There are over six thousand living languages in the world, of which more than one thousand are defined as "endangered" - they are at serious risk of becoming extinct, with no living speakers. Rather more surprising, it is estimated that more than half of all these languages will be extinct by the next century.

Naturally there are numerous efforts initiated in response to this, generally trying to record endangered languages and revitalize their use within native communities.

Now, my question is whether from a philosophical perspective there is any reason (ethical, epistemic, etc.) to save these languages. On the one hand, there are arguments for preservation of culture and diversity (though these beg the question of why this sort of preservation is desirable), and such arguments can maybe even be thought of as espousing epistemic value of languages in and of themselves. On the other hand, linguistic homogeneity might be considered a desirable goal for utilitarian purposes - if everyone understood each other things might be a lot easier. There are probably dozens of other factors to be considered as well; this obviously does not begin to scratch the surface.

So what are the important considerations here? What arguments can be posed for or against working to save endangered languages? Maybe more radically, are there any arguments for active effort toward destruction of languages? Or perhaps constant construction of novel languages?

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    +1 I suspect that the theoretical underpinnings are mostly hinging on the concept of cultural diversity, which itself explicitly borrows from biological diversity. Whether either step is sufficiently justifiable can probably be argued about. – user3164 Apr 21 '14 at 6:43
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    See here: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1549/… – prash Apr 22 '14 at 14:11
  • I like this question, but properly you should ask it in relation to one particular philosophical perspective (for instance, utilitarianism), given that you could surely find philosophers would would argue on opposite sides of the issue.(And in general, for any given issue, you can almost always find philosophers who will argue on opposite sides.) – Chris Sunami supports Monica Apr 24 '14 at 16:57

A few considerations:

  1. When you say "save" what do you mean? Recording words used? Ensuring there are always native speakers? There are different costs associated with different degrees of preservation. It is always desirable to preserve anything, but if we are forced to decide between preserving a language and increasing science education, it doesn't seem clear that we should force a class of 20 children to become native speakers so that a language might persist that will not be useful anywhere else.
  2. Languages evolve over time, how do we incorporate that? It does not seem to be a useful exercise to teach spoken Old English, as an example. In a sort of "natural selection" process, the inconvenient parts were morphed into Modern English.
  3. What is it about a language that we value? Latin, for example, up until fairly recently (say, 150-200 years ago) was the primary language of academia. Now, it is spoken hardly anywhere outside of use by the Catholic church. The value in preserving Latin is not in its ability to communicate in it with existing people but to understand the large body of work that Latin writers left us. Many works (especially poetry) does not translate well, since the poem's meter and word play cannot be replicated.
  4. The culture and language are sometimes, but not necessarily intertwined. The Irish language is mostly restricted in use to a small portion of Ireland, but Irish culture has persisted. In some ways, it seems that attempts to maintain a language is an attempt to maintain a culture which has already been damaged beyond repair. The other side of the argument (that we should actively destroy languages) is maybe not in itself morally bad but has always been accompanied by bad motives. Almost all examples of someone working to exterminate a language was part of a larger attempt to exterminate the culture, and even a people.
  5. Saving a language "in a museum" is not the same as saving a culture in any case. GK Chesterton discusses this some (forget where, maybe someone has the reference?): the only way to know a particular culture of a place is to go there and embed yourself in it. Saving the words that someone calls something is perhaps better than nothing, but is certainly not a replacement.
  6. For certain languages, there is a practical difficulty in maintaining them in daily usage. If you take some language for example that has no word for "computer," "domain name," "exchange traded fund," "nuclear non-proliferation," and so on, how do you practically maintain that as a useful language? One option is to maintain it for certain conversational topics (discussing weather and family, perhaps), but such a language cannot be used in daily life without adding many imported words. At that point, is it really the same language?
  7. Having a centrally-planned designation of a language all 7 billion of us will use seems unnecesary. Practically, people that need to communicate with each other adopt a lingua franca of some sort. It doesn't seem to make sense to impose on others what they can figure out for themselves.
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Language apart from its heavy informational machinery has also musical (poetical) part. I bet no one sane (or smart insane) will say lets get rid from Italian, French, and Spanish (etc.) because we have English. Language is ALSO music. From this perspective it is clear it has to be preserved and new ones have to be found. Logicwise all languages are more or less same. Only musical part has hidden meaning which is unique. Music.

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    But Italian, French and Spanish aren't endangered. Also, Dutch Sign Language, which is classified 'vulnerable', probably doesn't have a musical part. I believe the question is about languages such as Krymchak (no speakers under 70 years old) or Ter Saami (6, or perhaps only 2, native speakers). Should attempts be made to save those? – user3164 Apr 22 '14 at 10:15
  • @GlenTheUdderboat How do you see they are not in danger? It is similar with Roman Numerals, there are still here but they are extinct. Same fate can be bestowed upon many non major/internet languages. It is not the fact that people do not USE them it is the fact they are not used to THINK/CREATE at the edge of human creativity. Do you consider Latin endangered? – Asphir Dom Apr 22 '14 at 14:10
  • @GlenTheUdderboat yes, i wrote above that the attempt should be made to save any existing language. Same as the question - should we save prelude 3.1415 from the lost Baroque scores by unknown composer? Yes we should, i think. – Asphir Dom Apr 22 '14 at 14:16

You have pretty much summarized everything. If languages were such a valuable thing, why not constructing new languages? why not promoting the elvish and the klingon? It's not about the value of languages.

If it was about musicality or knowledge in it, they could be recorded, written, safely stored and kept there. There is no reason to keep them "alive". A language is not a living being, it's information, it can be stored and retrieved. We may not be able to clone a dinosaur, but we sure can teach a language to a baby (as growing into a child) if in the future we want to have a native speaker of that language (which would be considered cruel an unethical anyway). So it's quite dubious how ethical is artificially maintaining "alive" these endangered languages, as compared to letting them die (and maybe trying to resurrect them later, if it turns out that is good in any sense).

Some people say languages influence the way people think. Well, putting a name to something helps to conceptualize about that thing, we could consider granularity, etc. But this is a dangerous idea that finds few people to defend it, for one single reason. If languages are such an important tool, they can be better or worse for some specific tasks, and definitively the union of all of them would contain all the information and be the most useful tool. This leads to a partially ordered set (a lattice) where some languages may be better than others. E.g. the piranha tribe does not have numbers, they don't need them, this doesn't mean their language is better, you take English, Chinese, German or Spanish, remove the numbers and you don't get a better language, it's plain worse. So this leads to make the definite language and not speak any other, and people don't like this. It's not about utility or epistemic value (which would be useful).

On the contrary languages have to be considered as "invaluable", having an infinite value. Why? because otherwise they could be on a scale and something could be more valuable than that. They don't have more value than as a mean, for communication and (through communication) sharing ideas about which we can think later.

But they are considered as art, as part of the identity of the people and some other things that only have value due to a convention in their value, not any pragmatical purpose. An end on their own and not a mean, mostly to hide their own value.

The value, the purpose for which they are used splits into several.

  • divide the people and control them. E.g. immigration, misinformation.
  • nationalistic fallacies, as in fascism.
  • caring about the people and their culture (by dividing them). Politicians like to show themselves as defenders of the languages and the people. This provides votes while doing something that makes people less empowered and more manipulable. Win-win.

This is mostly why klingon is not an option, which people is that? What culture is that?

Culture is again a way to control people, sets of individuals are homogenized into a mass of people, a flock to control, and that is much easier than controlling chaotic and unpredictable individuals.

In short is a soft-fascism, a way to divide and control people, a way to give them something that they want (or that they have been convinced to want) and look like a good guy while actually harming these people, that in the best case are human Guinea pigs (artificially keeping the language alive) and in the worst case are sheep in a flock (controlled by the shepherd).

You will say I'm an extremist because of the word "harm". Learning a language that is endangered severely limits the access to information and the possibilities of personal growth, so that's harm. You will say they can learn that language and then some other language as well. Yes, sure, but instead of those two languages they could learn English and Chinese, or Spanish, or some widely used language that is going to be more useful for them, for communicating information, for accessing information and for enriching their understanding of the world.

While actively acting against those languages may not be ethical (because that is usually done by actively acting against people who speak those languages), artificial preservation of those languages is equally unethical. Any intervention, on one direction or another is unethical, for the reasons exposed and some others that are more blatantly evident. Yet politicians and other people have manipulated many people to think in a different way, for reasons they can't really explain most of the times. I don't expect this answer to be greatly appreciated due to this. Blame democracy and lack of critical thinking.

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In the long term, that boils down to "should we save local culture".

Yes, sure we should. That's what museums are for.
With local culture, in many way's we do not have much choice already.

Use of local languages is in competition with communcation and interaction on a global scale, where common languages are much more useful.

Of course we want to document dying languagues, for many reasons, even if only for scientific reasons.

But we can not control, on a general scale, which languages will be commonly used in the long term - it depends so much on the practical usefulnes in the context of global, but still heterogenous culture.

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