Linguist Marcia Haag: What We Lose When We Lose A Language
Linguists generally agree that almost half of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages will be extinct within the next century as dominant languages take over and indigenous languages die with their last remaining speakers.
The United States is no different. Linguist Marcia Haag says many Native American languages are on the verge of extinction.
“Small languages, the languages of people without political power, the people without economic power, or just the people who are few in number are always going to be at risk of being taken over by dominant, big economies and big political systems,” Haag said.
Throughout her career, Haag has focused specifically on indigenous languages spoken in Oklahoma, like Choctaw and Cherokee.
“My work has been about finding the last of the speakers, sitting down with them, learning how the language works, describing it, analyzing it, and then making materials so that other people can learn,” said Haag.
But, according to Haag, saving a language is far more complicated than documenting it, because of the ways languages disappear.
In North America, indigenous languages first started disappearing through European conquest in the late 1400s. Then came forced assimilation programs throughout the 19th century. Today, indigenous languages continue to fade away because of economic forces.
“Children would grow up being English speakers so that they could survive in the economy. And that is the situation of the adults now,” Haag said, speaking about some of the communities she has observed in Oklahoma. “So people understand some of the language, but speaking it in a daily speech communities, that's been gone for a long time now, I'm sorry to tell you.”
Haag said non-linguists often underestimate the cultural losses that accompany the loss of a language.
“The actual cognitive stuff that is in other languages teaches us about how the mind works,” Haag said. In other words, the loss of vocabulary and syntax inevitably leads to the loss of ways of thinking that are specific to a language and the people who speak it.
UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages lists 192 Native American languages in the United States. 54 are already extinct. Those remaining range from “vulnerable,” meaning children speak the language only in certain contexts, to “critically endangered,” meaning the last remaining speakers are elderly.
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Marcia Haag Uses Native Americans As An Example of Cultural Loss Through Language Extinction:
We lose intellectual, philosophical ways of being in the world, the way the world is put together. What kind of cosmologies did we have before?, How did we treat each other? What is the natural way that humans walk on the earth and treat each other? And we were able to to talk about them in sophisticated ways, rather than going through the filter of western law.
Marcia Haag responds to the question, Wouldn’t it be better if we all spoke the same language?
People often say, what do we need all these languages for?You know if they can't survive them they need to be wiped out and we would all be better if we just spoke one language? And when people have thrown that in my face, one of the things that I've said to them is OK let's take the most dominant language on earth. Let's all start speaking Mandarin Chinese. How is that going to work for us? Because remember the people who want to eliminate language always think that you're going to be speaking their language, don't they?
But when we say all right we're going to be doing Mandarin we're starting next week. All right. First of all, all of us who are over the age of 15, we're just not going to really be able to learn that very well. Some of us will be more fluid within others. Really old people are never going to get to be able to speak Mandarin. All right. And then what about the wonderful things that, let's just talk about English, no more English literature because we have we will lose everything from Shakespeare to Dr. Seuss…
Suzette Grillot: Marcia Haag, welcome to World Views.
Marcia Haag: Thank you for inviting me.
Grillot: Your long-standing work has been in the area of language preservation, you’re a linguist. Let's first start with that, focusing on Native American languages, but I particularly want to focus on language preservation and language revitalization because it's an issue. This is the losing of language, the language extinction, if you will, the fact that we're losing languages to our dominant languages, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, Hindi, Chinese primarily. So let's talk about this. So what is it exactly that that you do as a descriptive linguist in terms of focusing on language preservation and what is it that we're going to lose if we don't preserve languages?
Haag: Well, I would say descriptive linguistics... I work on languages that are endangered, and certainly every Native American language in this country, even the ones we think of as being safe, like Navajo, are desperately endangered. So my work has been about finding the last of the speakers sitting down with them learning how the language works describing it, analyzing it, and then making materials so that other people can learn.
Now I'm not naive about this. I perfectly understand that we are not going to have a few community language classes and we're just going to get these languages back from the bottom, because language transmission is far more complicated than that.
What happened? How did we get into a situation where we would lose our own mother tongues anyway so I might just say, first of all, how we lost them and why it's so hard to get them back. Why we can't just, as I said, have our little community class and then we'll well raise up a new generation of speakers?
Well, first of all, the ways that we lose language all over the world, and certainly North America is probably the very best example... We lose languages through conquest. Somebody comes in with an army and a navy and conquers a people. And this has happened from when the Indo- Europeans moved into Europe 3,000 years ago and took over all of the people who lived in Europe such that we've only got a couple of families like the Hungarians, Finnish, the Basques are the only people remaining of whoever was in Europe before all the rest of those languages are Indo-European because the conquerors were able to politically and especially economically dominate the conquered people. So that's going to tell us a lot right there about why small languages, the languages of people without political power, the people without economic power, or just the people who are few in number are always going to be at risk of being taken over by dominant, big economies and big political systems. So point anywhere in the world and we can show you a group that is hanging on.
So look at North America. It doesn't take much imagination to see what happened with the people of North America who were overwhelmed, primarily with technology and then with European diseases such that they just weren't going to be able to to sustain them them themselves against those powers. So, there's life out of a people is one way we're going to lose the language, but there are subtler ways and the subtle ways that we have seen in the last I would say 100 years have been economic.
So let's take a look at a situation where you're a small tribe perhaps in Oklahoma and you've been had your children taken from you and sent to boarding school for their own good. And also because, what was the thing? That if we can take the native out of the man, we're going to save the man by getting the Indians out of them? That... oh that 19th century belief….
So you send them to boarding schools and you punish the children for speaking their native language. Well that's a good way to do it. So if the children are punished for speaking their language they learn to speak English. And unless they are able to reconnect with their birth families, they're going to lose their influence. But let's say that the kid you know who is you know punished and still loves the family still loves his language now needs to get a job. And the way you get a job in this economy is you have to be an English speaker. Another thing that is intimately connected with that in the boarding school is that when it's time to get married you marry a person who is a speaker of a language in another tribe. But neither of you speaks the other's language and English becomes the lingua franca of the home. This happens again and again where you have parents who were speakers but neither none of the children speaks either of the languages. Then there was the belief for a time that if we learned a second language while we were learning English our English would be messed up and so we needed to pick the language of opportunity over the native language.
And so children would grow up being English speakers so that they could survive in the economy. And that is the situation of the adults now. And by that I mean probably all the way up until you know age 80 we have that only the people who are much older than that had the experience of maybe living in a family where parents were monolingual and encouraged the learning of the home language. So people who hear the language, they understand some of the language, they may have kept the language for ceremonial purposes, but speaking it in a daily speech communities, that's been gone for a long time now, I'm sorry to tell you.
Grillot: So you've outlined for us the several ways in which we're losing languages, and that they're endangered. So obviously, depending on how you measure what qualifies as a language versus a dialect or whatever, we have somewhere between five and nine thousand languages that are spoken. And that's the key word is that they're spoken. They're not written. So we've gotten many many languages that there's no written record of them. So we can't easily preserve them. We have obviously conquest and colonial practices and powerful people that impose their languages on others and then we have the economic integration issue and the fact that, if you want to engage and get a job make a living, like you're suggesting, you're going to have to speak a dominant language, and I said dominant in quotes here on the radio.
So that being said we're losing, like you said, languages are endangered but it's not just the language. We're losing history. We're losing culture. we're losing way of life. We're losing... Even when you're able to maybe go back and, as you do preserve a language by describing and analyzing it so that other people can learn it, you're still losing perhaps key you know cultural tidbits that come through the way in which it was spoken before as opposed to new ways of learning new newer ways of implementing language. So I mean it's it's not just the language there's a broader range of things that are that are lost here.
Haag: So here are some examples of the things that we lose when we lose a language. First of all, all of that specialized vocabulary. Let's think again of American Indian people who live in an ecosystem with the thousands of plants and the thousands of species of animal and all of those have a native name and when we lose the words for them we can't identify them any more. In our own language we also lose the the medicinal things that we made with those plants. We don't know how to use them to heal ourselves anymore. We don't know how to make things anymore that we used to make because we don't have the instruction from elders about what to actually do with these plants or constructing certain kinds of boats or dwellings because we're not able to talk about them the way we talked about them before we lose ceremonial language we lose the way we used to pray. And actually that often is the only thing that will be left in the languages that people remember how to pray but they don't know what the words mean they just know that the words are imbued with a certain spirit.
So you will if you have the language then you can talk to God in the in the right way, and native people will often tell you that like I can't talk to God because because God understands the other language and not not the thing that I'm doing now. We lose intellectual, philosophical ways of being in the world, the way the world is put together, what kind of cosmologies did we have before, how did we treat each other, what is the natural way that humans walk on the earth and treat each other. And we were able to to talk about them in sophisticated ways rather than going through the filter of western law. We had kinship terms. We identified each other in in ways that had to do with generations and maybe the sex of the person and was that a maternal or paternal relation. When we got the English system all of a sudden we're in nuclear families with somebody where the father is running everything and the name and it's his name. Now where we don't, we can't name ourselves the way we used to name ourselves. So enormous cultural losses in those ways.
Grillot: So you mentioned earlier Navajo that is one of the languages that at least being somewhat revitalised and is growing. I mean others maybe we could point to the Czech language, some would suggest Gaelic, Hebrew language that have been preserved and revitalized in some way, but at the end of the day, I mean, you're talking about endangered languages like we would talk about maybe endangered species and the need to preserve biodiversity.
I mean we're talking about lingo-diversity, right? And I don't have no idea if that's a word, but I know that we're actually talking about preserving lingo diversity, but how, Marcia, how do we make the case, right? Given these these dominant languages and kind of the the economic impact that we've been talking about how do we preserve or make the case to preserve lingo-diversity? I'm just gonna make that a word. [laughs]
Haag: [laughs] I like it. People often say, what do we need all these languages for?they just you know if they can't survive them they need to be wiped out and we would all be better if we just spoke one language? And when people have thrown that in my face, one of the things that I've said to them is OK let's take the most dominant language on earth. Let's all start speaking Mandarin Chinese. How is that going to work for us? Because remember the people who want to eliminate language always think that you're going to be speaking their language, don't they?
But when we say all right we're going to be doing Mandarin we're starting next week. All right. First of all, all of us who are over the age of 15, we're just not going to really be able to learn that very well. Some of us will be more fluid within others. Really old people are never going to get to be able to speak Mandarin. All right. And then what about the wonderful things that, let's just talk about English, no more English literature because we have we will lose everything from Shakespeare to Dr. Seuss because Chinese does not have me. They do something else.
So all of the iambic pentameter and even every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot. Even that kind of rhyming metric speech is gone, because we cannot make it anymore, because of the way the language is put together. So, as a linguist, I go back to our right we don't need names of birds and plants but the actual cognitive stuff that is in other languages teaches us about how the mind works.
So if you look at the structure of Native American languages they are so different from European languages that your mind is boggled and you begin to look at their doing categories. This way they are looking at time and space. This way that they are looking at relations of agents and affected things. This way that not only do we not do we didn't imagine that human beings could do them that way. So by preserving the languages even if we don't have a lot of speech is the cognitive models that are are caught up in those languages are irreplaceable. As a matter of science.
Grillot: Thank you so much, Marcia, for being here today. Such a fascinating issue...
Haag: Thank you very much.
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