feels to me like an erasure, or at least minimization, of the often oppressive and violent circumstances in which language loss has historically occurred. Judith Thurman, in her article “A Loss for Words,” explores the history that has led Yanten Gomez—who also goes by tribal name Keyuk—to identify as “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam” (Thurman). The Selk’nam tribe, she recounts, was left largely alone until the late 1800s, “when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads” (Thurman). The genocide resulting from these bounties reduced the total Selk’nam population from four thousand to a mere three hundred, only for the survivors to then be split up and resettled on various reservations. Thurman indicates that the last known fluent speaker of Selk’nam, a woman called Angela Loij, passed away in the 1960s. Nothing about the circumstances that have contributed to the loss of the Selk’nam language can or should be understood as insignificant in an ethical context, having resulted from obvious acts of human rights violation.

Genocide and colonization, of course, are the more obvious cases of unjust language loss. Language loss today in the era of digital technology—specifically, the failure of languages to digitally ascend—is perhaps more covertly the result of injustice. In his paper “Digital Language Death,” András Kornai identifies a “loss of prestige” as one of the warning signs of “imminent” language death; if speakers hold their native language in low prestige, it would follow that they are less likely to request digital support for that language and are instead more likely to adapt to existing, digitally ascended languages, increasingly using a dominant language over the native one (Kornai 1). In many cases, the shame surrounding a native language can be attributed to the internalization of previous oppression—a phenomenon observed in many areas of the world that were subject to Western colonialist rule. The legacy of Western colonialism, in turn, of course, has lent the West obvious economic benefits and consequent advantages in the digital realm, allowing Western countries frequently to be first-to-market and to lay many of the ground rules for current technology and software so that they may cater to Western languages in particular. Tina Rosenberg, in her New York Times Magazine article “Everyone Speaks Text Message,” states frankly, “For years, the Web’s lingua franca was English,” observing that the Internet gave “not only American pop culture but also its language” a sort of digital supremacy (Rosenberg). Despite what an assertion of inevitability might misleadingly suggest, therefore, ethical scrutiny can indeed be applied to the issues of general language loss and digital language death; the “extinction every 14 days” (Temperton) we perceive today in the era of digital technology can, at least in part, be understood as the consequence of acts such as colonialism, violence, and oppression, acts that carry undeniable ethical weight.

To address, then, the second implication of ‘inevitability’: given that language loss and digital language death may be justifiably opposed, is opposition, in fact, impossible? McWhorter, on the topic of language revitalization, speaks rather cynically: “Many scholars hope that we can turn back the tide with programs to revive indigenous languages, but the sad fact is that this will almost never be very effective” (McWhorter 63). He characterizes the revival of Hebrew as a “happenstantial confluence of religion, the birth of a nation, and the obsession of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda” (McWhorter 63) aided fundamentally by a long tradition of written materials, which he additionally characterizes as rare. Notably, however, technology and the Internet have perhaps presented powerful opportunities to propagate existing documentation of a language as well as create and propagate new documentation, whether through platforms of communication like Twitter or independent websites (though with challenges such as non-standardization and slang). Admittedly, scholars such as Maik Gibson note that “while it is possible to document dormant or dead languages on the Internet, hence raising them from Still to Heritage, this is not a path which will significantly empower a community through language, as it will not be a major medium of communication” (Gibson 47). Languages on the verge of death may be beyond the Internet’s help as well. As Temperton explains, “many of these languages are only spoken by small, village communities who would never use the Internet to communicate with other native speakers” (Temperton). However, borderline and endangered languages can be and have been supported by the Internet in profound ways. Languages such as Quechua, which has been designated as borderline, have been aided by projects like the Indigenous Tweets website, for example. Efforts can indeed be made to prevent language loss, and digital tools can be powerful aides in that process.

Language loss and digital language death may in fact be justifiably, even potentially successfully, opposed. This assertion of inevitability—which we might understand as an agenda of indifference—that is tied to both phenomena perhaps then points to a more complex question: what is at stake when a language dies or fails to digitally ascend? McWhorter assumes a rather extreme stance in “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English,” arguing, “The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic” (McWhorter 65). On this point, I am rather inclined to agree with Kaufman, a linguist with the Endangered Language Alliance: “[T]he standard for assessing the worth or benefit of a language shouldn’t rest with outsiders…. It’s an issue of the speakers’ perceived self-worth” (Thurman). I believe that language loss and digital language death are not only ethical issues but also ones with consequences I cannot comprehend. To be certain, not every language can be saved or survive this era of digital technology given the consequences of urbanization and globalization. But, arguably, even that reality does not remove an ethical onus to try to correct historical wrongs or, indeed, pardon inaction.


Works Cited

Kornai, András. “Digital Language Death.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0077056.

McWhorter, John. “THE COSMOPOLITAN TONGUE: The Universality of English.” World Affairs, vol. 172, no. 2, 2009, pp. 61–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20671445.

Temperton, James. “Languages Are Dying, but Is the Internet to Blame?” WIRED, 26 Sept. 2015, www.wired.co.uk/article/linguistic-diversity-online.

Thurman, Judith. “Can Dying Languages Be Saved?” The New Yorker, 23 Mar. 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/a-loss-for-words.

Gibson, Maik. “Assessing Digital Vitality: Analytical and Activist Approaches.” Proceedings of the LREC 2016 Workshop, “CCURL 2016 – Towards an Alliance for Digital Language Diversity,” edited by Soria, C. et al., 23 May 2016, pp. 46-51.

Rosenberg, Tina. “Everyone Speaks Text Message.” The New York Times, 9 Dec. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/magazine/everyone-speaks-text-message.html.

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