Endangered words.

Natural History magazine sounds a warning for words. University of Michigan linguist Sarah Grey Thomason, a specialist in the Salish–Pend d’Oreille language of Montana’s Native Americans, reports that 6,000 languages – nearly half the languages in the world – may be on their last legs. And she explains rather well why this loss matters:

One recurrent argument, voiced loudly by proponents of the “English Only” and “Official English” movements in the U.S., is that reducing the number of languages will promote understanding and therefore national (and, ultimately, world) peace. It’s hard to take this argument seriously in a country that fought both a Revolution and a Civil War in which both sides spoke English, and in an era when Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, all speakers of Arabic, are killing each other by the hundreds almost daily.

Another common argument claims that English (or Arabic, or Spanish, or French, or Mandarin, or . . .) enables you to communicate anything you might want to say. According to that view, the loss of a language can be compared to the disappearance of the type of frigate that dominated Western navies in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the sailors who had mastered the intricate manipulations of the sails surely mourned their loss, but the need for effective fighting vessels made it inevitable that technological progress would sweep the sails away.

I believe, along with most other linguists and a great many minority language communities all over the world, that any such comparison fails. Sure, tearing down language barriers would streamline international business and tourism. But a language cannot be evaluated solely on grounds of efficiency. In a very real sense, you cannot say anything you want in any language. This is not a question of translatability—of course it’s possible to translate sentences like “Please pass the salt” into any language in the world—but of less tangible things, such as cultural ties, through language, to one’s great-grandparents and to traditional ethnic ways of thinking about the world. Languages place special emphases on things and concepts that are important to their speakers:shapes of objects, meanings of certain plants and animals, fundamental ways of seeing the world. For instance, the word for “automobile” in Salish–Pend d’Oreille, Salish-Pend dOreille for automobile, is named for the appearance of tire tracks—literally, “it has wrinkled feet”!

Most Americans who have spoken English all their lives, and whose parents and grandparents also speak (or spoke) English, may find it hard to understand how a heritage language could matter so much. I got my first inkling of its importance when, right after college, I spent a year in Germany, speaking German constantly and becoming fluent. Although I was delighted with my new linguistic skill, I spent the whole year with the uncomfortable feeling that I wasn’t quite the same person as when I was speaking English. It felt like a slight personality transplant, with different rhythms of thought and speech. I was glad to return to my English-speaking self when the year ended. This sort of discomfort must have a far more profound effect on people like the elders who grew up speaking Salish–Pend d’Oreille, but have had no chance to use it regularly for decades. And the elders I’ve talked to feel their own loss, and their community’s loss, acutely.

I find the debates around the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fascinating – the idea that words might (or might not) determine how we think about things. My hunch is that Thomason here is just right. When speaking a different language, you might be sharing the same ideas, but you feel differently about them. And that difference is one worth exploring.