Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

. . . words are a way of fending in the world: whole languages, like species, can disappear without dropping a gram of earth weight, and symbolic systems to a fare you well can be added without filling a ditch or thimble. . . .

—A.R. Ammons

Modern linguistics is founded on a radical premise: the equality of all languages. “All languages have equal expressive power as communication systems,” writes Steven Pinker. “Every grammar is equally complex and logical and capable of producing an infinite set of sentences to express any thought one might wish to express,” says a recent textbook. “The outstanding fact about any language is its formal completeness,” wrote Edward Sapir, adding elsewhere for rhetorical effect: “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.”

Where native speakers are concerned, no language, dialect, or accent can meaningfully be described as primitive, broken, or inferior. The world’s 7,000-plus languages are fantastically various, but each one has evolved (in its particular historical, cultural, and ecological niche) to handle all the core communicative demands of daily life. Every language has a complex grammar—an almost invisible glue between words that enables meaning-making—and new vocabulary can always be borrowed or coined. Some languages may specialize in melancholy, or seaweed, or atomic structure, or religious ritual; some grammars may glory in conjugating verbs while others bristle with syntactic invention. Hawaiian has just thirteen phonemes (meaningful sounds) while the Caucasian language Ubykh, extinct as of 1992, had eighty-four. “English” (with all its technical varieties) is said to be adding up to 8,500 words per year, more than many Australian aboriginal languages have to begin with. But these are surface inequalities—questions of personality.

Perceptions of linguistic superiority or inferiority are instead based on power, class, and social status. Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core—that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their “classical” status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition. By the nineteenth century, the imperial nation-states of Europe were politely shunting them off to the museum and imposing their own equivalents: newly standardized “modern” languages like English and French. Johann Gottfried Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772) inspired would-be nation-builders to document, restore, and develop their own neglected vernaculars. One by one, the nationalists of Central and Eastern Europe adopted Herder’s program, as has virtually every modern nation-state sooner or later: warding off imperial languages from without by establishing a dominant standardized language within, at the expense of minority languages and local varieties. Two speech varieties can be called different languages if they’re mutually unintelligible, most linguists hold. But this distinction proves hard to keep up in practice. At least in modern times, a “language” has come to mean something irreducibly, but often invisibly, political, a dialekt mit an armey un a flot (a dialect with an army and a navy) in the famous Yiddish phrase attributed to Max Weinreich.

A “language” has come to mean something irreducibly, but often invisibly, political.

It was just over a century ago when a group of linguists made an effort to go beyond the language politics of imperialism and nationalism. For reasons both scientific and political, they affirmed the equality of all languages. They devoted themselves to documenting languages that were all but invisible to their contemporaries, or else considered beneath notice by all but Christian missionaries. They stressed the natural primacy of oral language (and later sign language among the deaf) over the constructed, elitist character of every written tradition. They shunned the prescriptivism of language teaching—always either a pragmatic exercise in learning rules, or an ideological exercise in promoting standards—and committed linguists to describing the actual, constant variation of real human speech. Their program could be called “radical linguistics.”

Their leading figure in the United States was Franz Boas, a German-Jewish immigrant who worked on the languages and folklore traditions of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. A committed socialist, he applied his intellectual and political energies to championing human diversity, debunking scientific racism, and establishing the modern disciplines of linguistics and anthropology in America. His student Edward Sapir documented Native languages across the American West and traced the close connections between language, culture, and thought. Boas also had three likeminded collaborators in the Russian-Jewish ethnographer-linguists Vladimir Iochelson, Lev Shternberg, and Vladimir Tan-Bogoraz. All three men were Narodniks—populist, quasi-socialist revolutionaries whose political program centered on “going to the people.” Deported to Siberia by the Tsarist government for revolutionary organizing, they indeed went to the people, learning and documenting Nivkh, Orok, Yukaghir, and other Siberian languages that today stand on the brink of extinction.

The Other Extinction

Equality, diversity, respect for orality, descriptivism (not prescriptivism), and “going to the people”: these remain fundamental tenets for any program of radical linguistics, and for anyone who cares about human language. But today there are sobering realities. The concept of linguistic equality has done little to change popular perceptions. Nor have two centuries of revolutionary political and social movements, though certain large-enough languages have been elevated to official status in the course of national liberation struggles. Nearly everywhere, a persistent stigma clings to minority languages, provincial dialects, “non-standard” accents, and working-class “sociolects,” not to mention the linguistic registers used by women, young people, and LGBTQ speakers. The vitriol routinely trained on Black English in America is representative, although politically committed linguists like William Labov and John Rickford have devoted their careers to documenting and defending its integrity. Debates about language are rarely just about language—they’re always about the speakers.

Linguistic chauvinism, now modernized and globalized, is a powerful force contributing to the mass disappearance of languages and cultures, an extinction event with fundamental and incalculable political ramifications. Up to half of all living human languages—mostly those that are undocumented, unwritten, and unknown outside their communities—can be expected to disappear over the next century. Leftists and liberals have recognized the role of global capital and its boundless growth imperative, as well as our own complicity as consumers, in the sixth (and current) mass extinction of biological life forms. So why is there more ambivalence about—or simply less awareness of—a linguistic and cultural emergency equally bound up in centuries of capitalism, imperialism, and nation-building?

Deep diversity endures in places where the world-system is a more recent arrival, like West Africa, the South Pacific, the Himalayas, and the Amazon basin. But the intricate cultural ecology of even those areas is now threatened. In the advanced capitalist core, monoculture is already a foregone conclusion, leavened only by immigration. In the United States, centuries of genocide, displacement, persecution, and assimilation have reduced some 300 distinct and mutually unintelligible Native languages to the point where only a few can still be considered strong. Despite heroic attempts at revival, at least fifty Native American languages are currently on the verge of extinction, each with fewer than ten speakers. Speech communities have always come and gone, but never before have languages vanished at the pace and on the scale they have in recent decades. New natural languages like Nicaraguan Sign and Light Warlpiri, meanwhile, are few and far between, while the specialized “languages” of subcultures and professions remain limited and superficial by comparison.

Linguistic chauvinism, now modernized and globalized, is a powerful force contributing to the mass disappearance of languages and cultures, an extinction event with fundamental and incalculable political ramifications.

In the early 1990s, a small subset of linguists began raising the alarm, trying to reorient a discipline whose well-meaning focus on elusive and trivial “universals” had led it to ignore actually existing linguistic diversity—an unfortunate legacy left by Noam Chomsky, who was a radical and a linguist but not a radical linguist. The new advocates of “language documentation” convincingly demonstrated that language death—when the last native speaker of a language dies—is accelerating dramatically. Would-be radical linguists, this writer included, have been joining local activists in recording, describing, and maintaining threatened languages, though our numbers and resources are still dwarfed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a Christian organization of missionary linguists, whose ultimate goal is to translate the Bible into every human language.

Sources of Radical Possibility

There are political, educational, scientific, and cultural reasons to support endangered languages and the communities who speak them. There is the straightforward question of justice and minority rights, since it is always the powerful who impose their languages on the powerless. There are the vast reserves of history, literature, knowledge, and wisdom embedded in these languages, the loss of which leaves all of us impoverished. Children learn best when educated in their mother tongue, but, too obsessed with the imperatives of indoctrination and assimilation, few governments ensure this basic human right. Linguistic and cultural continuity holds people together, boosting the resilience of indigenous communities in crisis. Multilingualism is strongly linked to cognitive development, potentially enhancing our capacity for empathy and open-mindedness. Yet far from being a marker of advanced formal education, multilingualism is actually the preserve of the “bottom billion,” who have no choice but to learn their more powerful neighbors’ languages.

Leftists, liberals, and progressives have a bigger stake in the future of language than they know. We hardly realize how deeply embedded capitalist mentalities now are in our very language—the ways we talk about time, space, relationships. Liberals intensely aware of privilege based on gender, race, class, or sexuality seldom consider linguistic privilege—English (or Spanish or Chinese or Hausa) is just the air we breathe. The politics of language, when we practice it at all, has been about framing, about keywords, about sloganeering in the major languages. Meanwhile, the ground is shifting under us.

Cultural destruction is an argument against unrestrained capitalism every bit as powerful as the devastation of the natural environment. Radical thinkers on the left have long recognized that standard languages are a critical element of hegemonic control. Oppressed languages have become major vehicles of dissent—from the role of Yiddish in the early-twentieth-century labor movement to the part played by Quechua and Aymara among the cocalero supporters of Evo Morales. Göran Therborn, writing recently in the New Left Review, rightly identifies “pre-capitalist populations” as one of four main social forces in the world able to mount a convincing critique of twenty-first-century capitalism. “They lack both the numbers and the resources to carry much weight, except locally,” adds Therborn, “but their struggles can be articulated with wider critical movements of resistance.”

They may not remain “pre-capitalist” much longer. “Community languages” spoken in homes and villages are giving way to “official languages” standardized and managed by technocrats, which are yielding in turn to globally important “market languages” backed by money and power—a classic monopoly process. The current extinction is not based on rational choice, but is rather an extension of power and market relations into local communities and private lives. Direct coercion of minority-language speakers has been a common feature of the destructive “deterritorialization” phase, often followed by a period spent in catastrophic cultural limbo—but now cities, jobs, schools, and media are driving a rapid “reterritorialization” on the terrain of global capital. Language competence is being recast as a human capital asset like any other, no longer an expression of allegiance or belonging to a place or a group. Language, too, melts into air.

Irreplaceable sources of radical possibility, variety, and multiplicity are at stake. Though there are certain tendencies and parameters that appear to hold cross-linguistically, the world’s languages represent thousands of natural experiments—barely understood pre-capitalist, non-capitalist, and anti-capitalist ways of seeing, understanding, and living in the world. The vanishing languages of hunter-gatherer peoples and nomadic pastoralists attest to ways of life that are deeply different and, by most accounts, more egalitarian than ours. James C. Scott writes that “barbarian was another word states used to describe any self-governing, nonsubject people” and that the manifold, little-known languages and cultures of upland Southeast Asia were in large part “strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm’s length.” Similar arguments, he points out, have been made about South America, the Maghreb, and the Sino-Tibetan borderlands—all “regions of refuge” where resistance was quietly kept culturally alive.

The world’s languages represent thousands of natural experiments—barely understood pre-capitalist, non-capitalist, and anti-capitalist ways of seeing, understanding, and living in the world.

Cooperative economics has been at its strongest when bolstered by cultural resilience, whether at Mondragon (linked to the Basque revival) or in the kibbutzim strongly associated with the reinvention of Hebrew. Likewise with the muyong, the collective rice terraces of Ifugao in the Philippines, and the traditional ahupua’a system for managing marine resources in Hawaii: complex systems are encoded in each language’s lexicon, just as surely as capitalism and the languages of northwest Europe have grown (sometimes painfully) intertwined. You don’t have to be an anarcho-primitivist to appreciate successful practices around land tenure, ecological stewardship, gift economies, and familial and communal relations, all expressed and embedded in language that often resists translation. It doesn’t take a local currency activist to learn from the remarkable shell money system developed by speakers of Yeli Dnye on Rossel Island in Papua New Guinea.

Vocabulary is a natural first place to measure loss, but the social awareness and intelligence inherent in grammar can go deeper still. In the words of linguist Nicholas Evans, the remarkably diverse grammars developed by different groups over millennia condition “our ability to construct and participate in a shared mental world, to coordinate our attention and our goals, and to keep track of who knows, feels and wants what”—capacities that lie at the secret center of all politics. “Evidential” systems, for example, represented in scattered languages across the Caucasus, the Himalayas, the Americas, and elsewhere, mandate that speakers make grammatically explicit the basis for what they’re saying. In English we do this haphazardly when we do it at all, with phrases like “maybe,” “probably,” “I think that,” as well as tone of voice. In Tibetan, however, there is one marker you have to use if you saw something yourself; another one if you drew an inference from something you saw; a third if you’re speaking from hearsay, general knowledge, or inference from general facts; and one more if you’re being noncommittal, or secretive, or just have a hunch. What might this mean for Tibetan speakers’ ideas about law, justice, and ethical behavior? These can be intricate and difficult connections to trace, but time is running out to investigate, let alone learn from, our linguistic differences.

The Politics of Babel

For some individuals, the breakdown of traditional communities is an emancipation; for others a disaster. Even in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect, and support, some individuals and some groups may choose to give up their language while others stick with it. For a nation-state, a homogenous national identity may seem to have benefits in terms of a common national framework, deliberative democracy, efficiency, and social cohesion. Is it possible, then, for Babel to be a social democracy? Liberal theorists of multiculturalism have worked to reconcile democracy and deep diversity, though linguists and language activists—not to mention the actual workings of languages—have barely figured in these debates. Radical linguistics can add a dimension by stressing not just the individual and collective rights of speakers, but the importance of a hyper-diverse linguistic heritage for keeping the cultural and political horizon open.

For instance, Michael Walzer argues that individuals are more likely to flourish as “participants in a common life,” anchored in culture and community. An important question, then, is whether we can create communal bonds under contemporary capitalism that are as strong as existing ethnic solidarities. “Subcultures” sometimes look more like market segments; they may be elective affinities, but dissolve far too easily for precisely that reason. Indeed, the traditional cultures that seem to survive under market pressure may be in danger of becoming transient, commodified entities. Another political theorist, Will Kymlicka, justifies the inclusion of cultural communities within the liberal state because they give autonomous individuals “a context of choice.” But with “choice” front and center, are we relegating all traditions to the marketplace and turning culture into a popularity contest? While Kymlicka writes that “national minorities should have the same tools of nation-building available to them as the majority nation,” the reality is that many majority-language speakers see small languages as primitive and not worth supporting.

Some countries have sought to strike an intricate balance, encouraging distinctive languages and cultures to provide just enough breathing room for identity and solidarity to flourish; the idea is that language communities should be permeable membranes, not impenetrable walls. The political form this usually takes is local cultural autonomy paired with national commitments of a legal and political nature. “Territorial rights” in Switzerland protect language speakers wherever they are most concentrated. Trickier to uphold are “personal rights,” such as those applying to French speakers in Canada wherever they go.

These days, however, it’s forced assimilation, not the recognition of difference, that is setting countries on the road to separatism. Today’s secessionism has everything to do with majority intolerance (or at least insensitivity) to minority needs. Margaret Thatcher is widely held to be the unwitting architect of the Scottish independence movement, just as Franco’s chauvinistic tyranny inspired Catalonian nationalism. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Vladimir Putin, and their Soviet forebears bear responsibility for the stridency of Ukrainian nationalism, while diehard Ukrainian nationalists can in turn be credited for hardening attitudes among Russian speakers and Tatars in Crimea.

The mass extinction of languages is a process that can be resisted and mitigated, though surely not halted completely. The first imperatives are toleration and accommodation: the cessation of active persecution and a serious struggle against linguistic chauvinism and privilege everywhere, starting at home. Where the remaining indigenous languages look to be in terminal decline, as in the United States, Canada, or Australia, the question is how best to bolster the many new Native-led revitalization programs, as some state and provincial governments are starting to do. Progress is measured in droplets: entries in a new dictionary, a new “apprentice” speaker trained by a “master,” the launch of a new vocab-building app. The road to cultural restitution is a long and challenging one.

Meanwhile, with sensitive outside help, “mega-diverse” countries like Indonesia, Tanzania, India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu might become models. These are places where a “neutral” language like English (or Indonesian or Swahili or Tok Pisin) may already be used in official situations and for intra-group communication, but where local languages are starting to enjoy enhanced respect, at least in some cases. In these countries, the fevered impulse toward monolithic nation-building might be starting to cool.

Struggling languages of a certain size and dynamism can still survive and develop with the right combination of autonomy, economic resources, and sheer grit, as powerfully attested by Maori, Welsh, Catalan, and Hawaiian, all radically reborn since the 1960s. In each case, a broader cultural renaissance was essential, as well as a genuinely political movement focused on achieving local autonomy peacefully. Now imagine a world in which such cases multiply, a diverse, democratic Babel where meaningful differences live, not only among individuals but among the communities we form and we join, as “participants in a common life.”

Ross Perlin writes on language, labor, and politics. He is assistant director of the Endangered Language Alliance in New York.

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