[Reader-list] languages, and their death

Ravikant ravikant at sarai.net
Tue Apr 25 15:22:03 IST 2006

Dear Rana and all,

Thanks for posting an ineteresting article on the fate of languages in global 
times. One more thing that we need to take into account is technology and how 
it has enabled and disabled languages ever since modernity. The languages 
that are disappearing are those that could not make it to the print technolgy 
bus and remained dialects. Politically also, most of the smaller languages in 
colonial societies like India made cultural sacrifices for the sake of larger 
unity against colonialism and the case of dialects in the Hindi region is 
illustrative of this process. Hindi is having a good market time now, as it 
is free of paranoid control by purist guardians, who can't go on controlling 
the impossible number of prolific channels, newspapers and magazines.

But the market perhaps can't help a language with no visible critical mass of 
users. So the smaller language practitioners have the non-market option, to 
enable tools and content in their own languages. Typically, the endangered 
languages are also the ones that would not have a script, that is to say they 
exist in the niche oral public domains. With computers once again you have 
the option of creating an oral to oral mode of creation, storage and 
distribution. But for this, the language practioners will have to take up the 
cause themeselves - the national establishments are too busy catering to the 
needs of recognised languages, that is languages that have made a successful 
pitch for a share in the national pie. A language like Santhali for example 
will have to take the Free software route for localising desktops, etc. from 
English or Bengali, as was done by the Ankur Bangla Indlinux Group. 

That the nation would still come in between language practioners is obvious 
from the lack of communication between West Bengal and erstwhile East 
Bengal(Bangladesh). The desktop is all ready for download from the net, as 
much for use in Bangladesh, but people do not know about it. Same is the case 
for Urdu in India and Pakistan. This is something we discovered when we met 
recently in Dhaka under APC platform. Fouad from Pakistan Linux told us that 
there are at least 60 known languages in Pakistan alone that can take 
advantage of of localization and they are not doomed to simply die! People 
are also making tools of transliteration from say Hindi to Urdu. Somebody 
called Abhishek Choudhary, sitting in Godforsaken Bihar, and now a Sarai Free 
Software Fellow, recently made a programming tool in Hindi which could also 
be transliterated into engllish with one command. Another success story is 
the beautifully produced ready to run CD in Nepali called Nepalinux, made by 
Madan Pursakar Pustakalay in Nepal. 

These examples complicate the inevitability logic of nonchalant, 'honest' 
natural history argument with which the article ends. I have deleted some 
excerpts from the original post. Those who wish to see the whole article can 
follow the link in Rana's post.


On Tuesday 25 Apr 2006 1:34 pm, Rana Dasgupta wrote:
> April 21, 2006
> Two Literary Festivals Will Highlight Endangered Languages
> http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/21/books/21worl.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&pagewa
> SOME 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. And, according to the
> 2000 census, you can hear at least 92 of them on the streets of New
> York. You can probably hear more; the census lumps some of them together
> simply as "other."
> But by the end of the century, linguists predict, half of the world's
> languages will be dead, victims of globalization. English is the major
> culprit, slowly extinguishing the other tongues that lie in its path.
> Esther Allen, a professor of modern languages at Seton Hall University,
> calls English "the most invasive linguistic species in the world."
> Spanish and Hindi are also spreading, subsuming the dialects of South
> American Indians, and of the Indian subcontinent.

> English may be eating up other languages, but paradoxically translation
> into English is vital for their survival, Mr. Rushdie said. "People are
> not going to learn Serbian," he said. "If Serbian writers are going to
> survive in the world, they will have to be translated into English."
> Ms. Allen said, "The whole point of this festival is inviting these
> people from outside English into the conversation, and making a place
> for them in English."

> Another endangered language being highlighted in both the Poetry
> Gathering and the PEN festival is Euskera, or Basque. Mr. Atxaga, the
> Basque writer, wrote in an e-mail message from Spain that he is fighting
> to preserve Euskera because it is "a language we know well, it helps us
> to live."

 In the Basque language, for instance, gender exists only in the second
> person. "If you're speaking to a woman to ask her, for example, whether
> she has a book, you say 'Ba dun libururik,' " Mr. Atxaga said. "Whereas,
> to a man you'd say 'Ba duk libururik.' That nuance of 'n' or 'k' can be
> important in telling a story. Details are always important in literature."

> "All you need to do is read the thinking of the Nazis," he said. To
> them, "the German language was unique and carried with it a singular
> concept of the world and life, revealing the essence of the German
> people," he said. "This quickly reached absurd extremes."
> Ms. Ugresic noted that the same thing has occurred in the former
> Yugoslavia, where language has become intensely politicized.
> Serbo-Croatian has broken up into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and
> Montenegrin, all of them very similar but with speakers of each language
> claiming — sometimes violently — the supremacy of their own. Beatings
> and book burnings have occurred when one group objected to the language
> of the author. "Crazy linguists are ready to project many things into
> languages," she said by phone from Amsterdam, where she lives. She added
> that languages are always in a continuous state of transformation, and
> that to try and get in the way is useless.
> "Some languages are dying and some are appearing," she said. "That is a
> much deeper and more interesting dynamic."
> Maybe, Ms. Ugresic said, the new language of globalization will be
> "Smurfentaal," a kind of slang with bits of Dutch and other languages,
> among them Moroccan, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish, spoken by
> young people on the streets of Amsterdam.
> "Every honest linguist will tell you the preservation of language is a
> lost battle," Ms. Ugresic said, "because you can't deal with language
> dogmatically. Language is a living thing.
> "So let it go."
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