Can a dead language be revived?

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The answer to that is a definite yes, though there is only one example of success. Hebrew, a language without native speakers from about the 4th century AD, survived in liturgical texts for 1,400 years until it was resuscitated  in the 1880s and went on to become the national language of Israel in 1948. It now has over 5 million native speakers. That’s an impressive achievement and a reason for hope. With the world’s stock of some five thousand languages diminishing rapidly as minority languages everywhere are snuffed out, we might wonder if a bit of linguistic engineering at a more propitious time in the future will bring some of these treasures back to life. That thought must inspire the field researchers who work with the remaining speakers of moribund languages across the globe, gathering all the information they can about sounds and structures as time runs out.  

The success of Hebrew has inspired other people to attempt the resurrection of languages already dead. In the United States, where the number of indigenous languages is rapidly on its way down to perhaps 20 of the estimated 300 that were there when Columbus arrived, some people are attempting to turn the tide.  Their efforts were reviewed in a recent article in the New York Times which you can read here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/06/books/06language.html?ref=books

Stephanie Fielding is descended from the last native speaker of the Connecticut Mohegan language which became extinct in the early twentieth century. Ms. Fielding is now one of a group of people trying to revive the language to the point where the surviving tribal members can use it for simple conversations with each other, and then create a new generation of native speakers by encouraging their children to learn it. So far, so praiseworthy. It’s a wonderful project and if the children do see the point of the language and start to use it with enthusiasm, it just might see some measure of success. But then Ms Fielding goes too far. The New York Times reports that,

‘In her eyes language provides a mental telescope into the world of her ancestors.’

I am not sure I even understand the metaphor properly, but it seems to me that we are in Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis territory here; you see the world through the filter of the structure of your language, and thus the ancient world of the Mohegans comes into focus once you understand its linguistic contours.

The most simplistic, most famous, most tenacious and most mistaken example of the Sapir Whorf  Hypothesis is the number of words the Inuit languages have for snow, variously claimed to be anything from several dozen to several hundred.  (See Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.) This is supposed to give the Inuit people an advantage over non-Inuit speakers when surveying an expansive snowy landscape. They have more snow-words, so they notice more snow-features. English speakers, with a far smaller snow-related lexicon, necessarily notice far less. But this is a hoax. Once you do the counting, it turns out that Inuit has about the same number of words for snow as English has: seven, when you consider words like drift, blizzard, flake, slush, sleet, etc.

However, (and more importantly for this hypothesis)  even if  English had only one word for snow, it does not follow that its speakers would  see the Arctic as a vast featureless desert. Whether or not we notice things depends not so much on our vocabulary as it does on our alertness.  Just because some languages use the same words for blue and green does not mean their speakers can see no difference between the colour of the sky and the colour of the trees.

 Anyway, back to Mohegan. The claim is that the language itself carries the Mohegan world view. Ms. Fielding’s example is telling: ‘She notes, for example, that in an English conversation, a statement is typically built with the first person — “I” — coming first. In the same statement in Mohegan, however, “you” always comes first, even when the speaker is the subject.’

 Obviously, it is not true that English statements typically start with the first person. Go back and look at the first word in each of the sentences of this text, or the NY Times article – or any text in English whatsoever. All sorts of words can start sentences.  So this can’t be what Ms. Fielding means, and we might blame the NYT journalist for that sloppiness.  Perhaps she is referring to typical English word order, which is SVO, or subject – verb – object. Thus ‘Harry loves Sally’  is understood to mean that ‘Harry’ is the subject of the love and ‘Sally’ its object. Perhaps Mohegan is an OSV or and OVS language in which the object is mentioned first. So if Harry loves Sally in Mohegan, we would have to order it thus: Sally, Harry loves. However, a quick look at this website:

http://www.mohegan.nsn.us/heritage/preservations.aspx?p=language 

indicated to me at least that Mohegan is typically a SVO language.

nunatskawô

I chase him/her

kunatskawô

you chase him/her

(nu means I, ku means you and ô means him or her.)

Another possibility is that in a sentence such as I missed you, where there is a first and second person pronoun, the normal SVO order is reversed to you, I missed.  If this is the case, it would represent a rather insignificant proportion of typical sentences, scarcely worth bothering about.  But never mind about word order rules, because this is not really the point I want to pursue. It’s this: Ms. Fielding’s real mistake is to claim that putting ‘you’ first reflects ‘a more communally minded culture’.  This is classic Sapir-Whorf nonsense. Putting a word first in a sentence isn’t the same as being nice to other people, like letting them go through a door ahead of you, or giving up your seat on a train. Putting a word first does not mean the speaker is necessarily from a more caring, less selfish society. Canonical word order cannot illuminate such things. It might in this instance reflect only conventional politeness, the way that English prefers My brother and I, to I and my brother. This tells us nothing about cultural norms in English-speaking countries.  Perhaps the Mohegans were more communally-minded than we are, but we’d need evidence of their way of life, their laws and institutions before we could have an opinion on the matter.

A native language is an important part of any group’s culture, history and identity. It’s wonderful that so many people nowadays are appalled by the current mass extinction of languages and want to do something about it. We have to be careful though not to wander into romanticizing ancestral grammars as evidence of a better way of life, now vanished.

  
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5 thoughts on “Can a dead language be revived?

  1. I was interested to read this, but one feature jarred slightly. I do not understand why language death is in and of itself a bad thing. Obviously many bad things are assosiated with language death, but that is not the same as language death being bad per se. Also, if languages dying out was such a bad thing, why do the people who could keep them alive so often chose not to? I have a tenuous hypothesis that at least some of the hand wringing over language death comes from a sort of exoticism typical of early 20th C. anthropology at worst and accademic curiosity at best rather than a concern for positive human outcomes.

  2. It’s the 12th of December and I’ve just discovered your blog, having heard about it on Bad Science, so my comment is a bit late.I was wondering what you/anyone thinks of this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvlQXPNwrqoSeems sensible to me, but I’m sure there’s an alternative viewpoint.By the way, I think the blog is brilliant and that’s not just because we share a surname.

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