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Saturday, July 22, 2000

No point mourning the loss of languages


Early in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life," there's a skit sending up the Catholic Church's ban on contraception in which hordes of ragged but pious urchins sing several choruses of "Every Sperm Is Sacred." The industry of worrying about dead, dying and declining languages is a bit like that.

The latest outburst of angst comes from Scotland, where only one in 100 people can actually speak Scots Gaelic,and four existing speakers die for every new child born into a Gaelic-speaking family. "The situation is pretty desperate," said Scottish National Party spokesman Mike Russell last week. "Vast amounts are spent on preserving endangered wildlife. A language is equally special, and just to let it go strikes me as the height of irresponsibility."

Which raises two points. Is a language really as precious and irreplaceable as an endangered species of wildlife? And even if it is, can it be saved just by throwing money at it?

That's what the SNP is proposing, ignoring the fact that Scotland already spends over twice as much as Wales on subsidizing its minority language with no result whatever. The number of people who speak Welsh at home is stable at around half a million, one in seven of the Welsh population, and at least half the rest have some understanding of the language - whereas the number of Scots Gaelic speakers has fallen from 79,000 to 50,000 in only 20 years, and the rest of Scotland's people know scarcely a word of it.

But if money is not the key, what is? What enables some minority languages to survive and thrive, while others wither? Numbers, says the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Nijmegen in the Netherlands: No language with fewer than 100,000 speakers can survive.

That would mean that the vast majority of the world's languages are doomed. "Ninety percent of languages today are each spoken by fewer than 100,000 people. . . . That makes them very vulnerable," said the Institute's Dr. Steve Levinson.

But hang on a minute. A century ago, Hebrew was spoken fluently by under 1,000 people, all of them scholars who used it only in professional or religious contexts. Today, it is used daily in contexts ranging from weapons research to pillow talk by over 5 million people.

It is not just numbers, but political will that counts. History and politics matter a great deal, too. Of the six Western Celtic languages that survived into the 18th century, one, Cornish, is now dead, for Cornwall has been part of England for over 1,000 years. Brittany, long ruled by a centralizing French state that dislikes divisive distractions like minority languages, has seen Breton decline to 300,000 speakers - of whom only 18,000 are under 14.

Wales and the Isle of Man, by contrast, though ruled by England for many centuries, were far enough out of the way to keep their languages alive. Irish Gaelic nearly died under English rule, but has been successfully resurrected by determined Irish governments: Today, a quarter-million people speak the language fluently.

And Scots Gaelic? It was not the English, but the Scots dialect of English spoken by the people of the Lowlands themselves, that did it in, long before the union with England. Scots Gaelic has not been the majority speech in Scotland for 1,000 years. It could still be revived in theory, but it would take more than just money, and the political will and emotional commitment are probably just not there.

So should we mourn its loss? A little, maybe, but if we grieve for every sparrow that falls we will be very busy mourners. Thousands of languages have already died in the past few thousand years, and there are probably a few thousand more to go.

It is desperately sad if you are one of the last 20 speakers of Cambap or Leco, and none of your grandchildren can understand the language you dream in. But all the world's 6,000 to 8,000 living languages are probably derived by endless mutation from the same mother tongue spoken by our earliest human ancestors in Africa 100,000 to 120,000 years ago.

As nature provides us with endless variations on a genetic theme, so the evolution of language as human beings expanded around the globe has given us endless variations on a linguistic theme. But not every sperm is sacred.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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