Till death do us part

Von Anatol Stefanowitsch

As reg­u­lar read­ers of the Bre­mer Sprach­blog know, the lan­guages of the world are dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarm­ing rate (see for exam­ple here, here, here, here, here, and here). Accord­ing to the most con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mates, at least half of the 6,500 lan­guages cur­rent­ly spo­ken will become extinct by the end of the cen­tu­ry (by the way, if you’re won­der­ing why I am address­ing you in Eng­lish today, please bear with me — I have a point to make).

When lin­guists draw atten­tion to this mass extinc­tion, they nat­u­ral­ly por­tray it as some­thing bad. This neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tion seems so nat­ur­al to us, that we are often sur­prised when oth­ers disagree.

Last week, a sto­ry from the forth­com­ing issue of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic on the top­ic of lan­guage death was tak­en up in the Amer­i­can press, for exam­ple in the New York Times, the Los Ange­les Times and the Wash­ing­ton Post. While the specifics of that sto­ry have not met with the whole­heart­ed approval of all lin­guists, in the end we prob­a­bly all agree that there is no such thing as bad pub­lic­i­ty when it comes to rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness of lan­guage death.

Then again, it is not as sim­ple as that. Because while the sto­ry raised pub­lic aware­ness to some extent, not all mem­bers of the pub­lic were auto­mat­i­cal­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the cause of sav­ing lan­guages from extinc­tion. For exam­ple, the sci­ence jour­nal­ist and blog­ger Raz­ib Khan took up the sto­ry in his blog Gene Expres­sion. He acknowl­edges that when a lan­guage is lost, so is part of the his­to­ry of the peo­ple who spoke it. But, he argues, in the end “the fun­da­men­tal truths that we val­ue as human beings is [sic] extant in sto­ries which tran­scend the par­tic­u­lar speech in which they are trans­mit­ted”. In oth­er words, lan­guage loss may not be desir­able, but it is noth­ing to lose sleep over.

His post is fair­ly mod­er­ate and care­ful­ly argued and so his posi­tion may seem quite plau­si­ble. How­ev­er, it is based on at least two implic­it assump­tions: first, that lan­guage is a neu­tral car­ri­er of infor­ma­tion, and sec­ond, that lan­guage has no val­ue beyond the infor­ma­tion that it is used to express.

Khan and two oth­er com­menters then come up with a the­o­ry that is sup­posed to explain why lan­guages become extinct. Khan him­self claims that “most local lan­guages die because peo­ple choose no longer to speak them (his empha­sis). Com­menter pcon­roy agrees and says that “[f]or most peo­ple the smart thing to do is to learn the lan­guage of the elite in their region or coun­try — espe­cial­ly when one is impov­er­ished or fight­ing to sur­vive at all”. And jim goes one step fur­ther and hails lan­guage loss as a mark of progress.

The extinc­tion of lan­guages is a good thing. Becom­ing flu­ent in one of the dom­i­nant lan­guages opens up the world of knowl­edge, mak­ing peo­ple more effi­cient and pro­duc­tive. You can’t become a (real) doc­tor or engi­neer know­ing only Nava­jo, for example.

Leav­ing aside the ques­tion, why one can­not become a doc­tor or engi­neer as a mono­ligual speak­er of Nava­jo, and leav­ing aside the ques­tion whether giv­ing up a lan­guage is ever a “choice” that peo­ple make, all three state­ments make sense as the­o­ries of lan­guage death only if we make an addi­tion­al assump­tion: that peo­ple can only speak one lan­guage, and there­fore must aban­don their orig­i­nal lan­guage if they want to learn Eng­lish (or some oth­er “dom­i­nant language”).

After I pro­voked him a tiny bit, jim was will­ing to go even fur­ther and posit a direct link between lan­guage death and eco­nom­ic well-being:

The last sev­er­al hun­dred years have seen a great uptick in lan­guage extinc­tions. At the same time mankind’s mate­r­i­al con­di­tion has improved immense­ly. The fact that trade and spe­cial­iza­tion is hard­er in a Tow­er of Babel world divid­ed up into tiny lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties is a plau­si­ble fac­tor. The regions of the world with the great­est lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty (say, Papua New Guinea) tend to also be the poorest.

Apart from the obvi­ous fact that the peo­ple whose mate­r­i­al con­di­tion has improved are not the same as the peo­ple who were forced to give up their lan­guages (look at the Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines if you want a text-book exam­ple), there is anoth­er assump­tion under­ly­ing this state­ment: that speak­ing a sin­gle lan­guage guar­an­tees suc­cess­ful communication.

Let us briefly look at each of these four assump­tions in turn. We will find that none of them holds water.

1. A lan­guage is a neu­tral car­ri­er of information

Peo­ple often assume that a com­mu­nica­tive act begins with a par­tic­u­lar piece of infor­ma­tion that exists in some speaker’s head, inde­pen­dent­ly of lan­guage. The speak­er then takes that piece of infor­ma­tion, encodes it in lan­guage, and com­mu­ni­cates it to anoth­er speak­er. The oth­er speak­er hears or reads the lan­guage, decodes it, and ends up with the orig­i­nal, lan­guage-inde­pen­dent piece of information.

This mod­el is over­ly sim­plis­tic in many ways, of which I will only dis­cuss one: lan­guages are struc­tured in ways that encour­age speak­ers to pay atten­tion to par­tic­u­lar aspects of a par­tic­u­lar piece of infor­ma­tion. As an exam­ple, take an event where some­thing moves to some loca­tion in some way. The act of mov­ing is nat­u­ral­ly encod­ed by a verb. Inter­est­ing­ly, how­ev­er, lan­guages dif­fer in the kind of motion verbs they have.

In the Ger­man­ic lan­guages (like Ger­man or Dutch) and the Slav­ic lan­guages (like Russ­ian or Pol­ish), most motion verbs encode a par­tic­u­lar way of mov­ing (take Ger­man laufen “walk”, fahren “dri­ve”, schwim­men “swim”, ren­nen “run”, kriechen “crawl”, etc.). In con­trast, in the Romance lan­guages (like French or Span­ish), most motion verbs encode a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion of motion (take Span­ish entrar “enter”, salir “exit”, subir “go up”, bajar “go down”, etc.).

This means that when speak­ers of a Ger­man­ic lan­guage encode a motion event, they must pay atten­tion to the man­ner of motion, since oth­er­wise they would not know which verb to choose. The direc­tion, in con­trast, is encod­ed in a prepo­si­tion­al phrase (like in, into the room, or to Bre­men). This prepo­si­tion­al phrase is often option­al (it can be left out), which means that speak­ers can, but do not have to, pay atten­tion to the direc­tion of motion. For speak­ers of a Romance lan­guage, the sit­u­a­tion is reversed. Since Romance motion verbs encode direc­tion­al­i­ty, a speak­er of a Romance lan­guage must pay atten­tion to direc­tion in order to choose a verb. The man­ner, in con­trast, is encod­ed by a par­tici­ple, which, like the prepo­si­tion­al phras­es just men­tioned, can be left out. Thus, speak­ers of a Romance lan­guage can, but do not have to, pay atten­tion to man­ner of motion.

And indeed, the psy­cholin­guist Dan Slobin from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley and his col­leagues and col­lab­o­ra­tors have shown that speak­ers of Romance lan­guages con­sid­er it more impor­tant to talk about direc­tion of motion while speak­ers of Ger­man­ic lan­guages con­sid­er it more impor­tant to talk about man­ner of motion. For exam­ple, even when they are trans­lat­ing from a Ger­man­ic lan­guage, Span­ish trans­la­tors often leave out man­ner infor­ma­tion and add infor­ma­tion about direc­tion­al­i­ty, and Ger­man trans­la­tors leave out direc­tions and add man­ner infor­ma­tion when trans­lat­ing from a Romance lan­guage. Clear­ly, then, lan­guage is not a neu­tral car­ri­er of information.

Some lin­guists and anthro­pol­o­gist are will­ing to go one step fur­ther: they argue that such lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ences can influ­ence not just what speak­ers con­sid­er more impor­tant in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but also what speak­ers con­sid­er more impor­tant in per­cep­tion. In oth­er words, the fact that speak­ers of Romance lan­guages must pay atten­tion to the direc­tion, but not to the man­ner in which some­thing moves when they want to talk about it may shape their brain in such a way that they are more like­ly to pay atten­tion to direc­tion and dis­re­gard man­ner even when they are sim­ply watch­ing a motion event with no inten­tion of talk­ing about it (this is referred to as “lin­guis­tic rel­a­tiv­i­ty”, asso­ci­at­ed with the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry lin­guist Ben­jamin Lee Whorf and more recent­ly with the devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist John A. Lucy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go). If this turns out to be true (and there is some evi­dence that sug­gests that it is, at least in some areas of thought), then this would of course be an even stronger argu­ment against the idea that lan­guages are neu­tral car­ri­ers of information.

Let us turn to the sec­ond assumption.

2. A lan­guage has no val­ue beyond the infor­ma­tion that it is used to express

Obvi­ous­ly, the speak­ers of a lan­guage are typ­i­cal­ly emo­tion­al­ly attached to that lan­guage. On this blog, we often ridicule Ger­man lan­guage purists who take the exis­tence of a few Eng­lish loan­words as evi­dence for the impend­ing extinc­tion of Ger­man. This ridicule is well deserved and we will con­tin­ue to point out that (a) many of these peo­ple have a hid­den agen­da that has noth­ing to do with lan­guage but every­thing to do with iso­la­tion­ism or even nation­al­ism and that (b) Ger­man is alive and kick­ing and could eas­i­ly swal­low ten times the cur­rent num­ber of Eng­lish loan­words with­out chok­ing on them. How­ev­er, the very irra­tional­i­ty of their fear of extinc­ton is evi­dence for their strong emo­tion­al attach­ment to the Ger­man language.

But this emo­tion­al attach­ment, impor­tant as it is to the speak­ers, is not even the main rea­son why sci­en­tists val­ue lan­guage. Their attempts to main­tain lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty is moti­vat­ed by the fact that each lan­guage is a unique source of information.

First, the vocab­u­lary of a lan­guage typ­i­cal­ly encodes a com­plex tax­on­o­my of objects in the world. For exam­ple, indige­nous peo­ples have a very exhaus­tive knowl­edge of plant and ani­mal species in their nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment — knowl­edge that may not pre­cise­ly match a biologist’s tax­on­o­my of these species but that is opti­mal­ly geared towards sur­vival in that envi­ron­ment and that would take decades to repli­cate inde­pen­dent­ly. Anthro­pol­o­gists are inter­est­ed in these tax­onomies because of the cul­tur­al assump­tions that are embed­ded in them. Evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gists are inter­est­ed in these tax­onomies because they pro­vide evi­dence of gen­er­al, species-spe­cif­ic psy­cho­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples that oper­ate in our per­cep­tion of the world around us. And even biol­o­gists are often inter­est­ed in these tax­onomies because they pro­vide them with a mas­sive head­start when cat­a­logu­ing ani­mals or plants in a par­tic­u­lar part of the world.

Sec­ond, as was point­ed out above, many anthro­pol­o­gists and lin­guists now believe that the struc­ture of a lan­guage can have an influ­ence on the way in which its speak­ers per­ceive the world. But lan­guage struc­ture clear­ly does not deter­mine our per­cep­tion of the world, and if we want to under­stand how the human mind works, we must find out which aspects of lan­guage struc­ture influ­ence our per­cep­tion and which don’t and to what extent such an influ­ence is pos­si­ble. The more lan­guages become extinct, the few­er poten­tial data points we have for study­ing these ques­tions and the more incom­plete the final pic­ture will be.

Third, lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty pro­vides impor­tant data even for lin­guists who deny that lan­guage struc­ture has any influ­ence what­so­ev­er on our per­cep­tion of the world. There is good evi­dence by now that there are lin­guis­tic uni­ver­sals — prop­er­ties that are nec­es­sar­i­ly shared by all human lan­guages and that must there­fore reflect gen­er­al psy­cho­log­i­cal or even neu­ro­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples. In order to uncov­er these uni­ver­sals, we need as much lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty as pos­si­ble, because the few­er lan­guages we can look at, the greater the dan­ger that we will mis­tak­en­ly clas­si­fy some prop­er­ty as a uni­ver­sal. For exam­ple, if the only lan­guages left were Chi­nese, Eng­lish, Span­ish and Russ­ian, we might be tricked into believ­ing that all lan­guages must have Sub­ject-Verb-Object as their basic word order. But in fact, all six pos­si­ble orders are found among the lan­guages of the world and Sub­ject-Verb-Object is not even the most fre­quent one (it is found in 41 per­cent of the world’s lan­guages while Sub­ject-Object-Verb is found in 47 percent).

One could argue, of course, that we have no right to expect peo­ple to speak a lan­guage that hin­ders their eco­nom­ic suc­cess sim­ply because anthro­pol­o­gists, lin­guists and psy­chol­o­gists need these lan­guages as data. And of course one would be right in argu­ing so. How­ev­er, no sci­en­tist wants to stop any­one from learn­ing a new lan­guage that opens up new pos­si­bil­i­ties. This brings us to the next assumption.

3. Peo­ple can only speak one lan­guage, and there­fore they must aban­don their orig­i­nal lan­guage if they want to learn an eco­nom­i­cal­ly dom­i­nant language

If this assump­tion were true, this post could not exist. The fact that I was able to write Monday’s post in Ger­man and that I will write Sunday’s post in Ger­man, but that I wrote today’s post in Eng­lish, and the fact that all reg­u­lar read­ers of this blog are able to under­stand all of these posts, shows that peo­ple can quite eas­i­ly com­mu­ni­cate in one lan­guage with­out giv­ing up the oth­er (in fact, that was the entire point of writ­ing this in Eng­lish). Now, you might argue that this is because we are all high­ly edu­cat­ed peo­ple. But in fact, the major­i­ty of the world’s pop­u­la­tion is mul­ti­lin­gual. In many regions of the world, peo­ple could not even com­mu­ni­cate with their neigb­hors in the next vil­lage if they were not mul­ti­lin­gual, and this has noth­ing to do with edu­ca­tion. Chil­dren who grow up in con­tact with sev­er­al lan­guages will learn all of these lan­guages as eas­i­ly as they would learn a sin­gle language.

4. Speak­ing a sin­gle lan­guage guar­an­tees suc­cess­ful communication

This assump­tion is so obvi­ous­ly false that there is litte to say about it. I will mere­ly repeat, in slight­ly more detail, some­thing that com­menter John Emer­son already point­ed out in the Gene Expres­sion thread: there is no cor­re­la­tion at all between speak­ing a com­mon lan­guage and com­mu­ni­cat­ing suc­cess­ful­ly. Protes­tants and Catholics in North­ern Ire­land have both spo­ken Eng­lish through­out the thir­ty-year con­flict that cost more than 3,500 lives. Serbs and Croats fought vicious­ly against each oth­er in the last decade of the 20th cen­tu­ry despite the fact that they speak close­ly relat­ed dialects of the same lan­guage. Switzer­land, on the oth­er hand, has four offi­cial lan­guages but has not seen a civ­il war since 1848 (and that war — sur­prise, sur­prise — was about reli­gion, not about lan­guage). The Euro­pean nations have fought against each oth­er through­out their entire record­ed his­to­ry, and they were final­ly able to break this destruc­tive pat­tern not by adopt­ing a com­mon lan­guage but by cre­at­ing what is, in essence, a peace­ful and wealthy, but stub­born­ly mul­ti­lin­gual super-state based on com­mon val­ues — a super-state whose gov­ern­ing insti­tu­tions spend up to a third of their bud­get on trans­la­tion services.

In sum, then, each lan­guage is a car­ri­er of a cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, cul­ture-spe­cif­ic knowl­edge, and a par­tic­u­lar way of pay­ing atten­tion to the world around us. It may even turn out to be a fil­ter through which we per­ceive the world in the first place. And it is evi­dence for the pos­si­ble forms that human lan­guages are made of. As such, each lan­guage is a fun­da­men­tal part of its speak­ers’ iden­ti­ties as well as an irre­place­able piece of data for anthro­pol­o­gists, psy­chol­o­gists, lin­guists, and many oth­er sci­en­tists inter­est­ed in lan­guage, cul­ture and cognition.

Since peo­ple can learn more than one lan­guage, speak­ers of small lan­guages need not be in any way dis­ad­van­taged as com­pared to speak­ers of one of the dom­i­nant world lan­guages. There­fore, noth­ing can pos­si­bly be gained by encour­ag­ing, entic­ing or forc­ing speak­ers to give up their lan­guage in favor of Eng­lish, Russ­ian, Span­ish, Ara­bic or Man­darin Chi­nese. But every­thing can be lost.

[Note: I will add some ref­er­ences to this post over the next few days, but for now I just want to get it out there].

Dieser Beitrag wurde unter Bremer Sprachblog abgelegt am von .

Über Anatol Stefanowitsch

Anatol Stefanowitsch ist Professor für die Struktur des heutigen Englisch an der Freien Universität Berlin. Er beschäftigt sich derzeit mit diskriminierender Sprache, Sprachpolitik und dem politischen Gebrauch und Missbrauch von Sprache. Sein aktuelles Buch „Eine Frage der Moral: Warum wir politisch korrekte Sprache brauchen“ ist 2018 im Dudenverlag erschienen.

5 Gedanken zu „Till death do us part

  1. buntklicker.de

    An impres­sive dis­play of your mul­ti-lan­guage skills, I must say — at least for a fel­low native speak­er of Ger­man (assum­ing that is what you are), your Eng­lish is very easy to fol­low yet very skill­ful­ly writ­ten. Hav­ing said that, I also agree with you. I find being able to speak and under­stand mul­ti­ple lan­guages (albeit to vary­ing degrees) to be very enriching.

  2. Christoph Päper

    Natür­lich erweit­ert jede zusät­zlich erlernte Sprache meine Sicht auf die Welt (und meine Möglichkeit­en in ihr), aber wenn ich sie nicht schon als Kind angenom­men habe, werde ich sie nie beherrschen, höch­stens kön­nen, beson­ders dann, wenn ich meine Muttersprache(n) weit­er­hin regelmäßig gebrauche. Somit hat der native speak­er immer einen gewis­sen Vorteil.

    Wirk­lich gerecht wäre also nur eine Sprache, die entwed­er nie­mand oder jed­er im Kinde­salter erwirbt. Region­al klappt das, aber wird es auch glob­al funk­tion­ieren? (Wer mag, kann auch daran glauben, dass Sprachen dere­inst implantier­bar wer­den wie Soft­ware instal­lier­bar, aber ich ver­mute, dass eher Sprache unseres Ideals unterge­hen wird.)

    Jed­er verge­hen­den Sprache ist zu wün­schen, dass sie deut­liche Spuren in ihrem Nach­fol­ger hin­ter­lässt. (Da das dur­chaus passiert, mag ich nicht pauschal von Ster­ben reden.)

    PS: Mir gefällt der Begriff native speak­er aus zweier­lei Hin­sicht nicht: man erlernt eine Sprache nicht automa­tisch per Geburt und man spricht sie nicht nur (oral), son­dern ver­ste­ht sie auch. Ich habe kein besseres Wort, aber müsste oder wollte ich eines (er)finden, würde ich mich grob des Latein bedi­enen und ein Wort für kind(heit)lich suchen (infantil[e], pueril[e]) oder schaf­fen (*infantiv[e], *pueriv[e]), die ein­wor­tige Beze­ich­nung, für jeman­den, der in ein­er Sprache (bzw. einem Zeichen­sys­tem) aktiv, pas­siv oder bei­des in min­destens einem Medi­um han­deln kann, muss vielle­icht wirk­lich noch erfun­den wer­den – *muni­ca­tor, *muni­cant?

    In der Sprache bleiben alte Ideen lange beste­hen, die von wis­senschaftlichen Erken­nt­nis­sen oder auch gesellschaftlichen Ansicht­en längst wider­legt bzw. über­holt wur­den. Es erle­ichtert das Verstehen(machen) nicht ger­ade, wenn man keine „klaren“ Begriffe hat.

  3. buntklicker.de

    @Christoph: Stimmt, der deutsche Begriff “Mut­ter­sprach­ler” trifft es eher, denn man lernt seine Mut­ter­sprache ja von den Eltern in den ersten Leben­s­jahren und bekommt sie nicht bei der Geburt mit.

  4. Hassan Abudu

    I don’t speak any Ger­man unfor­tu­nate­ly, but I was linked in to your excel­lent post on dying lan­guages. Not a lin­guist, but am famil­iar with the con­cern over lan­guages dying. Up until now, I nev­er encoun­tered any non-sym­pa­thet­ic posi­tions to sav­ing lan­guages. Now that it’s been sug­gest­ed, I think it unearthed my sub­con­scious puz­zle­ment about the alarm.

    I agree with you on all your 4 points, but I think there is yet an unad­dressed 5th assump­tion — that since all lan­guages are unique and irre­place­able, then all lan­guages are price­less. That I would dis­agree with.

    Of all the fea­tures of lan­guage I find inter­est­ing, the relat­ing of con­cep­tu­al metaphors across modal­i­ties is the most inter­est­ing to me. Like for instance, the many ways Eng­lish speak­ers con­cep­tu­al­ize time as mon­ey encap­su­lates a com­mon per­cep­tion of the two items that is often uncon­scious and often unique. As some­one who believes in the pow­er of clever pat­tern iso­la­tion, that time and place hav­ing almost inter­change­able appli­ca­tions in Eng­lish antic­i­pat­ed by count­less years Spe­cial Relativity’s co-ordi­nate sys­tem that (in a way) equates them togeth­er isn’t entire­ly co-inci­den­tal. I think both are kind of Nobel Prize win­ning, although Ein­stein did­n’t real­ly get the Nobel for Rel­a­tiv­i­ty, etc.

    Nonethe­less, impressed as I am, I don’t think this or oth­er infor­ma­tion encod­ed in a lan­guage is the exclu­sive reserve of said lan­guage. “Irre­place­able data”, sure. But not irre­place­able con­clu­sions, for all impor­tant results would have to be gen­er­al­iza­tions on a big­ger phe­nom­e­non, that prob­a­bly explains oth­er obser­va­tions out­side the spe­cif­ic lan­guage being looked at. So I do think some preser­va­tion of lan­guage is a good idea, but I don’t think it’s crit­i­cal “do every­thing in our pow­er” thing to make sure every lan­guage lives on. Even in between lan­guages, I’d believe Basque is prob­a­bly more inter­est­ing to researchers than, say, a pid­gin vari­ant of Eng­lish in West Africa.

    In gen­er­al, I’d say that beyond try­ing to cor­rect for the dam­ag­ing effects that glob­al­iza­tion has had on lan­guage and oth­er cul­tur­al arti­facts, one should make sure we try to aim for an equi­lib­ri­um that is organ­ic and self-main­tain­ing. For after all, lan­guages did have a death rate of their own before the advent of mass col­o­niza­tion, which is prob­a­bly an equi­lib­ri­um of sev­er­al nat­ur­al psy­cho­log­i­cal and soci­o­log­i­cal fac­tors, and try­ing to keep more than that lev­el of lan­guages actu­al­ly ‘alive’ is going to be cost­ly, and prob­a­bly futile.

    But hey, if there’s an easy way to encode the vocab­u­lary, save a bunch of their cor­po­ra and encode the gram­mar, I mean, why not. I hear gram­mar encod­ing is the tricky one, but god­speed to those work­ing at it. Much as Eng­lish is the only lan­guage I will ever speak tru­ly flu­ent­ly most­ly by choice, I like the idea of a dif­fer­ent cul­ture in which peo­ple soak up lan­guages like a dry sponge and dig up into the lan­guage archives and learn, say, Eston­ian, just for fun.

  5. Anatol Stefanowitsch

    Has­san Abudu, thank you for this thought­ful response. In some sense you are right. The main con­cern of lin­guists is indeed to doc­u­ment as many lan­guages as pos­si­ble before they become extinct. This doc­u­men­ta­tion can then serve as a basis for lin­guis­tic research, but also for a res­ur­rec­tion of the lan­guage, if at some point the descen­dants of its speak­ers wish to return to their lin­guis­tic roots (this is called “lan­guage revitalization”).

    Thus, while the speak­ers of a lan­guage should have a strong inter­est in keep­ing their lan­guage alive, one might think that lin­guists should no longer have to care once the doc­u­men­ta­tion is fin­ished (at least in their role as lin­guists — of course, they might still care as fel­low human beings). How­ev­er, lin­guists in fact have a strong inter­est in keep­ing lan­guages alive even in terms of sav­ing lin­guis­tic data. The rea­son for this is, first, that no lin­guis­tic cor­pus is ever big enough to be tru­ly sat­is­fied, but once all speak­ers of a lan­guage are gone, the cor­pus of that lan­guage can­not keep grow­ing. Sec­ond, the native speak­er of a lan­guage him/herself is per­haps the most valu­able source of data, since one can get infor­ma­tion from a speak­er that one could nev­er get from a cor­pus. Since no gram­mat­i­cal descrip­tion is ever com­plete, you nev­er know what cru­cial piece of infor­ma­tion you might need at some point in your research that just can­not be found in your cor­pus. The longest gram­mat­i­cal descrip­tions of Eng­lish that I know encom­pass around 1200 to 1800 pages of very small print, yet it does not take more than a few min­utes to come up with a ques­tion about Eng­lish that can­not be answered on the basis of these gram­mars (and of course that is a good thing, since oth­er­wise my job would become very boring…).

    And Mr. Päper, as always insight­ful. I per­son­al­ly hate both the term native speak­er and the con­cept of a native speak­er. I think the term is mis­guid­ing and bor­der­ing on some­thing like an inher­ent racism and the con­cept is com­plete­ly non­sen­si­cal. Ask my stu­dents, they have to lis­ten to my rants about this top­ic at least once a week…


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