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There's no linguistic survival of the fittest

Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/6/2016 3:08:30 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
The languages of the world have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Once a paradise of linguistic diversity, the world is losing the majority of its tongues: 85% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 speakers, the threshold of endangerment according to some.

According to one popular idea about the life cycle of languages, some Darwinesque selective pressure drives some languages and language varieties into extinction and others into prosperity. Some languages are intrinsically better suited for communication or other purposes than others, goes the theory, and some Darwinian process is winnowing the inventory of languages down to the hundred-or-so languages of culture. That even some linguists used to espouse some version of this theory lends to its considerable appeal.

It is not hard to see the source of its attraction. Modern economic theory rests on the assumption that the invisible hand will, in the absence of interference, maximise happiness and prosperity. This can only operate when actors in the economic make rational choices and private property rights are sufficiently protected. But closer scrutiny reveals that the theory, when applied to language ecology, is untenable. Rather than intrinsic utility, it points to the vicissitudes of history as the cause behind the dominance of a handful of major tongues. This is because the linguistic landscape is more analogous to an economy of monopolists and flagrant disregard to property rights.

Before Western interference, Papua New Guinea and, to a lesser extent, Australia boasted a profusion of genetically and typologically diverse languages, none of which enjoyed significantly higher spread or prestige - a 'linguistic equilibrium' as Dixon calls it. This is contrary to Darwinian expectations, under which we would expect the languages to share similar, 'advanced' features.

The spread of European languages worldwide is a recent phenomenon. The arrival of Westerners compelled the indigenous peoples to eschew their ancestral tongues, sometimes voluntarily but more often by force. Even when the natives were not threatened at gunpoint, the power imbalance between Westerners and the indigenous populations left them with no choice. Take the destruction of tribal economies as an analogy. As the government insists that the tribes pay tax in cash, they are forced to exchange some of their produce for money. Each time this happens, they are left with fewer goods for bartering until they lack the means to subsist. They would have to import food, which in turn requires more outside trade with money as a medium of exchange. Eventually, their primitive economies disappear. The same is happening to language. Moreover, the process of language death is precipitated by the dwindling of indigenous populations by dint of introducing Western diseases they were defenceless against.

In reality, no language is intrinsically superior to others. Each speech community shapes and moulds its language according to its local needs. A tribal language has no words pertaining to urban settlements, but will contain a humongous and elaborate set of vocabulary for local species and natural phenomena. Hawaiian, for example, has extensive knowledge of fishery embedded in its lexicon. Arguments like 'English is the language of science, so it's popular' invert cause and effect. The spread and popularity of English led to the simplification of its morphology, enrichment of its vocabulary and so forth, turning it into a refined vehicle for scientific expression. Anglo-Saxon was no more equipped for quantum physics or computer science than Kiribati or Cherokee.

The view that superior languages dominate is fatuous and parochial. It has no basis in sociolinguistics, no evidence in human history. Only when we realise this will we recognise the gravity of linguistic endangerment, one of the greatest crises facing our world today.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
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Vox_Veritas
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1/6/2016 5:32:06 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/6/2016 3:08:30 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
The languages of the world have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Once a paradise of linguistic diversity, the world is losing the majority of its tongues: 85% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 speakers, the threshold of endangerment according to some.

According to one popular idea about the life cycle of languages, some Darwinesque selective pressure drives some languages and language varieties into extinction and others into prosperity. Some languages are intrinsically better suited for communication or other purposes than others, goes the theory, and some Darwinian process is winnowing the inventory of languages down to the hundred-or-so languages of culture. That even some linguists used to espouse some version of this theory lends to its considerable appeal.

It is not hard to see the source of its attraction. Modern economic theory rests on the assumption that the invisible hand will, in the absence of interference, maximise happiness and prosperity. This can only operate when actors in the economic make rational choices and private property rights are sufficiently protected. But closer scrutiny reveals that the theory, when applied to language ecology, is untenable. Rather than intrinsic utility, it points to the vicissitudes of history as the cause behind the dominance of a handful of major tongues. This is because the linguistic landscape is more analogous to an economy of monopolists and flagrant disregard to property rights.

Before Western interference, Papua New Guinea and, to a lesser extent, Australia boasted a profusion of genetically and typologically diverse languages, none of which enjoyed significantly higher spread or prestige - a 'linguistic equilibrium' as Dixon calls it. This is contrary to Darwinian expectations, under which we would expect the languages to share similar, 'advanced' features.

The spread of European languages worldwide is a recent phenomenon. The arrival of Westerners compelled the indigenous peoples to eschew their ancestral tongues, sometimes voluntarily but more often by force. Even when the natives were not threatened at gunpoint, the power imbalance between Westerners and the indigenous populations left them with no choice. Take the destruction of tribal economies as an analogy. As the government insists that the tribes pay tax in cash, they are forced to exchange some of their produce for money. Each time this happens, they are left with fewer goods for bartering until they lack the means to subsist. They would have to import food, which in turn requires more outside trade with money as a medium of exchange. Eventually, their primitive economies disappear. The same is happening to language. Moreover, the process of language death is precipitated by the dwindling of indigenous populations by dint of introducing Western diseases they were defenceless against.

In reality, no language is intrinsically superior to others. Each speech community shapes and moulds its language according to its local needs. A tribal language has no words pertaining to urban settlements, but will contain a humongous and elaborate set of vocabulary for local species and natural phenomena. Hawaiian, for example, has extensive knowledge of fishery embedded in its lexicon. Arguments like 'English is the language of science, so it's popular' invert cause and effect. The spread and popularity of English led to the simplification of its morphology, enrichment of its vocabulary and so forth, turning it into a refined vehicle for scientific expression. Anglo-Saxon was no more equipped for quantum physics or computer science than Kiribati or Cherokee.

The view that superior languages dominate is fatuous and parochial. It has no basis in sociolinguistics, no evidence in human history. Only when we realise this will we recognise the gravity of linguistic endangerment, one of the greatest crises facing our world today.

I also desire a linguistically diverse world, but I disagree with the claim that English is no better than any other language. English has something that most languages don't: an absolutely massive vocabulary (to the point where the average English speaker doesn't know half of all English words). The vastness of English vocabulary makes it better suited than most other languages for talking in scientific terms, choosing from one of many synonymous words to find the most accurate description and context, and describing new concepts. Kiribati and Cherokee don't have this, though a language can certainly expand its own vocabulary and adapt.
Call me Vox, the Resident Contrarian of debate.org.

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/6/2016 5:44:17 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/6/2016 5:32:06 PM, Vox_Veritas wrote:
At 1/6/2016 3:08:30 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
The languages of the world have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Once a paradise of linguistic diversity, the world is losing the majority of its tongues: 85% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 speakers, the threshold of endangerment according to some.

According to one popular idea about the life cycle of languages, some Darwinesque selective pressure drives some languages and language varieties into extinction and others into prosperity. Some languages are intrinsically better suited for communication or other purposes than others, goes the theory, and some Darwinian process is winnowing the inventory of languages down to the hundred-or-so languages of culture. That even some linguists used to espouse some version of this theory lends to its considerable appeal.

It is not hard to see the source of its attraction. Modern economic theory rests on the assumption that the invisible hand will, in the absence of interference, maximise happiness and prosperity. This can only operate when actors in the economic make rational choices and private property rights are sufficiently protected. But closer scrutiny reveals that the theory, when applied to language ecology, is untenable. Rather than intrinsic utility, it points to the vicissitudes of history as the cause behind the dominance of a handful of major tongues. This is because the linguistic landscape is more analogous to an economy of monopolists and flagrant disregard to property rights.

Before Western interference, Papua New Guinea and, to a lesser extent, Australia boasted a profusion of genetically and typologically diverse languages, none of which enjoyed significantly higher spread or prestige - a 'linguistic equilibrium' as Dixon calls it. This is contrary to Darwinian expectations, under which we would expect the languages to share similar, 'advanced' features.

The spread of European languages worldwide is a recent phenomenon. The arrival of Westerners compelled the indigenous peoples to eschew their ancestral tongues, sometimes voluntarily but more often by force. Even when the natives were not threatened at gunpoint, the power imbalance between Westerners and the indigenous populations left them with no choice. Take the destruction of tribal economies as an analogy. As the government insists that the tribes pay tax in cash, they are forced to exchange some of their produce for money. Each time this happens, they are left with fewer goods for bartering until they lack the means to subsist. They would have to import food, which in turn requires more outside trade with money as a medium of exchange. Eventually, their primitive economies disappear. The same is happening to language. Moreover, the process of language death is precipitated by the dwindling of indigenous populations by dint of introducing Western diseases they were defenceless against.

In reality, no language is intrinsically superior to others. Each speech community shapes and moulds its language according to its local needs. A tribal language has no words pertaining to urban settlements, but will contain a humongous and elaborate set of vocabulary for local species and natural phenomena. Hawaiian, for example, has extensive knowledge of fishery embedded in its lexicon. Arguments like 'English is the language of science, so it's popular' invert cause and effect. The spread and popularity of English led to the simplification of its morphology, enrichment of its vocabulary and so forth, turning it into a refined vehicle for scientific expression. Anglo-Saxon was no more equipped for quantum physics or computer science than Kiribati or Cherokee.

The view that superior languages dominate is fatuous and parochial. It has no basis in sociolinguistics, no evidence in human history. Only when we realise this will we recognise the gravity of linguistic endangerment, one of the greatest crises facing our world today.

I also desire a linguistically diverse world, but I disagree with the claim that English is no better than any other language. English has something that most languages don't: an absolutely massive vocabulary (to the point where the average English speaker doesn't know half of all English words). The vastness of English vocabulary makes it better suited than most other languages for talking in scientific terms, choosing from one of many synonymous words to find the most accurate description and context, and describing new concepts. Kiribati and Cherokee don't have this, though a language can certainly expand its own vocabulary and adapt.

Yeah, I don't disagree with you at all. In fact, I agree that English is more suited for science. I was refuting the claim that language some languages are intrinsically superior and therefore popular. This claim switches causes and effect around: A language is given more development because it is more popular. This is why I compared Anglo-Saxon, the prescientific forebear of English, to Cherokee and Kiribati. At the time, English still had a relatively small lexicon and was not more suited for scientific communication than these languages.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Vox_Veritas
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1/6/2016 6:00:40 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/6/2016 5:44:17 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 1/6/2016 5:32:06 PM, Vox_Veritas wrote:
At 1/6/2016 3:08:30 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
The languages of the world have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Once a paradise of linguistic diversity, the world is losing the majority of its tongues: 85% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 speakers, the threshold of endangerment according to some.

According to one popular idea about the life cycle of languages, some Darwinesque selective pressure drives some languages and language varieties into extinction and others into prosperity. Some languages are intrinsically better suited for communication or other purposes than others, goes the theory, and some Darwinian process is winnowing the inventory of languages down to the hundred-or-so languages of culture. That even some linguists used to espouse some version of this theory lends to its considerable appeal.

It is not hard to see the source of its attraction. Modern economic theory rests on the assumption that the invisible hand will, in the absence of interference, maximise happiness and prosperity. This can only operate when actors in the economic make rational choices and private property rights are sufficiently protected. But closer scrutiny reveals that the theory, when applied to language ecology, is untenable. Rather than intrinsic utility, it points to the vicissitudes of history as the cause behind the dominance of a handful of major tongues. This is because the linguistic landscape is more analogous to an economy of monopolists and flagrant disregard to property rights.

Before Western interference, Papua New Guinea and, to a lesser extent, Australia boasted a profusion of genetically and typologically diverse languages, none of which enjoyed significantly higher spread or prestige - a 'linguistic equilibrium' as Dixon calls it. This is contrary to Darwinian expectations, under which we would expect the languages to share similar, 'advanced' features.

The spread of European languages worldwide is a recent phenomenon. The arrival of Westerners compelled the indigenous peoples to eschew their ancestral tongues, sometimes voluntarily but more often by force. Even when the natives were not threatened at gunpoint, the power imbalance between Westerners and the indigenous populations left them with no choice. Take the destruction of tribal economies as an analogy. As the government insists that the tribes pay tax in cash, they are forced to exchange some of their produce for money. Each time this happens, they are left with fewer goods for bartering until they lack the means to subsist. They would have to import food, which in turn requires more outside trade with money as a medium of exchange. Eventually, their primitive economies disappear. The same is happening to language. Moreover, the process of language death is precipitated by the dwindling of indigenous populations by dint of introducing Western diseases they were defenceless against.

In reality, no language is intrinsically superior to others. Each speech community shapes and moulds its language according to its local needs. A tribal language has no words pertaining to urban settlements, but will contain a humongous and elaborate set of vocabulary for local species and natural phenomena. Hawaiian, for example, has extensive knowledge of fishery embedded in its lexicon. Arguments like 'English is the language of science, so it's popular' invert cause and effect. The spread and popularity of English led to the simplification of its morphology, enrichment of its vocabulary and so forth, turning it into a refined vehicle for scientific expression. Anglo-Saxon was no more equipped for quantum physics or computer science than Kiribati or Cherokee.

The view that superior languages dominate is fatuous and parochial. It has no basis in sociolinguistics, no evidence in human history. Only when we realise this will we recognise the gravity of linguistic endangerment, one of the greatest crises facing our world today.

I also desire a linguistically diverse world, but I disagree with the claim that English is no better than any other language. English has something that most languages don't: an absolutely massive vocabulary (to the point where the average English speaker doesn't know half of all English words). The vastness of English vocabulary makes it better suited than most other languages for talking in scientific terms, choosing from one of many synonymous words to find the most accurate description and context, and describing new concepts. Kiribati and Cherokee don't have this, though a language can certainly expand its own vocabulary and adapt.

Yeah, I don't disagree with you at all. In fact, I agree that English is more suited for science. I was refuting the claim that language some languages are intrinsically superior and therefore popular. This claim switches causes and effect around: A language is given more development because it is more popular. This is why I compared Anglo-Saxon, the prescientific forebear of English, to Cherokee and Kiribati. At the time, English still had a relatively small lexicon and was not more suited for scientific communication than these languages.

Indeed. Any language can undergo further development; it is my hope that Chinese, which is soon to become the most (or one of the most) important language(s) will develop as much as English has.
Call me Vox, the Resident Contrarian of debate.org.

The DDO Blog:
https://debatedotorg.wordpress.com...

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Emilrose
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1/6/2016 8:44:02 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
It seems somewhat inevitable to me~~and it isn't necessarily attributed to anything 'Western'. Rather each language is built around the *need* to use them so if that becomes diminished, the community speaking that language will naturally seek to either re-develop (for example, the first variant of Hebrew was 'Paleo-Hebrew) or adopt a new language altogether; usually it's the one that has become more predominant in usage and exposure.

One language I find quite interesting is 'Ladino', which is essentially a combination of Hebrew/Spanish~~Jews within Sefardic Spain obviously used this as one of their primary languages, however, when most were either exiled into other countries or forced to convert (some secretly still practiced Judaism), the geographical use of it was minimised and it gradually re-altered depending on the area that each Jew(s) went to, and thus elements of other languages became immersed in it. Now, it is considered to be near extinction due to the lack of necessity in speaking it and perhaps Jews of Sefardic origin exclusively speaking Hebrew again~~instead of any additional language(s). Communities change and adapt to whatever the primary speaking tongue is at that point, and then continue the same pattern as time progresses.

I would perhaps agree with you that no language is 'intrinsically superior', however, things such usage, inclusivity, and dominance dictate to its value and importance.
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dylancatlow
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1/6/2016 11:53:58 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
I don't see the benefit of having as many exotic and obscure languages as possible. I think the people who speak such languages would do well to learn a more mainstream language, as many of them are doing. This opens up a world of opportunities that would otherwise remain closed to them. The number of obscure languages is declining because the world is becoming a more connected place. The remote tribes of the past are becoming integrated into modern society, and acquire new languages in the process. The world will remain linguistically diverse whether or not these obscure languages die out. I mean, probably the majority of countries speak a language that is unique to their country (Poland, Japan, Korea, etc).

As for your claim that no language is superior to any others, it really depends on what we mean. If one of the criteria of a "good language" is the ability to capture and express the full range of ideas we would like to have, then some languages are superior to others. I mean, some tribal languages don't even have words for "would" or "time". Obviously people speaking those languages are going to be limited in their thinking. Sure, they have some concept of "would", but if it's not tied to any word then more complex thoughts in which "would" is implicated become harder to formulate and keep track of. They're not going to be able to think with as much sophistication as they would if they adopted English or some other technologically sufficient language.

You're absolutely right that it's only by a matter of mere historical happenstance that English has become the "language of science". As recently as 1900 it was German, and before that Latin. There's no reason to think that the popularity of languages rises and falls based on how "good" they are. I think the reason that complex and advanced languages like English spread is that it allows people to more effectively interact with the dominant economies of the world (and dominant, advanced societies tend to produce sophisticated languages). As more and more people adopt English, it becomes more and more important to know until everyone has to learn it in order to meaningfully participate in global affairs. Like, everyone in Japan and Korea is forced to learn English. Since English is now the language of science, it is always able to keep up to date with the latest scientific trends.
Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/7/2016 8:54:17 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/6/2016 6:00:40 PM, Vox_Veritas wrote:
At 1/6/2016 5:44:17 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 1/6/2016 5:32:06 PM, Vox_Veritas wrote:
At 1/6/2016 3:08:30 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
The languages of the world have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Once a paradise of linguistic diversity, the world is losing the majority of its tongues: 85% of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 speakers, the threshold of endangerment according to some.

According to one popular idea about the life cycle of languages, some Darwinesque selective pressure drives some languages and language varieties into extinction and others into prosperity. Some languages are intrinsically better suited for communication or other purposes than others, goes the theory, and some Darwinian process is winnowing the inventory of languages down to the hundred-or-so languages of culture. That even some linguists used to espouse some version of this theory lends to its considerable appeal.

It is not hard to see the source of its attraction. Modern economic theory rests on the assumption that the invisible hand will, in the absence of interference, maximise happiness and prosperity. This can only operate when actors in the economic make rational choices and private property rights are sufficiently protected. But closer scrutiny reveals that the theory, when applied to language ecology, is untenable. Rather than intrinsic utility, it points to the vicissitudes of history as the cause behind the dominance of a handful of major tongues. This is because the linguistic landscape is more analogous to an economy of monopolists and flagrant disregard to property rights.

Before Western interference, Papua New Guinea and, to a lesser extent, Australia boasted a profusion of genetically and typologically diverse languages, none of which enjoyed significantly higher spread or prestige - a 'linguistic equilibrium' as Dixon calls it. This is contrary to Darwinian expectations, under which we would expect the languages to share similar, 'advanced' features.

The spread of European languages worldwide is a recent phenomenon. The arrival of Westerners compelled the indigenous peoples to eschew their ancestral tongues, sometimes voluntarily but more often by force. Even when the natives were not threatened at gunpoint, the power imbalance between Westerners and the indigenous populations left them with no choice. Take the destruction of tribal economies as an analogy. As the government insists that the tribes pay tax in cash, they are forced to exchange some of their produce for money. Each time this happens, they are left with fewer goods for bartering until they lack the means to subsist. They would have to import food, which in turn requires more outside trade with money as a medium of exchange. Eventually, their primitive economies disappear. The same is happening to language. Moreover, the process of language death is precipitated by the dwindling of indigenous populations by dint of introducing Western diseases they were defenceless against.

In reality, no language is intrinsically superior to others. Each speech community shapes and moulds its language according to its local needs. A tribal language has no words pertaining to urban settlements, but will contain a humongous and elaborate set of vocabulary for local species and natural phenomena. Hawaiian, for example, has extensive knowledge of fishery embedded in its lexicon. Arguments like 'English is the language of science, so it's popular' invert cause and effect. The spread and popularity of English led to the simplification of its morphology, enrichment of its vocabulary and so forth, turning it into a refined vehicle for scientific expression. Anglo-Saxon was no more equipped for quantum physics or computer science than Kiribati or Cherokee.

The view that superior languages dominate is fatuous and parochial. It has no basis in sociolinguistics, no evidence in human history. Only when we realise this will we recognise the gravity of linguistic endangerment, one of the greatest crises facing our world today.

I also desire a linguistically diverse world, but I disagree with the claim that English is no better than any other language. English has something that most languages don't: an absolutely massive vocabulary (to the point where the average English speaker doesn't know half of all English words). The vastness of English vocabulary makes it better suited than most other languages for talking in scientific terms, choosing from one of many synonymous words to find the most accurate description and context, and describing new concepts. Kiribati and Cherokee don't have this, though a language can certainly expand its own vocabulary and adapt.

Yeah, I don't disagree with you at all. In fact, I agree that English is more suited for science. I was refuting the claim that language some languages are intrinsically superior and therefore popular. This claim switches causes and effect around: A language is given more development because it is more popular. This is why I compared Anglo-Saxon, the prescientific forebear of English, to Cherokee and Kiribati. At the time, English still had a relatively small lexicon and was not more suited for scientific communication than these languages.

Indeed. Any language can undergo further development; it is my hope that Chinese, which is soon to become the most (or one of the most) important language(s) will develop as much as English has.

Agreed. Although standard written Chinese is not technically my mother tongue (since the written 'vernacular' Chinese or baihuawen is based on Mandarin), it represents the strength of my nation, and scientific progression in Chinese would indeed be a monumental development. :)

I must admit, though, that I have problems - psychological problems, if you will - with certain developments in the Chinese language, although they are probably indispensable in academic writing. Liberal conversions and productive derivational suffixation stick in my throat - such morphological processes sound uncannily English-like to my ears. It's for this reason that when I write scientifically, I always stick to English, reserving Chinese for pragmatic - and occasionally literary - purposes. But that's another discussion altogether.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/7/2016 9:34:48 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/6/2016 8:44:02 PM, Emilrose wrote:
It seems somewhat inevitable to me~~and it isn't necessarily attributed to anything 'Western'. Rather each language is built around the *need* to use them so if that becomes diminished, the community speaking that language will naturally seek to either re-develop (for example, the first variant of Hebrew was 'Paleo-Hebrew) or adopt a new language altogether; usually it's the one that has become more predominant in usage and exposure.
I don't disagree, and there are certainly cases where the people simply abandon their language in favour of a more dominant one, like in the case of Cornish (which went extinct at one time, though there have been revival attempts) and Irish (which is ironic considering that it's taught in schools and has government support).

But these are exceptional cases. Language extinction is, in many cases, simply the tip of the iceberg: it is one of the most palpable repercussions of systematic injustices faced by the speakers. The gradual disappearance of the Hawaiian language followed from the gradual economic takeover of the islands by Westerners. Their language, which was originally optimised over centuries for fishing, has been rendered useless now that the indigenous people, now severely downsized in numbers, have been assimilated into a local Westernised lifestyle where fish are bought from Walmart.

This continues up to this day, particularly in tropical rainforest regions. The jungles are being cleared and their denizens left homeless, including plant, animal and human alike. Tribes who refuse to abandon their ancestral lifestyle are often threatened with massacre (this has actually happened in Africa) or famine, the inevitable consequence of the logging/mining corporations' long-term relentless exploitation of forest resources. If the trend continues, soon the all tribes will disappear (died out, massacred or assimilated), and their languages will be history.

In developed countries, while the people themselves are not threatened, it is the policymakers of government who coerce the people into giving up their language. This has occurred in many developed nations before, such as France in the mid-20th century. Rising awareness has led to revival of certain regional languages in France, such as Alsatian, Breton, Catalan, Basque and Occitan, but this process has now begun in wealthier developing nations (such as China).

It has to be noted that none of this appears in a natural setting. Sure, languages have always appeared and disappeared, but for a long time, the world was under a 'linguistic equilibrium': on the whole no languages are particularly threatened or particularly strong. Language death is occasional. What is happening now is not comparable to the linguistic ecology in the past, before the Industrial Revolution.

As for the point that it is not entirely a Western thing, I agree. In fact, despite the number of languages in Africa, the languages are not typologically diverse like Papua New Guinea or Australia, indicating that Africa, too, was once plagued by linguistic 'hegemony'. But European languages tend to dominate in the modern world, for fairly obvious reasons...

One language I find quite interesting is 'Ladino', which is essentially a combination of Hebrew/Spanish~~Jews within Sefardic Spain obviously used this as one of their primary languages, however, when most were either exiled into other countries or forced to convert (some secretly still practiced Judaism), the geographical use of it was minimised and it gradually re-altered depending on the area that each Jew(s) went to, and thus elements of other languages became immersed in it. Now, it is considered to be near extinction due to the lack of necessity in speaking it and perhaps Jews of Sefardic origin exclusively speaking Hebrew again~~instead of any additional language(s). Communities change and adapt to whatever the primary speaking tongue is at that point, and then continue the same pattern as time progresses.
Agreed, the example is indeed an interesting one. And - like the examples I mentioned above - linguistic extinction is indicative of the injustices faced by their speakers. The revival of Hebrew is very encouraging too. It is probably the most successful of rejuvenation attempts... They breathed life within a previously dead language within a relatively short time span. Finnish underwent thorough development in the 19th century as well, though not as dramatic as this.
I would perhaps agree with you that no language is 'intrinsically superior', however, things such usage, inclusivity, and dominance dictate to its value and importance.
Yep, agreed.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/7/2016 10:27:26 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/6/2016 11:53:58 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
I don't see the benefit of having as many exotic and obscure languages as possible. I think the people who speak such languages would do well to learn a more mainstream language, as many of them are doing. This opens up a world of opportunities that would otherwise remain closed to them.
Learning a mainstream language and retaining their ancestral tongue are not mutually exclusive. Historically, Papua New Guinea has been a nation of polyglots. On average, each tribesmen spoke five languages: their native language, the lingua franca and the languages of three neighbouring peoples. One linguist, while studying a language there, was taught the names of trees in four langauges by a six-year-old (true story).

The grounds for defending languages from extinction are not purely utilitarian, of course, but there are good utilitarian reasons to defend them. Many languages encode in their lexicons traditional knowledge about the wildlife and environment around them, such as traditional taxonomies. It has been estimated that the Hawaiians knew more about their local fish when Captain Cook arrived than scientists know today. The gradual dissipation of Hawaiian, however, has led to a loss of this knowledge. The same situation has happened to Dyirbal. Many young speakers no longer distinguish between species when they speak in Dyirbal - they just call them all 'tree' - because of the dominance of English.

Traditional knowledge is essential for a multitude of reasons. Probably the most important is that botanical knowledge is essential to medical advancements. The disappearance of rainforest ecosystems and the tribes in them has already deprived the world of many possible cures. Many Western attempts to exploit natural resources without indigenous knowledge have resulted in disaster. Some fishing grounds are overexploited, leading to the depletion of marine resources; other fishing grounds are untouched despite their fecundity. Had they tapped into traditional wisdom, such situations could have been avoided; unfortunately, the disappearance of tribal languages stultifies this.

Languages are also essential for academic study. The most obvious, of course, is that we need to study as many languages as possible to construct a plausible theory of language that is faithful to the human brain (for generativists) or human functions (for functionalists). Were it not for linguists who arrived on time, we would have no idea OVS and OSV languages are possible. In fact, Warlpiri, a tribal language, was crucial in the development of Lexical-Functional Grammar.

They are also essential for anthropological study. The noun classifier systems of many languages, for example, embed many elements of culture that would otherwise be impossible to learn. The disappearance of Dyirbal is causing just that - young Dyirbal speakers are forgetting their mythologies - and without Dixon, their culture would probably have disappeared beneath the waves of history.

Those are just some of the utilitarian arguments I can think of at the moment.
The number of obscure languages is declining because the world is becoming a more connected place. The remote tribes of the past are becoming integrated into modern society, and acquire new languages in the process. The world will remain linguistically diverse whether or not these obscure languages die out. I mean, probably the majority of countries speak a language that is unique to their country (Poland, Japan, Korea, etc).
Honestly, this is a contradictory statement, Dylan. Obscure language dying out drastically reduces the number of languages that remain - we will likely be left with a mere 10% of our languages in a century's time - and that obviously undermines linguistic diversity. Moreover, most of the world's major languages are concentrated in a few language families - in fact, most of the most common ones are Indo-European (English, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Hindi). If all 'obscure' languages die out, there go OSV and OVS word orders, sophisticated evidentiality systems, languages where semantic information related to the figure is packaged into the verb, etc.
As for your claim that no language is superior to any others, it really depends on what we mean. If one of the criteria of a "good language" is the ability to capture and express the full range of ideas we would like to have, then some languages are superior to others. I mean, some tribal languages don't even have words for "would" or "time". Obviously people speaking those languages are going to be limited in their thinking. Sure, they have some concept of "would", but if it's not tied to any word then more complex thoughts in which "would" is implicated become harder to formulate and keep track of. They're not going to be able to think with as much sophistication as they would if they adopted English or some other technologically sufficient language.
What are the 'full range of ideas we would like to have'? All languages can express all kinds of meaning; it's just that some make the meaning obligatory through grammaticalisation and others not, and some require awkward paraphrases to express an idea while others do not.

The word 'would' does not really express any particular concept in the normal sense of the word 'concept'. It's a function word that expresses different grammatical features, including modality and tense, as well as a politeness. Some languages also have a single feature that cover all these uses, like the French -ais, while others do not and use different ways to express these ideas. As for 'time', I'm not sure if you're saying they don't have the word 'time' (which is easily fixable by importing a word from some other language) or cannot express the concept 'time' (which is a myth told by Whorf about Hopi that has been refuted completely).

In fact, the majority of tribal languages have far more sophisticated morphosyntax than English (look in any grammar of a tribal language, and you'll be staring at strings of morphemes far more complicated than English). I'll continue to use my favourite example as I have before: Evidentiality. All languages have some means of expressing semantic evidentiality, but only a quarter of languages, mostly tribal, have a full system for evidentiality in grammar. Basically, whenever you say anything at all, you have to state where you got the information: Saw it with your own eyes, heard it from someone else, just surmising it, etc. I think there are many obvious advantages to this, such as keeping politicians honest. Many speakers of Tariana, which has evidentiality, felt that Portuguese was vague, imprecise and insufficient because it lacked this feature.

As Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought, there's a cognitive system consisting of folk conceptions of time, space, matter and causality that underlies all languages. Although different languages encode this basic information differently in their language, there is no language that lack the linguistic wherewithal to convey this information.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/7/2016 10:30:38 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
You're absolutely right that it's only by a matter of mere historical happenstance that English has become the "language of science". As recently as 1900 it was German, and before that Latin. There's no reason to think that the popularity of languages rises and falls based on how "good" they are. I think the reason that complex and advanced languages like English spread is that it allows people to more effectively interact with the dominant economies of the world (and dominant, advanced societies tend to produce sophisticated languages). As more and more people adopt English, it becomes more and more important to know until everyone has to learn it in order to meaningfully participate in global affairs. Like, everyone in Japan and Korea is forced to learn English. Since English is now the language of science, it is always able to keep up to date with the latest scientific trends.
I agree with you on this, though I wouldn't say that more advanced societies produce more sophisticated langauges - English is simply more suited for a modern lifestyle because its speakers need to fulfill the functions associated with this lifestyle. Tribal languages themselves are more serviceable for those who lead a tribal lifestyle. There is no difference in sophistication, merely functionality.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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dylancatlow
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1/7/2016 5:49:08 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/7/2016 10:27:26 AM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 1/6/2016 11:53:58 PM, dylancatlow wrote:

The post is getting so long that I have no space for my reply. I'll just quote the first sentence of each paragraph that I'm responding to.

- "Learning a mainstream language and retaining their ancestral tongue are not mutually exclusive."

True, but languages which fall into disuse will inevitably decline in popularity. Languages evolve and are sustained by social interaction. Once people adopt new languages and stop using their old language in everyday life, preserving their ancestral tongues will require a sustained effort. If people don't want to make that effort, I see no reason to take action.

- "The grounds for defending languages from extinction are not purely utilitarian, of course, but there are good utilitarian reasons to defend them. Many languages encode in their lexicons traditional knowledge about the wildlife and environment around them, such as traditional taxonomies."

Fortunately, our scientific knowledge in those areas is not limited to the information encoded in tribal languages. In any case, we can still study tribal languages in order to glean whatever insights they contain. Doing this doesn't require the languages to be spoken by large numbers of people.

- "Languages are also essential for academic study."

It's not like scientists are unable to study tribal languages once people stop speaking them. I mean, people are still studying all sorts of ancient languages that have been dead for centuries. Also, there are many experiments that scientists would *like* to perform, but which are unfeasible for ethical reasons.

- "Honestly, this is a contradictory statement, Dylan. "

No it's not. I never said that linguistic diversity won't decline, I said that the world will remain linguistically diverse whether or not obscure tribal languages die out.

- "What are the 'full range of ideas we would like to have'?"

I guess that was a bit of an overstatement. The point is that some languages are more conducive to the expression of complex and sophisticated ideas. I realize this runs against many of the prevailing attitudes in academia, but those attitudes are ideologically-driven and stupid.

- "The word 'would' does not really express any particular concept in the normal sense of the word 'concept'."

By itself, sure. But we don't derive meaning out of individuals words, we derive meaning out of sentences. "Would" can be used to modify the meaning of a sentence. Without it (or some equivalent), we wouldn't be able to express certain thoughts.

- "Basically, whenever you say anything at all, you have to state where you got the information: Saw it with your own eyes, heard it from someone else, just surmising it, etc. I think there are many obvious advantages to this, such as keeping politicians honest. Many speakers of Tariana, which has evidentiality, felt that Portuguese was vague, imprecise and insufficient because it lacked this feature."

I wouldn't say that enhances the language's expressive capacity, it's just a rule in which certain information is specified more frequently than in other languages. I mean, it's not like we can't convey exactly the same information in English, our grammar is just set up so that sentences can be constructed without having to do so.

- "As Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought, there's a cognitive system consisting of folk conceptions of time, space, matter and causality that underlies all languages. Although different languages encode this basic information differently in their language, there is no language that lack the linguistic wherewithal to convey this information."

Of course, we all deal in space, time and causality, so we have words for concepts relating to those abstract categories. However, words like "when" and "before" are simply not the same as a concept like "time". Time is more abstract. If you have no concept of time, many things become difficult.
spacetime
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1/7/2016 6:38:05 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
I don't really care about linguistic diversity... What's so great about having a bunch of different languages being spoken? Language ultimately exists only for practical utility -- if a language disappears, then that means it wasn't useful enough to its speakers for them to bother using it any longer. I fail to see why the loss of lingual diversity is "alarming."

Like, there shouldn't be any efforts to systematically eliminate minority tongues, but the loss of diversity you're speaking of is just a natural byproduct of globalization. In today's globally-interconnected society, people find it easier to just adopt more widely-spoken languages and leave their obsolete old ones behind. There's nothing wrong with that.
Call me King Pootie Tang.
spacetime
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1/7/2016 6:47:40 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
I do agree with the main point of the OP, though. No language is innately superior to another. The prevalence of a language only reflects the geopolitical influence of the culture which practices it -- not any characteristic inherent to the language itself.
Call me King Pootie Tang.
Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/8/2016 11:15:41 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/7/2016 5:49:08 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
- "Learning a mainstream language and retaining their ancestral tongue are not mutually exclusive."

True, but languages which fall into disuse will inevitably decline in popularity. Languages evolve and are sustained by social interaction. Once people adopt new languages and stop using their old language in everyday life, preserving their ancestral tongues will require a sustained effort. If people don't want to make that effort, I see no reason to take action.
But the conditions by which this process is taking place are themselves problematic. Language loss is just the tip of the iceberg. It is one of the many consequences of systematic injustices committed to indigenous people and the ecosystems they inhabit. So while I may agree that there is no need to save a language from extinction if its speakers wilfully abandon it (like the cases of Cornish and Irish), the same cannot be said of the majority if dying tongues today.

I elaborated a bit more in my reply to EmilRose: http://www.debate.org...
- "The grounds for defending languages from extinction are not purely utilitarian, of course, but there are good utilitarian reasons to defend them. Many languages encode in their lexicons traditional knowledge about the wildlife and environment around them, such as traditional taxonomies."

Fortunately, our scientific knowledge in those areas is not limited to the information encoded in tribal languages. In any case, we can still study tribal languages in order to glean whatever insights they contain. Doing this doesn't require the languages to be spoken by large numbers of people.
No, but it still requires the language to be spoken by some people, and many languages are dying out before they can be properly documented. And while science isn't limited to tribal knowledge, biologists often rely on tribal knowledge to study exotic wildlife. Had the Hawaiian language been better preserved, scientists today would know much about their fish than we do today. Though the tribes were not well versed in science, tribal knowledge was accumulated over centuries and are a treasure trove of biological knowledge. With the disappearance of their languages, scientists need to start from square one and examine the wildlife again.

Also, as I've shown in the OP, ignoring indigenous knowledge have already had horrible repercussions on the way we extract natural resources. They know how to use the resources effectively and sustainably. Scientists who have just arrived do not.
- "Languages are also essential for academic study."

It's not like scientists are unable to study tribal languages once people stop speaking them. I mean, people are still studying all sorts of ancient languages that have been dead for centuries. Also, there are many experiments that scientists would *like* to perform, but which are unfeasible for ethical reasons.
Except the dead languages we study are either a) reconstructed from living languages (not useful, since the tribal langauges die without issue) or b) have had an extensive written tradition (again not useful, since the majority of tribal languages have no orthography). And the analogy with unethical experiments isn't really valid because there's nothing unethical about retaining dying languages: It will, on the contrary, do both the tribes and the world a great service.
- "Honestly, this is a contradictory statement, Dylan. "

No it's not. I never said that linguistic diversity won't decline, I said that the world will remain linguistically diverse whether or not obscure tribal languages die out.
Like I've said, the major languages are genetically clustered in a few language families and typologically similar. The result is that the world will not remain linguistically diverse.
- "What are the 'full range of ideas we would like to have'?"

I guess that was a bit of an overstatement. The point is that some languages are more conducive to the expression of complex and sophisticated ideas. I realize this runs against many of the prevailing attitudes in academia, but those attitudes are ideologically-driven and stupid.
... they are not. There is no such thing as a 'sophisticated' language. Each language simply tailors the language to the individual needs of the speech community. They differ in functionality, so obviously all languages are better at serving some purposes than others. That doesn't mean some languages are superior to others.
- "The word 'would' does not really express any particular concept in the normal sense of the word 'concept'."

By itself, sure. But we don't derive meaning out of individuals words, we derive meaning out of sentences. "Would" can be used to modify the meaning of a sentence. Without it (or some equivalent), we wouldn't be able to express certain thoughts.
But you still haven't resolved issue with your original statement: which use of 'would' are you referring to? The temporal use, the modal use, or the politeness use? And what languages cannot express this idea (if you take discourse factors into account as well)?
- "Basically, whenever you say anything at all, you have to state where you got the information: Saw it with your own eyes, heard it from someone else, just surmising it, etc. I think there are many obvious advantages to this, such as keeping politicians honest. Many speakers of Tariana, which has evidentiality, felt that Portuguese was vague, imprecise and insufficient because it lacked this feature."

I wouldn't say that enhances the language's expressive capacity, it's just a rule in which certain information is specified more frequently than in other languages. I mean, it's not like we can't convey exactly the same information in English, our grammar is just set up so that sentences can be constructed without having to do so.
People who speak a language without an exact equivalent of 'would' probably say the same thing about 'would'...
- "As Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought, there's a cognitive system consisting of folk conceptions of time, space, matter and causality that underlies all languages. Although different languages encode this basic information differently in their language, there is no language that lack the linguistic wherewithal to convey this information."

Of course, we all deal in space, time and causality, so we have words for concepts relating to those abstract categories. However, words like "when" and "before" are simply not the same as a concept like "time". Time is more abstract. If you have no concept of time, many things become difficult.
And I challenge the claim that they have no concept of 'time'. Even if a language completely lacks tense and aspect modifiers (I don't know of any languages that does, though I wouldn't be surprised at all to find one), the concepts of time and aspect are already implicit in the semantics of verbs. I recommend picking up an introductory semantics book or The Stuff of Thought ;)

I think our view don't diverge that much on this issue. My main points of disagreement are a) your examples and b) your value judgement (that some languages are more sophisticated). If you had replaced the time example with, for example, counting, I'd agree with you (there are indeed tribes with no way of accurate counting, such as the famous Piraha example.) But I maintain that time is universal.

(Incidentally, I've observed, in the literature, that the most vociferous activists for protecting endangered languages are actually the ones who couch their appeals in relativist rhetoric. They tend to believe that tribal languages reveal different styles of cognition that we ought to preserve for diversity's sake...)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/8/2016 11:17:15 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/7/2016 6:38:05 PM, spacetime wrote:
I don't really care about linguistic diversity... What's so great about having a bunch of different languages being spoken? Language ultimately exists only for practical utility -- if a language disappears, then that means it wasn't useful enough to its speakers for them to bother using it any longer. I fail to see why the loss of lingual diversity is "alarming."

Like, there shouldn't be any efforts to systematically eliminate minority tongues, but the loss of diversity you're speaking of is just a natural byproduct of globalization. In today's globally-interconnected society, people find it easier to just adopt more widely-spoken languages and leave their obsolete old ones behind. There's nothing wrong with that.

I didn't directly address these concerns in the OP since they were not its theme, but please read my reply to EmilRose:
http://www.debate.org...
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

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Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/8/2016 11:17:38 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/7/2016 6:47:40 PM, spacetime wrote:
I do agree with the main point of the OP, though. No language is innately superior to another. The prevalence of a language only reflects the geopolitical influence of the culture which practices it -- not any characteristic inherent to the language itself.

Yep :)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

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dylancatlow
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1/9/2016 12:44:04 AM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/8/2016 11:15:41 AM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 1/7/2016 5:49:08 PM, dylancatlow wrote:

But the conditions by which this process is taking place are themselves problematic. Language loss is just the tip of the iceberg. It is one of the many consequences of systematic injustices committed to indigenous people and the ecosystems they inhabit. So while I may agree that there is no need to save a language from extinction if its speakers wilfully abandon it (like the cases of Cornish and Irish), the same cannot be said of the majority if dying tongues today.

That's a separate issue from linguistic diversity. If linguistic diversity is declining because people are being exploited, then addressing the exploitation should be our first priority. You have not shown that linguistic diversity is worth protecting at all costs. A decline in linguistic diversity might even be a good thing, because there would be fewer barriers between people and cultures which lead to a more peaceful coexistence.

No, but it still requires the language to be spoken by some people, and many languages are dying out before they can be properly documented. And while science isn't limited to tribal knowledge, biologists often rely on tribal knowledge to study exotic wildlife. Had the Hawaiian language been better preserved, scientists today would know much about their fish than we do today. Though the tribes were not well versed in science, tribal knowledge was accumulated over centuries and are a treasure trove of biological knowledge. With the disappearance of their languages, scientists need to start from square one and examine the wildlife again.

Much of the tribal knowledge regarding such things is unreliable would have to be independently confirmed by scientists anyway. They might be able to point scientists in the right direction, but I mean really, how crucial can they be to the study of biological systems? It might save scientists some headache, but it's nothing that can't be overcome. The knowledge of locals is going to be limited and superficial unless they approach things scientifically, which is usually not how things work out. You say that our knowledge of fish would be much better if the Hawaiian language had been better preserved. How are you supposed to know that if such insights were lost? What exactly were they privy to that we don't currently know about?

Except the dead languages we study are either a) reconstructed from living languages (not useful, since the tribal langauges die without issue) or b) have had an extensive written tradition (again not useful, since the majority of tribal languages have no orthography). And the analogy with unethical experiments isn't really valid because there's nothing unethical about retaining dying languages: It will, on the contrary, do both the tribes and the world a great service.

If people want to retain their ancestral tongues, that's obviously not unethical. The point is that it would be unethical for scientists to dictate how people go about their lives based on what's convenient for their research.

Like I've said, the major languages are genetically clustered in a few language families and typologically similar. The result is that the world will not remain linguistically diverse.

I don't buy that, and I'm guessing most linguistics wouldn't either. Even if the only two languages were English and Korean, there would be linguistic diversity.

- "What are the 'full range of ideas we would like to have'?"


... they are not. There is no such thing as a 'sophisticated' language. Each language simply tailors the language to the individual needs of the speech community. They differ in functionality, so obviously all languages are better at serving some purposes than others. That doesn't mean some languages are superior to others.

Yes, and the needs of some groups of people entail expression of more intricate and abstract concepts than in other societies. That's just an observation of fact. It would be incredible if it *weren't* true.

But you still haven't resolved issue with your original statement: which use of 'would' are you referring to? The temporal use, the modal use, or the politeness use? And what languages cannot express this idea (if you take discourse factors into account as well)?

I'm referring to the modal and temporal uses. Politeness is obviously a very marginal issue.

- "Basically, whenever you say anything at all, you have to state where you got the information: Saw it with your own eyes, heard it from someone else, just surmising it, etc. I think there are many obvious advantages to this, such as keeping politicians honest. Many speakers of Tariana, which has evidentiality, felt that Portuguese was vague, imprecise and insufficient because it lacked this feature."

I wouldn't say that enhances the language's expressive capacity, it's just a rule in which certain information is specified more frequently than in other languages. I mean, it's not like we can't convey exactly the same information in English, our grammar is just set up so that sentences can be constructed without having to do so.
People who speak a language without an exact equivalent of 'would' probably say the same thing about 'would'...

Sometimes, as you said, "would" is just there for politeness or some other superficial reason. Other times, it's necessary to convey the abstract notion of conditionality, without which certain ideas become very difficult if not impossible to convey to someone.

- "As Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought, there's a cognitive system consisting of folk conceptions of time, space, matter and causality that underlies all languages. Although different languages encode this basic information differently in their language, there is no language that lack the linguistic wherewithal to convey this information."

Of course, we all deal in space, time and causality, so we have words for concepts relating to those abstract categories. However, words like "when" and "before" are simply not the same as a concept like "time". Time is more abstract. If you have no concept of time, many things become difficult.
And I challenge the claim that they have no concept of 'time'. Even if a language completely lacks tense and aspect modifiers (I don't know of any languages that does, though I wouldn't be surprised at all to find one), the concepts of time and aspect are already implicit in the semantics of verbs. I recommend picking up an introductory semantics book or The Stuff of Thought ;)

There's a distinction to be made between time itself and things with temporal aspects. Time itself is much more abstract. And of course, time is only one example. Heck, some cultures probably don't even have words for "example" or "distinction" or "aspect".
Diqiucun_Cunmin
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1/9/2016 4:15:39 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/9/2016 12:44:04 AM, dylancatlow wrote:
At 1/8/2016 11:15:41 AM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
At 1/7/2016 5:49:08 PM, dylancatlow wrote:
That's a separate issue from linguistic diversity. If linguistic diversity is declining because people are being exploited, then addressing the exploitation should be our first priority. You have not shown that linguistic diversity is worth protecting at all costs. A decline in linguistic diversity might even be a good thing, because there would be fewer barriers between people and cultures which lead to a more peaceful coexistence.
You were absolutely right in saying that addressing exploitation is our first priority. Language policies (whether to suppress or encourage a language) carried out independently of other policies are always doomed to fail, as we've seen in cases like Irish. I also agree that we shouldn't be protecting languages at all costs.

I didn't go over what I think should be done in the OP, but it would involve some sort of empowerment of local people with regards to local resources (like what Strangely Like War proposed near the end) and, in some places like Vanuatu, the teaching of the local vernacular at school as a subject, similar to what nations like France have recently started doing.

Much of the tribal knowledge regarding such things is unreliable would have to be independently confirmed by scientists anyway. They might be able to point scientists in the right direction, but I mean really, how crucial can they be to the study of biological systems? It might save scientists some headache, but it's nothing that can't be overcome. The knowledge of locals is going to be limited and superficial unless they approach things scientifically, which is usually not how things work out. You say that our knowledge of fish would be much better if the Hawaiian language had been better preserved. How are you supposed to know that if such insights were lost? What exactly were they privy to that we don't currently know about?
They don't approach things with the scientific method, but focus on the functionality, which is indispensable if governments and corporations want to make the most of the natural resources in a sustainable manner. As for the Hawaiian example, I got it from Nettle and Romaine (2000), which cites Titcomb (1977). It was based on scientists' estimates, but I don't have access to Titcomb's work so I can't say how they reached the conclusion. Nettle and Romaine did, however, state that many of the fish names are preserved in dead metaphors of Hawaiian (whose literal meanings have been forgotten).

BTW, Pinker has written that biologists usually trust tribes' folk taxonomies of wildlife because humans have an innate propensity to classify species. I don't know how to evaluate his claim since Pinker isn't a biologist (Skep, if you're reading this, your input would be appreciated :P) but if it's true, then folk knowledge about wildlife really is essential to scientific study.

If people want to retain their ancestral tongues, that's obviously not unethical. The point is that it would be unethical for scientists to dictate how people go about their lives based on what's convenient for their research.
I agree.


I don't buy that, and I'm guessing most linguistics wouldn't either. Even if the only two languages were English and Korean, there would be linguistic diversity.
I guess we just define 'diversity' differently.
... they are not. There is no such thing as a 'sophisticated' language. Each language simply tailors the language to the individual needs of the speech community. They differ in functionality, so obviously all languages are better at serving some purposes than others. That doesn't mean some languages are superior to others.

Yes, and the needs of some groups of people entail expression of more intricate and abstract concepts than in other societies. That's just an observation of fact. It would be incredible if it *weren't* true.
But English is also deficient in other respects, saying, ideas related to hunting, gathering and fishing. So you can only say a language is better in one respect, not that it's better overall (which would be a subjective statement rather than a statement of fact.)

I'm referring to the modal and temporal uses. Politeness is obviously a very marginal issue.

Sometimes, as you said, "would" is just there for politeness or some other superficial reason. Other times, it's necessary to convey the abstract notion of conditionality, without which certain ideas become very difficult if not impossible to convey to someone.
I don't really think not having 'would' or an equivalent like -ais hinders conditionality et al that much. I'll just take conditionality as the example. There aren't languages that cannot convey conditionality, only languages that cannot convey conditionality explicitly. They would make use of other cues like discourse factors to deduce the meaning of the sentence. Compare these two sentences:
(1a) If I president, I fight ISIS.
(1b) If I were the president, I would fight ISIS.

(1a) and (1b) are both comprehensible. Although it does not contain 'would' and a couple of other words, its meaning remains clear. A few languages do express conditionality like (1a) (or using some paratactic equivalent), but that doesn't mean they can't express conditionality.

There's a distinction to be made between time itself and things with temporal aspects. Time itself is much more abstract. And of course, time is only one example. Heck, some cultures probably don't even have words for "example" or "distinction" or "aspect".
I'm not sure what you mean by 'time itself' here. (It makes me think of the physical notion of time, which isn't encoded in any language lol.) Do you mean means of keeping time, like weeks and months?

As for 'example', 'distinction' and 'aspect', those aren't big problems - just import those words from some other language and Bob's your uncle, problem solved. English is the best example: It got 'example' and 'distinction' from French and 'aspect' from Latin...
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...