Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Endangered Languages

When I tell people that I'm studying Icelandic, I get a lot of guff.
"Why?" they ask.
"Why not?" I reply.

Most often the argument I hear is that it's fairly useless. Icelandic isn't a global language. It's relatively isolated. There are probably only a million people in the world who speak it, probably not a lot more outside of that who care about speaking it. But for all of that, I wouldn't call it endangered. Not yet, anyway. Not as long as Iceland keeps its right to negotiate in Icelandic when dealing with the rest of the Scandinavian nations, and maintains the sense of cultural pride which has kept the language pure enough that modern Icelanders can read the Sagas as they were written.

I've talked a little bit about my frustration that we, as a culture, seem to feel that we have to have a reason to learn something. An excuse. We no longer want to learn for the joy of learning. Being a "professional student" even among people who appreciate education is still something we can't embrace-- something we find somehow foolish. The emphasis is on what you'll accomplish with the education. The career. The money. "What are you going to do with your degree?" is the question students are asked again and again. If it isn't for your career, for your professional development, there's the sense that it's a waste of money and time.

It's a waste of money and time to learn. Ouch. No wonder we have high school drop outs and people who don't see any reason to go to college. No wonder Classical Studies programs are flailing about, desperate for students. And not just Classics, but all liberal arts. Because it isn't a trade. It isn't an area of study that lends itself directly to practical application.

What does this have to do with Icelandic? Or Endangered Languages?


This is why people abandon the language of their small tribal community. Why young people are letting their traditions die out, by adapting "useful" and more common languages. Because learning their grandparents' language isn't worthwhile. They can't DO anything with it.

What people fail to see, is that every language, every piece of information, of shared knowledge, allows us a new worldview, a different way of seeing things. New ways of seeing things, of doing things, are the cornerstones of innovation. Cultural diversity NEEDS to be celebrated. Linguistic diversity is important for mapping out those different viewpoints and understanding others. Understanding OTHER.

It's kind of like the rainforest. Every language that goes extinct is like a tree being cut down, and with it goes all the amazing and unknown things we could have found living in that ecosystem. Opportunities of study, innovation, realization are destroyed. The cure for cancer, the fountain of youth, world peace. It's all the same. We need every tree to make it work.

A quote from the article--just some food for thought.

Turin said he was amazed so few linguists are working on endangered languages, and people "do PhDs on the apostrophe in French," but no one knows precisely how many undocumented languages there are. When a language ceases to exist, so does its cultural world view, and much of the heritage of the community is lost.
So my challenge to you is to go out and learn something. Not because it's going to earn you money, but because learning for the sake of learning, for the sake of understanding, is an example we should be setting for our children. Why don't we make an effort to make the preservation of differing world views and cultural heritage a part of OUR culture.

I mean, Why Not?


  1. Oh, my goodness, YES! I don't know why people behave that way--why they don't think that it's important for young children to learn more than one language in a growingly (I made that word up) globalized world--and why so many need an excuse, as you said, to study a dead language when it is the root of so many other languages! Greek and Latin and any other language are so important--so very important!

  2. Haha, I knew I could count on you for this response, Sarah. I love the Dr. guy, and can almost hear his disgust in that quote about people getting phd's for the french apostrophe instead of doing REAL studies on languages that are on their last legs...

  3. This is a hot topic in Alaska because there are several Native Alaskan languages on the endangered list. The last native speaker of Tsimshian (I think) died recently, adding one more language to the extinct list.

    I think it's great you're learning Icelandic. Now you'll have to go there to practice!

  4. Though I agree that the real world application of these sort of things are few, I think it's really cool, and you never know when it might come in useful (Heck, it was an endangered language that we used for encrypted messages during WWII). Not to mention the fact that it's a conversation starter.

  5. I see two sides to this story. Belle has a degree in English from an excellent university. Yet now, she has student loans that she must pay off... and no job to do it with. Learning is great and wonderful; you of all people know that I support it fully. But we cannot invest that kind of time, effort, and money into simply learning unless we have a way to support it.

    It's a sad state of affairs, but reality can hit pretty hard sometimes.

    On the other hand, I do believe that all people should continue learning for the sake of learning, even if they only learn smaller things such as how to cook as opposed to mastering endangered languages. My problem with our university situation is that it is not always necessary to spend that much money (if any at all) to learn many and wonderful things. After all, the public library is still free, right?

  6. Stephanie: I can imagine! That's such a sad thing, to watch a culture's entire worldview be wiped out with the death of one person.

    Bane: Practical applications are few in a DIRECT way. But learning new languages gives us a new way of seeing the world, which I would argue, especially for those in art and science, is ESSENTIAL for growth and development.

  7. SQRT(D): I know. It is sad. But that's why we need to change it, as a culture, as a nation, as a world. Small steps right?

    But, again using Icelandic as an example, We're learning it for free. The library is free. The internet is a vast resource for learning and studying. So lets take advantage of it!

  8. Very good point. Learning has it's own intrinsic value. That's one of the things I love about writing. It forces me to research and learn about things I probably wouldn't have if the plot or setting didn't demand it.

  9. Elle: Absolutely! I feel the same way! I love doing the research almost as much as the writing!

  10. Great post! I love learning. It's one of my favorite things. I do agree about the money thing. In this economy, my main focus is to keep my head above water. And I'm the kinda girl that needs the classroom environment to really thrive. It's hard for me to learn with books or internet and no human interaction. Wow, am I the only one that's feeling convicted to go and learn something today? :)

  11. Thanks Tina!

    I understand where you're coming from, too. I have a hard time disciplining myself to daily lessons without the classroom-- heck, it took me seven years of struggling to discipline myself to write daily! Never mind anything else!

    But the beautiful thing is, you can start just by reading a book about something you haven't studied!

  12. I think it's sad that not many people know a different language, other than their native one, in America. It can open so many other doors. Why not Icelandic? Sounds great to me. I've studied a bit of French and some Latin. I'm far from an expert, but I did enjoy learning the new languages.

  13. Bethany: I studied some Spanish and some Latin. The Latin grammar actually really helps me with Icelandic, bizarre as that sounds. I'm not fluent in anything though, and I hate that. One of my life goals is to learn to think in a different language! Maybe I can get there with Icelandic!

  14. (Latin helps with everything.)

    I'm glad you knew you could count on my response... and I'm glad that I was the first response!

    And to Bane of Anubis: Yeah, you're right--it's a good conversation starter. Unless, I suspect, you're on a blind date, or something. Then it's just sort of an awkward aside.

  15. Icelandic! I have heard that it is a particularly difficult language to learn. Good luck with it, and bravo for wanting to learn it!

    The view that knowledge and learning must be for some concrete end belies a poverty of imagination and curiosity. I want to learn about ANYthing that strikes my fancy, because it makes my life richer, and makes me happier. Selfish me, lol.

  16. Icelandic is definitely challenging-- although I think it would be a lot easier if I had any German background. Having some Latin background helps a LOT though, with the cases, since both those languages preserve a lot of the case and declensions that more modern languages have abandoned. If you're interested--it's free, through the University of Iceland, and it's an online course, here: http://icelandic.hi.is/

    If people don't learn new things, I can well imagine that a LACK of imagination and creativity could be the result! Symptom or the Disease?

  17. Such an interesting post! I studied Koine Greek in college, and I got so sick of the response, "Well, it's greek to me!" But there's definitely a lot to be said for learning a new whatever for learning's sake. If for no other reason than it keeps new neurons forming. :)

  18. Karen: Thanks for stopping by!
    I never studied Greek--I'm pretty intimidated by the whole different alphabet aspect.

    There's the best excuse ever--to keep the mind sharp. Isn't learning supposed to stave off degeneration and help keep memories in old age?

  19. When I was ten I wanted to learn French but I'm dyslexic, my dad and teachers believed it would have been too much of a strain. It broke my heart so study Icelandic and let the silly naysayers be damned.
    Warmest regards,

  20. Simone: Thanks for your comment-- that's a sad story. But it is never too late to learn! Maybe now is your chance to study French!

  21. I think I might have mentioned her before, but a good reason to learn Icelandic is to read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir in the original, which I certainly couldn't do. She's a great mystery author, and also a very nice person.

  22. I can only hope that I one day reach that level of fluency!


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