I’m positive people are way smarter about this than I am, but I only alluded to what I see as three reasons for studying dying languages in my previous post on the documentary The Linguists. Our linguists in the movie, Anderson and Harrison, sketch out basically three reasons, and movie addresses the three reasons over the course of the narrative, spending most of its time on the second. But it’s the sudden/out of nowhere appearance of the third that kind of bothered me enough to write the post that I did.
Academic. It’s valuable to study dying languages simply because it’s valuable to learn about the kinds of different ways humans have collectively developed means of communication. This has all sorts of wide-reaching applications, from seeing on the one hand what language systems hold in common (to help pursue something echt human), or to see how wildly they differ in order to account for that. The academic case is a really easy one for me to accept, since I find any sort of academic inquiry inherently worthwhile, even while others jump on a bandwagon to disagree.
Moral/Ethical. This is the centerpiece of The Linguists, because they point out that people would love to keep speaking their “true” native tongues (they don’t say “true,” but I need to indicate that it’s a iffy term), but that external forces coerce them into speaking other languages. Peer pressure and mockery from the Russian majority kept the Chulym from speaking their language, for example, or the promise of economic advancement with English knowledge leads parents to let their children abandon their Sora aptitude in India. This situation is especially true in colonial circumstances, and it’s amazing to consider the languages US expansionist policies wiped out. I’m very sympathetic to this viewpoint, but can’t go all in, since it starts making assumptions about the original speakers. That is, documenting Chulym so that the Chulym youth can learn it because it’s their cultural patrimony that was taken away from them is a borderline problematic proposition because…
Essentialist/Sentimental. …it starts blurring the line between oppression and making essentialist claims. If I had to guess, I wouldn’t think Anderson and Harrison believe the strong version of this, and perhaps their views were emphasized in the editing room, since the movie is not narrated chronologically at all. However, we do know that one of the directors, Seth Kramer, was inspired in part by a heritage trip he took to Vilnius, where he could not read the Yiddish inscriptions that had been legible to his ancestors. And it’s fine to want to study Yiddish in order to understand the language your ancestors spoke, for whatever reason. But when Yiddish becomes a person’s “history,” it starts getting a bit messier. Obviously, it’s incomprehensible, because we all reach a point where the language of our ancestors is irretrievable, so to assume a sort of permanent foundation of an identity based on language (which, obviously, is anything but permanent) is sort of, well, nuts if you think it through.
I’ve already pounced on the folly of essentialist ideas of cultural identity (based on language and other things) over on Lithchat, so I won’t do it again. But I did want to clarify these points from the earlier post this week.