I think knowledge of many languages is awesome. I am weak at language acquisition myself, but, as someone with an interest in Bronze Age Near Eastern history I’m obviously invested in people having some comprehension of Sumerian and Akkadian (not to mention Hittite or ancient Egyptian). And I’m not someone who has no interest in the details of ethnographic diversity. On the contrary I’m fascinated by ethnic diversity. Like many people I enjoy reading monographs and articles on obscure groups such as Yazidis (well before our national interest in Iraq) and the Saivite Chams of Vietnam. Oh, wait, I misspoke. I actually don’t know many people who have my level of interest in obscure peoples and tribes and the breadth of human diversity. If you’re the type of person who reads monographs on Yazidis not because it pertains to your scholarly specialty, but because you’re interested in a wide range of facts and topics, and would like to have discussions with someone of similar disposition (me), contact me with your location and if I swing through town we can have coffee or something. I’m interested in meeting like minds who I can explore topics with (and here I’m not talking about someone who is a Hakka and so knows a lot about the history of the Hakka; I’m not Hakka and I know something about the Hakka and I’m not an Oirat I know something about the Oirat, and so forth). All things equal the preservation of linguistic diversity is all for the good, and not only does it enrich the lives of humanity as a whole, it enriches my life in particular because of my intellectual proclivities. But all things are not equal.
First, let me digress and admit that I do not adhere to a plain utilitarianism which does not value the cultural accretions and symbolic residues of history. For a concrete example, consider the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan
in 2001 by the Taliban. On a concrete material level this was simply the rearrangement of molecular aggregations. We even have the visual sensory representation of the Buddhas before their destruction in the form of photographs. Why the outrage? Naturally Buddhists were outraged because the images of the Buddha had a sacred valence for them. But the world in general was outraged, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. The local Shia Muslims who live in the region, the Hazaras, were aghast at the cultural destruction, as they considered the Buddhas to be part of their heritage. At the time the Hazaras were being subjected to genocidal persecution from the Taliban, who considered them racially alien due to their Mongolian heritage and also heretics because of their Shia faith, so they were in no position to interpose themselves between the Taliban and the Buddhas.
As for the Taliban their concept of the Buddhas of Bamyan is that they were plain stone. Additionally, the Taliban perceived that the Buddhas were blasphemous because they were idolatry, drawing upon a long line of iconoclasm which goes back to the legendary Abraham. Unlike the atheist the Taliban may have perceived in the stone something more than material, rather, the stone may have been an expression of demonic or devilish forces in the world. Even if it lacked malevolent spirit forces, if they were objects of worship by human beings then that naturally violated their conception of the proper order of things.
But there’s a more nuanced context to the destruction of the Buddhas: Afghanistan was suffering through a famine during that period. Though the proximate cause for their destruction seems to have been the influence of the Arabs who were a power in Afghanistan at the time, Arabs who had no cultural affinity for Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage, I have read that one aggravating issue may have been that the leadership of the Taliban was offended that the world seemed more focused on the potential destruction of statues than on the suffering of flesh & blood people. You can extrapolate this sort of objection pretty easily; at the same time that the Buddhas of Bamyan were under threat, tens of thousands were dying weekly in the Congo.
Here is where I must admit that my actions suggest that I am no simple utilitarian, who prioritizes the suffering of flesh and blood above stone and symbol. At the time in 2001 I specifically remember being very concerned about the destruction of the Buddhas, though I did not imbue them with spiritual value. I do not imbue the pyramids of Giza with spiritual value in a deep metaphysical sense, but I would be concerned about their destruction. I am not the only one. How many Egyptians would have to die in local violence to obtain the same world-wide media coverage as a terrorist detonation of a series of devices which destroyed the pyramids? I estimate on the order of millions (and even here, I am not so sure, as the genocide of millions in Africa receives far less coverage than I believe that a destruction of the pyramids would entail).
Human life and suffering are balanced against the aesthetic of life itself, which is more than bread and water. How many millions could have been fed with the funds which went to the Apollo mission? And yet what dollar value could we put on the photo of the pale blue dot? What dollar value on the reality that a human being has stepped foot on another planet? These are difficult questions in some ways because assessments of value and worth need to get the root of one’s implicit calculations. I know many people from the biological sciences who have little use for space exploration. And yet I know many people of marginal academic inclination who perceive much of biological research to be esoteric and without direct utility.
And it is here that biologists can respond that the domain of knowledge leads directly to discoveries in medicine and technology which will enable greater human happiness and well being, no matter what one thinks of the millionth beetle cataloged. On the margin some of these justifications for research based on plausible utility are as ludicrous as the justifications for a manned space mission. But the attempt must be made. Whether the quest for knowledge is worthy or not is not evaluated by some objective abstract criteria; even if researchers sit on granting committees the funds must ultimately come from elsewhere.
Which brings me back to the extinction of languages. The Lousy Linguist is skeptical of my contention that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth or social amity. I outlined the theoretical reasons previously. If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”
A more on point response came from John Hawks:
I’m sympathetic to recognizing the real loss that accompanies the disappearance of a language from the world of speakers. The “unique oral history” and “lost in translation” ideas are true as far as they go — the value of folk art and oral history is that they enable social relationships.
But most communities of a few hundred speakers don’t have a Beowulf. Unique perspectives and unique history, to be sure — just as every Rembrandt is unique. But every Rembrandt is not the Night Watch. Most unique perspectives are about the speaker’s life. At some point we can’t learn the stories of all our ancestors anyway, because there are simply too many of them. Obviously I think we should enable people to learn about their history, yet we can’t keep communities pinned like butterflies in a cabinet of curiosities.
Human language communities in prehistory had a few hundred to a few thousand speakers. Those communities shared the same basic social lives and needs. Ninety-five percent or more of all those languages were lost — and those remaining have mostly come from a handful of languages less than 10,000 years ago.
I read in the Rijksmuseum that art historians figure more than 95% of the work of artists from the Dutch golden age had been lost or destroyed over the last 300 years.
John says it with more sensitivity and sympathy for the issue than I did, but I agree 99% with what he is saying here. The only point I might quibble over is that perhaps all groups do have their Beowulf. And yet it doesn’t matter. If the speakers of the language decided to shift to another language, then they are making the choice which increases their own flourishing. Speakers of a few hundred languages are not always in the circumstances of Native or Aboriginal peoples in North America, where they can gain sympathetic hearing for preservation of their folkways from the government and majority population. They need to make the best decision for themselves at the time, and often assimilation is the best of all choices, because the sample space of choices is limited. It is correct that bilingualism, or resistance to linguistic assimilation can persist. Hasidic Jews in New York City have communities where English is a second language and adults, of the third generation born and raised in the United States, have strong accents. But this community’s insulation comes at a cost, their relative poverty.
But for most communities the level of poverty of Hasidic Jews, or the material deprivation of the Amish, is wealth indeed. Many groups in Africa, South Asia and Australasia have not moved far up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Many of these groups live in grotesque poverty, experience radical marginalization, and some of them fear for their individual survival, not just tribal or ethnic coherency. If those in the developed world do value the preservation of these groups and the richness which they add to the world by their very existence, then a concrete program has to be offered. Perhaps a massive direct wealth transfer to targeted ethnic groups which are being assimilated (in India and Southeast Asia conversion to Christianity has been the most efficacious manner in which to preserve ethnic and linguistic identity, so perhaps one should donate to evangelical missionary groups). Or, the selective sponsored immigration of whole tribes and ethnic groups to the West, with an agreement that these groups have a sort of spatial sovereignty similar to Native Americans. In this way they wouldn’t be subject to the same dynamics as they were in their nation of origination.
I don’t care about linguistic diversity enough to support either of these programs. But that’s an expression of my values. And, I think it’s an expression of the values of most humans (granted, most humans do not value knowledge, but they do pay taxes which fund social engineering projects so their opinion counts). For those who do value linguistic diversity, to be taken seriously you need to present more than what it offers you and your own interests when you bear none of the costs of marginalization. Aggregate intangible utility may be maximized by this diversity, but it is simply unjust for that aggregate utility to be gained at the expense of the ones adding the diversity at the cost of their exclusion from the nation-states in which they’ve found themselves.
Addendum: Spencer Wells has noted that there is somewhat the same issue with genotypic diversity, as small groups are absorbed into larger groups. By analogy, one might offer up a program whereby tribal members are encouraged to marry only their own ingroup so as to preserve genetic lineages which may be of intellectual interest, and add diversity to the world. This is naturally the sort of argument many racialists present, though with a slightly different spin.
Image Credits: Wikimedia, CNN, Glenn Fleishman