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Language in Danger: How Language Loss Threatens Our Future
Andrew Dalby
London: The Penguin Press, 2003.
£18.99, 329 pages, ISBN 0-71-399443-6.

Denis Jamet
Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3


Andrew Dalby’s latest publication, Language in Danger, is an interesting and thrilling book aimed at linguists, but also at non-specialists interested in the evolution of the different languages still spoken at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and especially in the crucial role played by English since the early twentieth century. It mainly tackles the essential issue of the predominance of English in the contemporary world, and more specifically, the dangers this predominance entails for other languages; yet, the scope of investigation is much broader than this single subject, which makes Language in Danger a very useful textbook for linguistic students.

It is estimated that 5,000 different languages are spoken as mother tongues at the beginning of the twentieth century, but that only 2,500 will survive by the end of the twenty-second century, which represents an average loss of one language every two weeks! The various reasons for the disappearance of several minority languages together with the spread of English and of some national languages are explored throughout the book which is, as Dalby puts it, “not an optimistic book” [xii]. It is divided into seven chapters:

Chapter 1, entitled “Language and our species,” focuses on the birth, life and death of specific languages, though the author is aware of the danger of the anthropomorphic metaphor. Dalby first explores the characteristic features of human language, such as grammar, and the way every human being has the innate capacity to learn at least one language. This is possible, for the author, as it is now estimated that half of language is made of “universals” found in all languages, and the other half is made of individual creations, allowing all languages to evolve thanks to individual innovations, whether they be lexical, grammatical or phonological. The author then explores the divergences between languages since Babel, which enables him to write a short history of the English language we currently use. At the beginning, there were various Germanic dialects, among which Frisian rapidly predominated, as it became the lingua franca. The Viking invasion brought a lot of Old Norse words into what was to become English. But the most important influence remains the role played by French during the Norman Conquest, as almost half the English vocabulary may be traced to French, Latin and Greek (which makes the contemporary French fear of the English linguistic invasion all the more ironic), as well as Arabic for scientific language. What can be drawn from any history of any language is that when people get in contact, language is bound to evolve.

Dalby then passes on to the question of the various languages spoken all around the world, a “language” being described as “a group of dialects, or a collection of ‘voices,’ that are mutually comprehensible” [26]. There is no definite, reliable figure for it, but the different estimates are between 4,910 and 6,703 languages, which is close to the author’s own estimate of 5,000. The difficulty first lies in the very definition of the word “language,” but also in the fact that we are not sure how many languages are spoken on earth. It is even more difficult to have an estimate for the number of speakers of any given language. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new trend which has never been seen before is taking place: nearly half the people in the world learn one of only eleven languages as their mother tongue, and even more interestingly, only twelve languages are used by about two thirds of the people in the world! At the same time, we experience a dramatic fall in the number of languages, and the main reason for the disappearance of a language is when it is no longer taught to children. But why would one stop teaching a language to one’s children? According to Andrew Dalby, it is probably when states start being organized as large centralized political units that the number of local languages tends to decline sharply.

Chapter 2, entitled “Language and change,” revisits the past in order to get an insight into our potential linguistic future. Dalby chooses to focus on the Roman Empire and its languages, many of which disappeared in favor of Latin and Greek, even if there were no means of communication such as television, the radio, books, the Internet, etc. like nowadays. From 100BC to 500AD, only Greek and Latin survived. Why such a success for those two languages? At that time, most cities were multilingual, as Latin spread with Roman power. Languages such as Gaulish and Punic disappeared, even if they were languages spoken by powerful empires, because writing played no part in the educational system of the Gauls, and the Punic libraries were destroyed, so that no written evidence was left. The only two languages that survived the influence of Latin were Arabic (because of the religious conquest of Islam) and Libyan. The author draws the following conclusion from his study of the languages during the conquest of the Roman Empire: the languages which disappeared were those whose speakers became dependent on Rome for their survival and prosperity, and had thus to adopt the leading language, i.e. Latin (crucial role for politics and law) and Greek (crucial role for cultural issues, debates). On the contrary, those which survived were the languages whose speakers had little or no contact at all with Roman culture, and consequently, with their language. The expansion of Latin can also be explained by the fact that it was quite easy to become a Roman citizen at that time, and to do so, you needed to know Latin—which rapidly became synonymous with political, social and economic privileges. More and more parents started to educate their children in Latin rather than in their local languages, which accounted for the decrease of these local languages (we will see that the same will be true for English as from the nineteenth century onwards). What could seem paradoxical is that there was no nationalism in Rome, as Latin was not imposed on people. So it is worth asking why almost all local languages soon became supplanted by Latin; just because Latin became essential for trade and employment, so it was taught by parents to their children to the detriment of their local, traditional languages. By the end of the first century AD, most of the local languages ceased to be used in writing, and almost all disappeared by the end of the fifth century.

If many languages borrowed Latin words for technical achievement, government and the army, it is also worth noting that as more and more people adopted Latin and Greek, the two languages experienced major grammatical and phonological changes, showing a tendency to get rid of complex forms. The Roman Empire gradually became politically fragmented and gave way to European provinces, as Latin started to evolve and turned into various dialects (which would eventually become French, Italian, Spanish, etc.).

Chapter 3, entitled “Language and community,” examines the relationship between English as the dominant language and other local languages that have already disappeared (Cornish) or will soon (Welsh and Gaelic). This trend is even more patent for Welsh because, according to Dalby—and some linguists may disagree—even if Welsh speakers are definitely attached to their language, they nowadays prefer to teach their children English, the majority language, because they think it will be easier for them to study, to find a job, etc. A conclusion can already be drawn at this point: every time a new (majority) language is adopted to the detriment of a (minority) language, the latter is bound to disappear in the near future, as well as bilingualism which is the rule before this final stage. Bilingualism—or even multilingualism—is not an exception because many people in the world speak several languages, and this fact leads Dalby to focus on two languages: Romani (gypsy language) and Yiddish (traditional Jewish language). We may indeed wonder why these languages still exist, and why they did not disappear. Romani is still spoken because of the remarkable cohesion of gypsy society, and even if it became a kind of secret language, it is still taught to children; henceforth, it is not bound to disappear. As for Yiddish, it is just surviving, especially in the US, but it also became a secret language, and when a language becomes a secret language, it is very often on its way out.

This leads Dalby to question the role of governments and their policies in the protection of multilingualism. If we take the case study of Ireland, even if a small part of education was conducted in Irish as early as 1922, it was not enough to prevent the number of Irish native speakers from dwindling. One may wonder why it is different in Switzerland, where French, German and Italian coexist: Dalby suggests it is because the three languages have a cultural weight which is absent in Irish, but this factor does not seem to be working for Canada, where two dominant languages are used, English and French, but with a fall for French. Belgium presents another interesting case, where 42% speak French (Walloon), 50% Dutch (Flemish) but only 7% are bilingual (1% speak Low German). If the EU is more and more interested in minority languages—and is thus ready to spend money in their defense—it was not always the case. At the beginning of the USSR, there were more than a hundred minority languages, many of which disappeared when Russian became a compulsory subject in schools (as early as 1938). The conclusion drawn by Dalby is that if some minority languages persist, it is because of “the cohesion of individual communities and the need they have to interact with others” [125].

Chapter 4, entitled “Language and nation,” deals with the following issue: what happens when a government decides to impose its own language to other groups of people? In other words, Dalby investigates what Arnold Toynbee called “the evil spirit of linguistic nationalism.” The idea of defining a nation by its language is an old idea which can be traced back to the Greeks and the Romans, but which disappeared, only to resurface in modern times, and particularly since the French Revolution. France can be considered as the country which most cultivated this notion of linguistic nationalism (there are many examples among which the 1539 Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts imposing French as the official language for legal documents and transactions, the Abbey Grégoire’s survey in 1790 to promote French as the official language, etc.). If everybody knows the close links existing between France and the US, one may not be aware of the reason sometimes invoked by the American government to account for the destruction of indigenous Indian languages (and therefore part of their culture): the practices in usage in Europe. The same remains true nowadays, for instance with the Official English Movement which succeeded in imposing English as the official language of some states. The first victim of this movement is Spanish, but Native American languages also are. Another proof that languages are in danger lies in the fact that, a state being often defined by the language it speaks, the number of current languages (around 5,000) and the number of states (around 200) do not correspond, and the trend is toward a reduction of the number of languages; besides, this was what was done in France, Great-Britain, the USA, in fact, in most developed countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The recent interest in minority languages and cultures does not seem sufficient to reverse, or even to stop this dreadful trend. Dalby provides eloquent figures: out of 210 indigenous languages in the US and Canada, only 70 are still spoken by adults and children. The conclusion reached by Dalby is that “[t]he sooner a language was encountered by Europeans, the sooner it ceased to exist” [157]. The setting up of boarding schools for Indians (with the ominous motto “Kill the Indian, save the man”) led to a process of acculturation causing the loss of many languages, and thus reduced bilingualism among Indian tribes. These schools existed till the 1950s, and it was only in 1990 that the Native American Languages Act became a law, but it had very little impact as traditional Indian languages were taught in schools, but not in the family circle; parents quickly understood that their children had to speak English if they wanted to get power and social mobility, and years of acculturation often made them ashamed of their indigenous language. The outcome is thus quite paradoxical: laws have been passed to protect indigenous languages, but the speakers of those languages do not teach them any more, and often do not even speak them. Furthermore, the media have replaced the boarding schools in the current linguistic standardizing trend.

Chapter 5, entitled “How to become a global language,” explores the necessary conditions for a language to become dominant in a given state. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the emergence of education for almost everyone, with a need for governments to choose the language people were educated in, which was very often—not to say always—the national language. The spread of state education naturally led to the increase of monolingualism to the detriment of bilingualism. If national education developed literacy, few books and newspapers are actually printed in minority languages; to get the information, you have to know the national language. Even if there are some efforts from international organizations such as UNESCO to promote linguistic diversity, especially in developing countries, these countries have economic reasons not to promote minority languages but to turn to English or even French because of trade and education. All this has reduced the spheres of daily life in which minority languages are spoken.

Andrew Dalby then retraces the history of the English language to be able to understand why, how and when it became a global language. English was first a dialect of the Lowlands of Britain. It survived Norse and Norman French, and spread to Ireland (from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries), Scotland (twelfth century) and Wales (thirteenth century) through invasions, settlements and conquests. Then it spread to North America in the late sixteenth century where it rapidly became a lingua franca to the detriment of French and Spanish. English rapidly reached other countries such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Argentina, as well as all the British colonies (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, etc.). Dalby then draws an interesting parallel between the fate of English and that of Latin; Latin used three routes to become a “global” language: colonization, government and what it entails, as well as long distance trade. Latin thus became a lingua franca for tradesmen. It is not difficult to see that the three routes have also been used by English that expanded dramatically in the twentieth century, all the more as it remains in use in most of (all?) countries that came under its influence. Even if English is not a mother language, there are almost no countries in which English is not taught as a second or third language, for which Dalby provides interesting figures: from 1936 to 1986, the number of English native speakers rose from 174 million to 300 million, and the number of second-language speakers soared from 20 million to 300 or 400 million! In 1997, David Crystal estimated the number of “fluent” English-users to 700 million, and the number of “competent” users to 1,800 million. The key-question remains: why is it so useful to learn English as a second language? Because English has become the language of the economy, politics, diplomacy, science, IT, scholarship, a language used by more and more international institutions such as UNO, EU, etc. English seems to have become the lingua franca of the world because there are more and more English loanwords in many languages, not only in technical, scientific areas, but also in everyday life. Nevertheless, there is not ONE English language, but several varieties of English about which one may wonder if they will evolve into different languages, just as Latin did. Dalby does not think so, as the differences are rather likely to decrease because of television and the ever growing role played by the Internet.

Chapter 6, entitled “When we lose a language,” tries to answer the rather frightening question: what do we lose when a language is forgotten, when it disappears? The loss of a language can be slow (case of “language shift,” when speakers of a minority language cease to teach it, and eventually to speak it because it is more useful for them to adopt the national / official language) or very quick (case of massacres, infectious diseases). It can take one or more generations for the language to cease being spoken, gradually being impoverished in its grammar and its vocabulary. When a language disappears, the culture and the way of life of its speakers also disappear. According to the author, it is better to use the term “language ceasing to be used” instead of “language death,” for a language is lost as soon as it is no longer spoken. However, some languages just “die” when there are no speakers left and there are no written records of that language. Even if there is a growing awareness of this and more and more organizations which, as in the US for instance, try to keep the memory of forgotten or soon to be forgotten languages, their impact is not really significant. For example, in 1970 there were 90,000 Indians in the US, but only a few thousand could be considered speakers of Native American languages.

The concluding chapter, chapter 7, entitled “The loss of diversity,” sums up the major answers given in the book, but also widens the scope of inquiry by questioning the so-called “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” and establishing a link between this hypothesis and the contemporary loss of languages. Even if we might have preferred the discussion on the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” to have been shorter, the author is finally right to draw a parallel between those issues. In fact, the hypothesis consists of two hypotheses:

- linguistic relativity, according to which different languages embody different world views.
- linguistic determinism, according to which a speaker of any language is more or less compelled to think about the world in a specific way, the way determined by his/her language.

Even if the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” is totally rejected by some contemporary linguists (such as Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct), it is still widely discussed, which paradoxically proves that it has some influence, all the more as this rejection is based on a misunderstanding, Whorf believing in linguistic relativity but having doubts about linguistic determinism. Nevertheless, Dalby concludes that even if this hypothesis is sometimes rejected, when a language disappears, i.e. when a language ceases to be spoken, a part of culture does disappear. Whorf may have been misread, because when one reads his works carefully, one realizes that he never actually wrote that the thinking process of speakers was limited by their own language, because their practice of the language, and the language itself may vary and change.

This reflection of the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” naturally leads to the question of bilingualism, a crucial issue in Dalby’s book, because bilingualism means that languages are in contact, and when they are, the various world views they express are in contact too. The pivotal issue remains the future of English in the years to come: Will it end up like Latin? Will it surpass other minority languages? On the other hand, other languages such as Chinese or Hindi are the mother languages of many people, but the author doubts that they will surpass English, because their scope is geographically-limited, contrary to English which is spoken as a mother language all around the world. Another hypothesis could be that language loss would stabilize in the future, and that only national languages (such as French, Spanish, German, etc.) would remain, but one has to acknowledge that they are already threatened by English: all national languages (except English) undergo a decrease in the fields of use and a significant increase in the number of loanwords borrowed from English, as well as a real fashion for English words. If today’s languages are around 5,000, the estimates are around 2,500 in a hundred years, and around 200 in two hundred years, where only national languages are likely to survive. This may sound the death knell for bilingualism which only continues if people find it useful to speak two or more languages; if this need disappears, bilingualism—we mean real, everyday bilingualism—may well disappear from the surface of the earth as well. If linguists have recently been more and more concerned with the preservation of minority languages, politicians are not really: why would they put money in languages spoken by such a small number of speakers (sometimes just a dozen), especially when it is those speakers who decide to give up their own mother tongues for economic reasons? Dalby concludes his book by asking the recurrent question: why is it dangerous to lose languages?

The answer is threefold:

1/ When a language ceases to be spoken, the local culture is very often also lost.
2/ When a language ceases to be spoken, the alternative worldviews it provides are also lost.
3/ The loss of languages finally casts a shadow on the future and the richness of other languages which did, do and will borrow words from other languages, as it has been demonstrated in the history of all languages; as a matter of fact, it is very rare for words to be created ex nihilo.

The obvious conclusion is that language disappearance has to be stopped, not only for those minority languages that cease to be spoken, but also for the richness and variety of national languages, including English.

All in all, this book is strongly to be recommended in so far as it is a real contribution to the study of the history of language, but also inasmuch as it helps our understanding of the present and mostly of the future of languages.


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