Why do we fight so hard to preserve endangered languages?

The divisive case of Pitkern

(Image credit: (Ikon Images/Corbis))

The Pitkern language is dying.

Pitkern is the language spoken on Pitcairn Island and Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific. It's spoken by only 500 people. Younger speakers are increasingly preferring English, and many of them are moving to New Zealand or other English-speaking places. Even the small Pitkern-language version of Wikipedia has been proposed for closure twice. But if the young people don't want to speak the language, what's the point, right?

The point, as many linguists and others will tell you, is that losing a language is like losing a species. It's a kind of extinction. As the linguist James Crawford said, when languages die the world loses four big things: linguistic diversity, intellectual diversity, cultural diversity, and cultural identity.

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There are organizations dedicated to preventing this. The National Geographic Society has created an Enduring Voices Project in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to help preserve languages, which it sees as preserving culture, ancient knowledge, ways of doing things, and ways of thinking. Many endangered languages have no written form, and with their loss we lose folklore, stories, the views and understandings of countless generations of humans. We also lose knowledge about plants, animals, ecosystems, and geography. Even with the ones that have a written form, if the speakers die out, no one thinks about the world in just that way anymore, dividing it up into those names and categories. Preserving languages is like preserving nature. No one could possibly object to it. Could they?

But some people do sometimes. This includes some of the speakers of the endangered languages themselves. Some speakers see their language as limiting: if they or their children are to be successful, they need to know the language of education, of science, of business, so they can talk to other people and gain the vast stores of knowledge available. How can major languages be insufficient when there's so much knowledge recorded in them? Can't you just take your local knowledge and translate it into English or Spanish?

Even noted linguists aren't always on the language preservation bandwagon. Peter Ladefoged, one of the great names in modern linguistics, once pointed out that in some countries tribalism is a threat to national peace and unity, and pushing preservation of local languages over a national language aids and abets this schism. Is avoiding the death of languages worth causing the death of people? What's more, resources are finite, and sometimes you have to choose which languages to focus on or all of them may be lost.

Another prominent linguist, Salikoko Mufwene, reminded linguists more recently that all languages change all the time, and language death and language birth are not separate things. Linguists fight people who want to pin English to an ideal version from one time and place, so how can they pin any other language down in the same way? A language is not an animal, after all. It is not even a species of animal. It is in constant variation. Each person speaks different varieties at different times, and a given person may speak several languages.

Beyond that, some of the justifications given for preserving languages go against principles most linguists hold to be true. Language shapes the way its speakers see the world? Knowledge is untranslatably encoded in a language? These ideas are, shall we say, controversial.

In any event, if speakers no longer want to speak a language, who are we to tell them that they are wrong? It's their language, not ours, and it's paternalistic of us to expect them to do as we wish just to satisfy our need for authentic cultures to fill the pages of magazines. We may be well justified in wanting to preserve the language for future generations; members of a culture that has lost its language sometimes feel the loss sharply, and may even seek to regain the knowledge. But it's still theirs to keep or lose, not ours. And if they don't want their culture to become our museum piece, that's their right.

But if the speakers don't resist having the language recorded, we can still preserve it. Languages have been brought back from "death" — the Celtic languages Cornish and Manx are often given as examples, with fewer than two dozen new native speakers but hundreds of second-language speakers. It's not quite a linguistic Jurassic Park, but it's more than nothing. And Hebrew, which was no one's home language for a long time, is now the first language of millions of people thanks to a successful revival.

Not all languages have an existing literature, however, and certainly not one like Hebrew has. And linguists aren't available in unlimited supply to travel the world and put together dictionaries and lexicons and record oral histories. That's where things such as a language-specific version of Wikipedia come in.

Which brings us back to Pitkern.

Pitkern is slowly dying, and some people even want to get rid of the small Pitkern-language version of Wikipedia. Some of the reasons to kill the Pitkern Wikipedia are the same as reasons for fighting to keep the language alive: it's mostly spoken, without much literature; it's losing speakers to a surrounding dominant English culture. Anyway, it looks a lot like a dialect of English with some Tahitian influence.

Oh, yeah. That's the other thing. Pitkern (also called Norfuk) is a creole, a mix of English and Tahitian, and it's been around for just about 200 years.

Have you heard of the Mutiny on the Bounty? In 1789, a group of sailors on the ship Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian, mutinied against Captain William Bligh. This actually happened, not just in movies. Some of the mutineers, along with some Tahitians, settled on Pitcairn Island; in 1856, some of their descendants took over an abandoned penal colony on Norfolk Island (3,900 miles to the west), and the rest remained on Pitcairn. The two languages blended into something that still has a lot of resemblance to English.

Or, as the Pitkern article on Pitcairn Island puts it, "T' ofishol laenghwij f' ai Pitkern Ailen es Pitkern. Pitkern (tuu Norfuk) es a'langgwidc tat es spokn i' Norfuk ailen tuu. Es a' miks a' oel Inglish en Tahityan laenghwij, wi' Inglish maeken mor enfluens." Read that out loud and it will sound very much like, "The official language of the Pitcairn Islands is Pitkern. Pitkern (also Norfuk) is a language that is spoken in Norfolk Island too. It's a mix of old English and Tahitian language, with English making more influence."

Do you feel the same about Pitkern now? Why or why not?

The Pitkern language doesn't preserve knowledge from time immemorial, true. But it does have two centuries of cultural history behind it. It may look a lot like a respelled version of English, but it's not actually identical, and it's an expression of a different perspective, a mark of a distinctive culture. And it's interesting linguistic data.

Besides, many endangered languages are similar to other languages, sometimes as similar to a non-endangered language as Pitkern is to English. That's often one reason they're endangered: It's so easy for their speakers to switch to the more dominant local language.

And a creole is still a real language. One of the threatened languages National Geographic highlights is Mednyj Aleut, a creole formed from contact between Aleut and Russian. Being a creole doesn't make a language better or worse. It just means it has mixed origins.

Beyond that, even if you think it's just a dialect, dialects are interesting too. People in some cities are very proud of their local version of English, with its particular accent and special words. Linguists get a lot of very interesting data from them.

So what do we do with Pitkern?

Even if they're mostly not helping much, no one from Pitcairn or Norfolk is keeping anyone else from preserving the language. And Wikipedia is free. If it's not too resource-consuming to preserve it, and if there are people who want to preserve it, why not?

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