Friday, May 10, 2013

Harrison, K. D. (2007). When Languages Die: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge. New York: Oxford.

I was impressed by this book, which I taught in the last part of the spring, maybe April to now. The author is a professor at Swarthmore and took almost twelve years crossing the globe, talking to people in remote places about their endangered languages. In the course of finding out why their languages are endangered, and what they are doing about it, he also was able to make generalizations about indigenous languages in general, about world trends, etc.

These languages have a wide variety of ways to talk about numbers, from the Melanesians, who invented abstract math independently, to the Piraha, who have no use for numbers at all, really. Languages have different ways of orienting their people in space; they have ways of talking about where they are and how to get where they want to go.

So what do they have in common? Very little, according to Dr. Harrison. Greenberg's universals, which intend to find commonalities among the ways they talk about numbers, can all be disproven, one at a time. Dr. Harrison does not pretend to hold up Chomsky's ideas; in fact, he calls Chomsky narrow, unnecessarily focused on the world's "major" languages, and unnecessarily focused on grammar, at the expense of the other building blocks of language. Some of what he concluded, I will copy below:
The lack of meaning does not hinder linguists in our investigation of mental structures: we have come to focus mainly on the structures themselves, not their cultural meanings. This has been the conventional wisdom in linguistics for at least four decades. But although languages certainly contain abstract structures, they evolve and exist to convey information within a specific cultural matrix, and that function permeates and influences every level of language. To its critics, including me, the Chomskyan program has been unduly narrow, overly focused on large, globally dominant languages, and preoccupied with structure at the expense of content. (pp. 205-206)
It was also inspirational to me that, essentially, he said that language was a self-organizing system.
...when we sum up all these discoveries, both across many languages and within a single one, we achieve a clearer insight into the grand realm of human cognition. Language may by its very structure force speakers to attend to certain qualities of the world (shape, size, gender, countability). Languages are self-organizing systems that evolve complex nested structures and rules for how to put the parts of words or sentences together. No two languages do this in the same way. (p. 236)

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