MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Language Extinction

2nd-century mural from Teotihuacan, Mexico, depicting a person emitting a speech scroll from his mouth (via Wikipedia)

2nd-century mural from Teotihuacan, Mexico, depicting a person emitting a speech scroll from his mouth (via Wikipedia)

Fascinating New Yorker article by Judith Thurman on dying languages:

Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings…. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months.

[…]

[T]he loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them.

[…]

If peripheral languages are to survive, they will have to find a way to coexist with what Bob Holman calls the “bully” languages.

Filed under: language

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Matt says:

    Tom,

    A brief note and question if I may.

    Steven Pinker adroitly noted the power of language and syntax when he observed:

    1) We belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths or by scratching marks on paper, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally to us that we are apt to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is.

    2) Who could not be dazzled by the creative power of the mental grammar, by its ability to convey an infinite number of thoughts with a finite set of rules?

    3) With language I can cause you to be thinking thoughts about a vast array of topics, anything from the latest developments in your favorite TV show to theories of the origin of the universe. This is what I think of as the miracle of language: its vast expressive power… And it’s a phenomenon that still fills me with wonder even after having studied language for 35 years. And it is the prime phenomenon that science of language aims to explain.

    Question:

    Does the vast expressive power of language and our creative capacity to engineer an infinite variety of sentences still periodiocally fill you with a sense of wonder?

    Thanks,

    Matthew

    • Thomas May says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Matthew. I can safely claim that feeling of wonder comes to me more than periodically: indeed, every time I read a good poem or relish a beautiful passage of prose.
      Re your second part: I’d also apply this to the infinite capacity for musical expression within a finite set of notes and modes.

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