Friday, February 22, 2008

Is it worthwhile to save regional languages?

Megan McArdle, writing at Instapundit, notes:
Like most Irish-Americans, I also would not want to actually live in a non-English-speaking nation. What I really want is to have learned Irish from my Grandmother, and be able to impress friends by ordering drinks in my ancestral tongue while on holiday. This is the sort of thing that makes my Irish friends complain--justly--that Irish-Americans would really like to see the whole country preserved as a sort of Colonial Williamsburg with shamrocks and twee wool caps.
She points to a Language Log article which worries about
self-serving demands that aboriginal tongues be kept alive (by poor people) for (comparatively wealthy) linguists to study
Unlike Megan, I have enjoyed living in a non-English-speaking nation - a great deal, in fact. But the nation I went was France, in the region of Brittany. This means, on the one hand, that I was studying the language of a people resisting anglicization and working to preserve their culture from being overrun by the Anglo-American version of democratic capitalism. On the other hand, I was studying the language of a people whose approach to the Breton culture has only comparatively recently shifted from efforts at outright eradication to a mix of benign neglect and commercial exploitation for purposes of tourism.

Ironically, the French people whose culture is slowly destroying Breton culture are largely other people whose regional cultures were destroyed by the Paris-dominated version of French culture. If you root for the Bretons to make a comeback, do you also root for the Provençaux, the Alsatians, etc.? If you do, soon there's no such thing as French culture, and that prestigious world language you spent so much time learning is just the regional dialect of the middle of what Caesar called Gaul.That's no good!

I loved my time in Brittany. And I enjoyed my time as a tourist both of the French culture and of the Breton culture that was supplanting it. I'd hate to see either of them go. But then I look back 15 years ago and see how much has changed. Life would be pretty dreary it it hadn't. And it's not fair to ask other cultures - and the people in them! - to put themselves on hold, eschewing progress as though our curiosity and entertainment were more important than their lives. Up until World War I, a lot of the regional patois endured to a greater or lesser extent in France. But then people of various regions had to start identifying themselves less as Normans, Burgundians, etc. and start identifying themselves as French in order to preserve the framework of the state within which their regions were located. Who knows but what a visitor to the south of France in 1895 mightn't have complained of the Frenchification of Provence on returning 30 years later?

I don't know whether Breton will hang on, though I'm not overly optimistic. And if it doesn't, I'm certainly not prepared to shrug my shoulders and mouth platitudes about the progress of civilization and how it's all for the best. On the other hand, it's not all for the worst. Truth be told, without the nationalization and globalization that threaten Breton culture and even make people uneasy about the status of French culture, a kid from rural Michigan would never have seen the Breton culture to mourn its passing - or gone to Brittany to study French!

I wish I had a neat wrap-up to this that summarized my thoughts and explained everything you need to know to form the reasonable and rational opinion of what it all means. But I'm frankly pretty torn on the whole thing. I'd love to be able to go back to Rennes, and St. Malo, and Vannes and even, God help me, Cancale, and find everything just as it was when I left. But I'd hate to leave the people I knew and who shared and taught me so much with nothing better to do than to be a living repository for my memories and idylls. They deserve better.


Anonymous Ryan said...

Should Breton, Cornish, Hakka and other "regional" languages be saved? I believe that that question can only be answered by its speakers. If a collective group is willing to be persistent in speaking its language, while making it suitable for the times, then it will survive and should survive.

If the speakers of a language do not write in it, do not allow it to change with time and, above all, are not proud of it, then it will die off. No amount of whining, government grants or foreign linguistic interest can change anything if these factors are not present.

Language and culture are completely intertwined. This is why "one to one" translation between languages rarely exists. As a culture changes, so does its language. We can say that English has existed for over 1,000 years but that's not really true. Has anyone tried to read Beowulf in the original text? I once had a linguistics professor that told my class that modern native English speakers could understand modern German more easily than Old English. Modern Portuguese speakers understand Classical Latin easier than modern Mandarin speakers understand Gu Wen (Ancient Chinese) and yet the Chinese maintain that it is all the same language, much like English speakers do with their language.

My point is that even if a culture prolongs the name of a language, it still changes with time. Today's Breton was yesterday's Latin and in 1,000 years will be something else whether it's called Breton or not.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I’m a 57 year old American of Irish descent. Several years ago I traveled to Ireland and the first place I stopped after getting out of Shannon Airport was a tea shop in a very small Irish town. (Well, it had a tea shop, a food store/post office and an abandoned church.) As I walked in there were three women talking Irish. I was a bit disoriented. I thought that Irish was relegated to road signs to keep tourists confused. (I’m still not sure that isn’t true.) In talking with these women and others, I found out that Irish is still a subject in schools and there are Irish-speaking regions where the government supports the language. However, Irish cannot be considered “alive and well” in Ireland.

After I returned home, I decided to learn a little Irish on my own. I bought a self-instruction book and tapes an went to a few Irish language weekends. It was great fun in spite of my bad experiences in high school and college with Latin and Spanish. I was self-motivated and could progress (slowly) at my own pace.

I think I was motivated by a desire to connect to my ancestry. I found that you can learn much about a people from their language. I also read that learning a new language is a great way to exercise your brain. And it’s a great conversation piece. Finally, there is something liberating about doing something that has almost no practical value to me. Perhaps it’s the Irish in me!

5:14 AM  
Blogger Jeff with one 'f' said...

The thing that makes Breton special is that it is the original victim/holdout to Anglicization!

6:36 AM  
Blogger Citizen Grim said...

That final paragraph is perfect. I think it is applicable to all sorts of things we are nostalgic about, really.

I grew up in southern New Jersey 15 years ago across the street from a small farm. My parents tell me that the farm has recently been sold for residential development.

Naturally, my first instinct is opposition - doesn't New Jersey have enough houses already, for crying out loud?

But on the other hand, I don't live in NJ anymore, and it's not really fair of me to demand that this farmer persist in his unprofitable business simply so that I will have a pleasant vista for a handful of days per year when I visit my parents.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I do find it kind of interesting that people are so concerned with keeping (very) minority languages and cultures more-or-less intact while not worrying all that much about keeping (possibly very large) majority languages and cultures more-or-less intact.

Doesn't American English evolve like crazy? Is anyone concerned that someone who spoke the standard American English of 1900 would have difficulty today? And we have, of course totally destroyed, to all intents and purposes, some minority cultures in the US without a whimper, possibly because they're white and that's okay.

Like I say, I just find it interesting. (I realize that the French are fanatical about preserving the French language [Parisian version?], but that's really pretty much a losing cause with Muslim integration if for no other reason, like business.)

Oddly enough, individuals are the ones who typically make the choices of word usage and cultural behavior (like 14-yr-old white suburban males buying all those 'Fiddy Cent' CDs). I suppose with enough resources we could save some shadow of the languages and cultures, but at what other cost?

Face it. Life is change. To not change is to die. Trying to 'save' or preserve a language or culture seems to me to mean to do the same thing we used to do to butterflies: kill them and pin them to a book page.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The old France you describe with all its regional dialects is what is true in Arabic-speaking countries today. Three years ago I decided to learn Arabic. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. There is the formal language, called Modern Standard or Fusha, and a number of regional dialects, which can be quite different. For conversation NO ONE uses MS, though that is what is mostly taught in our universities. So when our students go over there, they find no one will talk to them in the Arabic they've learned. It would be like using Latin in Italy. For an interesting article on all this, check this out, but scroll down to page 27 for the vignettes:

I've learned a little MS, a little Levantine, and a little of Egyptian.

It's been frustrating the whole way.


4:51 AM  
Blogger david said...

what makes you think languages as we know them will be widely used in 50 - 100 years, about the time one language might take to become globally dominant? It's just as likely that language will become a very local and intimate mode of communication, and computer mediated communication will become the method used otherwise.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Yehudit said...

Why does this have to be either-or? In many ancient empires people spoke the common language of the empire and another one at home, and often several more besides.

A language can preserve the essence of a culture and keeping it alive keeps the sulture alive. I am a Jew and I am learning Hebrew. Knowing Hebrew allows me to read our sacred texts (including the Bible) in the original, and it is very different in English. at the same time I can rent a car and order a shwarma in Hebrew. There is no conflict between knowing a minor language (which was never dead, but only used for sacred writing, and then revived) and living in modernity.

I would like to point out that some of these dying languages are dying, NOT because the natives are no longer interested in them, but becuase they were forbidden by the ruling culture, which broke the natives' familiarity with them. Then they came to not speak the language

5:59 PM  
Anonymous M. Grégoire said...

a) A community does not face an either/or choice between the benefits of easier communication with the outside world and preserving their local heritage; their other option is to learn to communicate in two or more languages. (Granted, not everyone will be able to do so; but then not everyone's interested in reading foreign newspapers or easily chatting with outsiders.) I'm sure nearly every Breton can speak standard French, and nearly every Irish-speaker can handle English.

b) The decline of local languages has been driven by technology. The printing press made wide-spread literacy in a published language desirable; canals and railways created an economy where Parisians and Bretons would mix. But changing technology can defend local languages. Imagine, Google now provides translation between major languages for free. Soon devices will allow a unilingual hispanophone to converse with a unilingual francophone; not eloquently or entirely correctly perhaps, but sufficiently to get her point across. In such a world, the price communities pay for using a regional language will decline.

9:49 AM  

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