‘Minority’ Languages

by Carl Pierer

Endangered LanguagesIn a recent article, the philosopher Rebecca Roache raises the question if there are good reasons to preserve endangered languages. In particular, she worries about ‘minority languages', which she defines as: "(…) one that is spoken by less than half [of the population] (…) even in the country in which [it is] most widely spoken." Starting from "[t]he sorrow we feel about the death of a language (…)", she finds that languages, and endangered languages in particular, are valuable for two kinds of reasons.

First of all, there are scientific reasons. For instance, one of the big questions of linguistics, she writes, concerns the truth of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis comes in two versions: the strong one – roughly – states that language determines thought, whereas the weak holds that language shapes thought. It seems that to decide whether either version of the hypothesis is true, many different languages would need to be studied. The greater the variety of languages examined, the more confident a verdict can be reached. Moreover, since the hypothesis is about the mental process of the speakers of a language, it is not enough to simply study dead languages. Therefore, endangered languages are valuable for linguistics because they provide rich study material.

The second reason is ‘sentimentality'. Here, Roache distinguishes two ways of sentimental valuing. The first is connected to what G A Cohen calls personal value. This would be a person valuing something due to their personal connection to it. An example could be a person's bike with which they cycled from Stockholm to Rome, or, the example Cohen gives, an old eraser Cohen bought when he first became a lecturer. The second is a person valuing an object because it is connected to someone or something they care about, e.g. "(…) parents around the world stick[ing] their children's drawings to the fridge." Roache then observes:

We can all agree that it is sentimental of Cohen to insist (as he did) that he would decline an opportunity to upgrade his old eraser to a brand-new one. Yet were the Louvre to decline an offer from a skilled forger to exchange the Mona Lisa for an ‘improved' copy that eliminated the damage suffered over the years by the original, we are unlikely to view this decision as sentimental.

This is surprising because the values informing both decisions are similar: one object with a history is valued over and above a ‘better' object lacking that history. What this shows is that we value certain things (cultural monuments, artefacts, artworks, etc.) for their "historical and cultural significance". This may be derided as ‘sentimental' in certain contexts. So, since "[h]istorical and cultural significance is part of why we value languages (…)", denying the value of languages (and hence ‘minority' languages) amounts to rejecting the value of the Mona Lisa and the Cologne Cathedral. Sentimental value cannot be put aside so easily it seems.

Having given two reasons for why ‘minority' languages are valuable, Roache considers whether this means that society should devote resources to their preservation. In her article, she considers two reasons speaking against it: first, the burden placed on society by preservation and second, the benefits of a reduction of language diversity.

The first point derives its weight from the fact that language preservation is (arguably) a more intrusive procedure than the preservation of a historical monument. Whilst for the latter, Roache writes, it is enough to pay people to care for the monument, in order to have a language alive and kicking it is necessary that it forms big part of people's lives. The more, the better. Hence, for instance, compulsory language courses at school. The latter policy in particular seems to go against the will of some parents, who would rather have their children learn a ‘useful' majority language such as French or Spanish. Roache rightly points out, however, that the concept of ‘usefulness' – for native English speakers – is insufficient to explain this preference. A language is ‘useful', by her definition, if it allows to communicate with a greater number of people. Now, Roache writes, in the countries where these are majority languages (she considers France and Spain), English is widely spoken. This means that since it is already possible to communicate in English, learning the local language will not significantly increase the number of people with which communication is possible. The ‘usefulness' of French or Spanish is lesser than that of Arabic or Mandarin, because English does not have as dominant a position in countries where these are majority languages. So, ‘usefulness' cannot justify parents' preference for their children learning French or Spanish over Gaelic. For if ‘usefulness' is the motivation, they should rather be taught Arabic or Mandarin.

A different set of reasons, she writes, is motivating the belief that learning a language such as French or Spanish is valuable: providing an understanding of the culture connected to the language, a sign of respect for the speakers of that language, the development of certain cognitive skills, etc. This, however, goes for learning any language, so in particular also for ‘minority' languages. Roache argues, that there is a special kind of enrichment people derive from learning a ‘minority' language connected to their community:

They get a new insight into their community's culture and history. They also gain the ability to participate in aspects of their culture that, without knowing the language, are closed off and even invisible; namely, events and opportunities conducted in the minority language.

There are a few qualifications to be made here. First of all, it is not evident how a person can have a privileged access to a culture without knowing the language. That is, how a culture is ‘theirs' – even before they have made the effort to learn the language associated with the culture. Roache gives her own example: having been raised in Wales but only recently having learned the language, she rediscovers "(…) this long-familiar country". There is a certain intuition to claim that Welsh culture is ‘hers', yet what is it that provides this sense of connectedness to the culture? Since this argument appeals to the connection people have to ‘their' community, it would be helpful to know more about this connection. More worryingly, it seems that this argument presupposes that there already is an effort to keep the endangered language alive: cultural events conducted in this language. If so, then it cannot explain why such an effort should be made.

Lastly, the second argument speaking against the value of preservation is the benefit of reducing language diversity. From this perspective, people speaking different languages is seen as an obstacle to communication. Roache observes that "(…) in other areas of communication – such as in the representation of numbers, length, and volume – we favour standardisation." So, the argument goes, if more languages die out, fewer are left and communication within a group is made easier. The benefits would be great: easier transmission of scientific discoveries and news, unimpeded travel, saved costs on translation. The problem, she finds, is that a peaceful establishment of such a universal language is difficult to imagine:

The very idea calls to mind oppressive past policies, such as the effort of the Soviet Union to suppress local languages and to force all its citizens to communicate only in Russian. Extinct and endangered languages have not, on the whole, become extinct or endangered gently, by subsequent generations choosing freely to switch to a more dominant language.

She concludes that if justice is invoked, seeing that ‘minority' languages have suffered in the past, perhaps they should be compensated. Of whatever form this compensation is, "(…) it should not include wiping out and replacing the local language."

To sum up, Roache raises the question whether, besides sentimentality, there are good reasons to preserve ‘minority' languages. Her answer comes in two parts. First, she gives two main reasons why ‘minority' languages are valuable: first, their scientific value and second, the fact that the ‘sentimental' reasons speaking for it, are similar to the reasons for preservation of other cultural goods, such as monuments, artworks, and the like. She then considers two aspects that might outweigh the now established value of ‘minority' languages. First, the burden the preservation places on society, and second, the benefit derived from a reduction in language diversity. Neither of these convinces Roache. She does not reject the former conclusively, but points to an inconsistency in the preference of some parents for their children to learn a ‘useful' language. While the latter is arguably large, languages usually do not vanish peacefully. Hence justice might pose a problem. But if one worries about justice, then ‘minority' languages might deserve some compensation for their past suffering. Such a compensation should not include eradicating the language.

While the above argument shows that there are indeed reasons to preserve endangered languages, it seems to not settle the question conclusively. It is not clear how great and important the burden placed on society at large is, if it invests in the preservation of a ‘minority' language. Furthermore, if one does choose to think in this economic framework of ‘usefulness', then it might well be the case that the benefits of a lingua franca, albeit perhaps forcefully established, are much more ‘useful' than the injustices incurred in the process. Lastly, there might still be further aspects that outweigh the value.

More philosophical questions about such ethical notions as value, usefulness, justice, aside, perhaps the reason why it is difficult to sort out these costs and benefits is that there is a problem with the question. The framework set up by the question might not be the right one in which to address the issue.

In the ‘economic' framework that seems to be set up by the question, it becomes necessary to put a ‘price' on ‘minority' languages and to reduce the question to a simple cost-benefit analysis. There appears to be a problem, however, with this seemingly innocent, ‘objective' approach: it ignores the inherent asymmetry.

There is a political dimension to language, which cannot simply be bracketed and silenced. Language and identity are closely tied to power politics, the more powerful usually imposing their language on the less powerful. Therefore, one may ask: who poses the question whether there are good reasons to preserve ‘minority' languages? What is their relation to the ‘minority' language? Who is the ‘we' that Roache invokes so easily, and who are the implied ‘they'? The worry here is that it is yet again a question raised by the linguistically powerful rather than those who are actually affected. It is hard to imagine somebody for whom their linguistic identity is at stake to raise the question whether there are good reasons to preserve this very identity. Here, the asymmetry becomes manifest: the analogous question for ‘majority' languages (a better concept here might be an established language, i.e. is one that can command the powers of an autonomous state) is moot. The question is not raised whether, say, Slovenian is worth preserving. Because ‘majority' language is so closely tied up with a nation state's identity, to question the value of ‘Slovenian', or any other ‘majority' language, would amount to questioning the value of the Slovenian nation.

If a ‘minority' language is defined as "(…) one that is spoken by less than half [of the population] (…) even in the country in which [it is] most widely spoken," it seems that there is a naturalisation of the status quo. The definition seems to preclude a political change, in which what was once a ‘minority' becomes a new ‘majority'. A ‘minority' language, then, is not inevitably so, but only due to current political configurations. It thus appears that the question fixes a language group in a certain position. In addition, one might worry about a continued denial of agency of ‘minorities'. In the framing of the question, ‘we' have to devote resources to the preservation of ‘minority' languages. The question then is, whether those expenses to ‘us' can be justified. This, however, suggests fractures in the ‘we': there is a ‘majority' speaking a certain language and a ‘minority' speaking another. The ‘we' is not homogeneous. If the ‘minority' could command their own resources and power structures, the question would not be raised – for then the term ‘minority' does not make sense. Hence, the question is really about whether there is a justification for the ‘majority' to devote their resources to the preservation of the ‘minorities' identity. It is not up to the ‘minority' to decide on its own fate.

To summarise, it seems that the question "Should minority languages be preserved and at what cost" sets up a framework that does not allow to problematize the position from which the question is asked. This ‘economic' approach appears to run into difficulties to settle the question conclusively, for it shies away from the ethical and political dimension that breaks through. Acknowledging this dimension would see the question as amounting to: how should the powerful relate to the oppressed?

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