Another view of endangered languages
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DISCUSSION NOTE Another view of endangered languages Peter Ladefoged University of California, Los Angeles Language seldom publishes opinion pieces, such as that of Hale, Krauss, Watahomigie, Yamamoto, Craig, Jeanne, & England 1992 on endangered languages . I have nothing but praise for the work that these linguists do. But language preservation and maintenance is a multifaceted topic on which different opinions are possible. The views expressed in these papers are contrary to those held by many responsible linguists, and would not be appropriate in some of the African countries in which I have worked in the last few years. Tanzania, for example, is a country which is striving for unity, and the spreading of Swahili is regarded as a major force in this endeavor. Tribalism is seen as a threat to the development ofthe nation, and it would not be acting responsibly to do anything which might seem, at least superficially, to aid in its preservation . Hale et al. (1992) write from the perspective of linguists who have worked in particular cultures; but the attitudes of the speakers of the languages that they describe are far from universal. As they indicate, in many communities the language is regarded as sacred—literally God-given. Linguists working in such communities should obviously respect the opinions of the speakers, and honor their wishes. The speakers are giving access to something that is sacred to them, and it should be treasured accordingly. But not everyone holds this view. The half a dozen speakers of Angami (Tibeto-Burman) with whom I worked earlier this year had a different attitude. They regarded it as an intellectually valid pursuit for me to take an interest in their language. Admittedly, they were all high school or college educated students who had a similar intellectual interest in my language. They might therefore be regarded as part of an elite, with views that were only those of the elite. But I do not think this is so. The profane, as opposed to sacred, view of language is widely shared, even among those who are certainly not part of the socio-economically elite. Many of the people with whom I have worked in undeveloped parts of India and Africa regard being a language consultant as just another job, and a reasonably high status one at that. They have no problem with satisfying my intellectual curiosity. They in no way regard their work as prostituting something that is holy. Instead they are pleased with the honored status of being teachers. Furthermore, it pays better than alternative occupations, such as picking tea or digging yams, and it is much less hard work. Even among those for whom language is a vital part of the sacred way of life, the attitude towards linguists is not always that outlined in Hale et al. 1992. The Toda, speakers of a Dravidian language in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India, have a series of songs which are an important part of their religious life (Emeneau 1984). They eagerly welcome linguists who wish to assist them in 809 810LANGUAGE, VOLUME 68, NUMBER 4 (1992) recording their language. They also realize that with less than 1,000 speakers they are unlikely to remain a distinct entity. Many of the younger people want to honor their ancestors, but also to be part of a modern India. They have accepted that, in their view, the cost of doing this is giving up the use of their language in their daily life. Surely, this is a view to which they are entitled, and it would not be the action of a responsible linguist to persuade them to do otherwise. In the circumstances of my fieldwork it would also have been somewhat hypocritical. I was working with an Indian colleague who has decided to forego the use of his and his wife's native language in their own home, so that their child could be brought up as a native language speaker of English. This choice, and any choices that the Toda might make, are clearly their prerogatives . So now let me challenge directly the assumption ofthese papers that different languages, and even different cultures, always ought to be preserved. It is paternalistic of linguists...