Linguistic diversity isn't an issue that engages lobbyists or politicians, but to those whose lifework is language, it's a matter of intense concern.
Take Lindsay Whaley and Lenore Grenoble. He's a professor of linguistics and classics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and she's a professor of Russian there. A good deal of their time recently, however, has been spent trying to heighten awareness of the pace at which the world is losing its linguistic heritage.A conference on the subject at Dartmouth, organized by Whaley and Grenoble, centered on the fading languages of North and South America, the Alaskan-Siberian region and Africa. Michael Krauss, a linguist from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who keynoted the conference, has estimated that 90 percent of the world's languages could disappear in the next century.
Some might say that the extinction of languages is a natural process of modernization and may not be all bad for social coherence. But Whaley counters that what's really being lost are unique "ways of looking at the world" - perspectives embodied in the structure of individual languages.
Grenoble agrees, speaking of the ways some languages "force you to commit yourself." English forces the use of tense to place ideas or observations in time, she says, while one Alaskan language uses suffixes that force an emotional response to what's being said. "When you're losing that, you're losing a certain view of the world," she says. "It's what makes human beings marvelous."
Neither Whaley nor Grenoble buys the argument that linguistic diversity equals social divisiveness. A common language doesn't always promote harmony, they say, noting that both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda had uniformity of language. And efforts to force language conformity can be divisive, Grenoble adds, mentioning Joseph Stalin's brutal attempts to wipe out minority languages and cultures in and around Russia.
Governmental policies have been only one factor in the decline of linguistic diversity over the years. Another is technology. The telephone and television encourage common language and culture in many parts of the world, and even such modern conveniences as air conditioning can have an impact on language. Linguists in California have traced the ebbing of some American Indian languages to the disappearance of the tradition of gathering under trees during the hot months with tribal elders who told stories in the old tongues. Now people tend to stay in the cooler air inside their own homes.
Strategies for preserving endangered languages include efforts to boost a community's pride in its language by promoting verbal arts like poetry. Where only a few native speakers remain, some linguists have helped form mentor relationships between tribal elders and younger members of a community. And there's always the option of recording rare languages.
But all these approaches demand human and diplomatic skills as well as linguistic know-how. "It's not something you can do without a community wanting it," says Grenoble. "As linguists, we have no right to go in and say, `Hey, use your language!' They may want to use the majority language." And if a researcher offends people once, Whaley notes, he may not get a second chance.