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On the Death and Life of Languages

On the Death and Life of Languages

Translated by Jody Gladding
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    On the Death and Life of Languages
    Book Description:

    Twenty-five languages die each year; at this pace, half the world's five thousand languages will disappear within the next century. In this timely book, Claude Hagège seeks to make clear the magnitude of the cultural loss represented by the crisis of language death.

    By focusing on the relationship of language to culture and the world of ideas, Hagège shows how languages are themselves crucial repositories of culture; the traditions, proverbs, and knowledge of our ancestors reside in the language we use. His wide-ranging examination covers all continents and language families to uncover not only how languages die, but also how they can be revitalized-for example in the remarkable case of Hebrew. In a striking metaphor, Hagège likens languages to bonfires of social behavior that leave behind sparks even after they die; from these sparks languages can be rekindled and made to live again.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15579-2
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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    • 1. Languages, Providers of Life
      (pp. 3-10)

      When we examine human societies and the relationships they maintain with their languages, a truth that seems a matter of simple good sense presents itself: living languages do not exist of themselves, but by and for groups of individuals who make use of them in everyday communication. That does not mean that languages’ only definition is social. As manifestations of the faculty of language, they are complex cognitive structures that reflect the way the mind functions when it produces and interprets utterances; and they bear the marks of the operations by which the universe of perceptions and concepts is expressed....

    • 2. Languages, Living Species
      (pp. 11-22)

      One might consider that if languages are providers of life, as we have seen in the first chapter, it is logical to infer that they have something to do with the world of living species. Today we have distanced ourselves somewhat from the vitalist formulations that were common in the thinking and the work of linguists in the nineteenth century. But it is illuminating to reread those works, even with a critical eye, because they show how the properties of languages powerfully tempt us to treat them like natural beings comparable to those that biology studies.

      The name A. Schleicher...

    • 3. Language and Speech
      (pp. 23-30)

      The goal of this chapter is not to give a didactic account of the way in which language theories treat the problem of the death of languages. Nor do I intend to yield to the complacencies of the quest of forerunners. I will recall an opposition, well-known to linguistics historians, that Humboldt outlined, making use of Greek terms, when he emphasized that language is anenergeia, or creative and dynamic capacity, through which humans produce and interpret linguistic utterances, and not simply anergon, or pure result of this capacity. It is often said that this conception, coming through Haman...

    • 4. Words and the Struggle for Life
      (pp. 31-48)

      Words die. “Why?” we may ask. We might just as well ask why they should not be mortal. There are many reasons why they do not live forever. I will examine the four principal ones here. The first two involve the death of words themselves, the last two the death of their meanings, replaced by one or many others.

      Changes in society and economic relations cannot leave the lexicon intact, because words reflect cultures and ideas. To limit myself to one specific case that succinctly illustrates this phenomenon, I will examine the French vocabulary during the period from 1900 to...


    • 5. What Is a Dead Language?
      (pp. 51-74)

      We usually say that a language is dead when it no longer has users (or “locutors,” more technically speaking). But there are many ways for a language to be dead. Thus, Latin and Greek ceased to be spoken a very long time ago. Nevertheless, in France, they are both represented among the subjects taught in schools (at least until now, although they are increasingly in danger of being excluded from programs). Academic administrations call them “ancient languages,” Greek being justly called “classical” (as opposed to today’s Greek, which is called “modern” and which is spoken). Students can choose classical Greek...

    • 6. The Paths to Extinction
      (pp. 75-105)

      It would seem that there are three ways for a language to disappear. The first is transformation: a language is greatly altered over the course of a process that can take a very long time, so that, at a certain moment, a new language can be said to have appeared. Such is the history of the transformation of Latin into various Romance languages. Another case is the one of modern languages for which certain classical languages represent its former state, such as Russian and Turkish, as described earlier. We have seen that historical continuity is quite direct here; in this...

    • 7. The Battalion of Causes
      (pp. 106-168)

      This is the simplest case, if one may dare to say so. Here, the speakers disappear, every last one of them, without assuring any transmission of the language, even to foreigners. It could be a matter of a natural catastrophe, like the 1815 volcanic eruption that caused the death of all the Tambora people, inhabitants of the Sumbawa island in the Indonesian archipelago of the Lesser Sunda Islands that separates Java from Timor. All we have of Tambora is the short vocabulary list an English traveler made at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although they have not yet been...

    • 8. Taking Stock
      (pp. 169-203)

      Before establishing a tally for the death of languages, it is useful to have some idea of the number of those that are alive. This assessment can vary widely depending on the criteria used to decide what will be called a language. One of the reasons for the discrepancies is that if only languages are to be considered, then dialects ought to be excluded. Now, attributing one or the other of these two statuses to a given idiom varies depending on linguists, and not everyone agrees on the definition that seems the simplest: a language is one of the opposing...

    • 9. Factors in Preservation and the Struggle Against Disaster
      (pp. 204-238)

      The current attitude of a portion of Bretons, Scots, and Occitans, to take only these examples, can be considered something new. Just when the essential factors for abandoning these languages were closing in on the economic, social, and political levels, accompanied by the resulting loss of prestige, there was a resurgence of pride among the most aware. Pride is a factor that can counteract destructive forces. Those inheriting a tradition of humiliation can call it into question, and draw a heightened sense of identity from the very thing that made their ancestral language contemptible: its—or its speakers’—marginality.



    • 10. Hebrew—From Life to Death and From Death to Life
      (pp. 241-310)

      The Hebrew that we now call “Biblical” as opposed to modern Hebrew, also called “Israeli” Hebrew, was a spoken language for a considerable period of time. A spoken language here means a language that not only existed as a system, but also possessed the essential dimension that F. de Saussure called parole (see chapter 3). It is often hard to imagine that ancient languages could have been the means of daily communication. This difficulty is greatly eased here, because the language spoken today in the state of Israel, where it has official status, is designated by the same name as...

    • 11. New Languages, Creoles, Promotions
      (pp. 311-327)

      Since they are not a matter of rebirths in the strict sense, I will not revisit those courageous efforts by a few enthusiasts who refuse to sit by and watch their languages disappear. In this regard, I have already mentioned, in chapter 9, Maori, Hawaiian, Mohawk, Hualapai, Rama, Urat, and Atacameño. At least in the case of Maori, it seems that, so far, these efforts are successful.

      The proven cases of dead or dying languages that come back to life can be distinguished from Hebrew in that none of them involve the language of an established and independent state. Until...

  4. Conclusion
    (pp. 328-334)

    The pace at which languages are disappearing in the contemporary world can inspire much pessimism. In a relatively recent text, we can read (Mohan and Zador 1986, 318): “The big purge of world languages has already begun; it will continue until only a tiny crew remain, or maybe only an English payload for the new age of earth spaceships. In Hindu mythology, extinction marks the end ofkaliyuga, the dark age in which man and his world live in hopelessness and suffering. This extinction is salutary, because it makes room for a new and better world.”

    I am not sure...