Daily Data Dump – Wednesday

By Razib Khan | July 14, 2010 1:56 pm

In Defense of Difference. If Eyak language was so awesome, why wasn’t the article written in Eyak? I find the paeans to linguistic and cultural diversity tiresome and knee-jerk. In 1820 there was a relatively wide range of diversity of views in regards to slavery. No longer today. Today the diversity in attitudes toward legal equality between the sexes is diminishing due to the implementation of gender egalitarianism by cultural elites and international institutions. More seriously, this needs some fleshing out: “That the Earth is becoming more homogeneous — less of a patchwork quilt and more of a melting pot.” Yes, the patchwork is being torn about, but smaller pieces are being reassembled. There are for example people today who are half-Chinese & half-English devotees of Vaishnava Hinduism. There are more combinations as the fuller possible parameter space is being explored, despite the decrease in the number of modes across the distributions.

No. 1 Nation in Sexy Web Searches? Call it Pornistan. What you do the right thing if no one knew? One of the issues with private behavior in many societies which are notionally conservative is that ethics constrained by shame may result in reduced self-regulation when exterior pressures are not operative.

How Science Fiction Made Me Want to Be a Scientist.

How Much of Your Food Dollar Goes to Farmers? First, surprised at the magnitude of difference between processed and unprocessed (e.g., produce) foods. Second, “farmers” can mean many different things in the United States.

Good grief, the Neandertal test kits have been sent. Capitalism + stupidity = crazy profits!

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  • znz

    I agree that as a practical matter, preservation of languages is a “who cares? what’s it good for?” thing. Nonetheless, I am happy that languages are preserved, when they are preserved, and unhappy with their disappearance (well, unhappy in principle, not actually saddened). I think my motivation for wanting them to continue to exist comes from the same spirit in which museums are created.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    znz, i can agree with the sentiment, up to a point. i think that some of the arguments are overwrought though, and i some of the reasons are just frankly stupid.

  • Katharine

    The main thing about maintenance of diversity seems to be its impact on the world at large. One can make very good arguments for maintaining species (their role in their environment) and languages (part of the common heritage of humanity). Knowledge of cultures, certainly – they have given us insights into things we use today (ethnobotany has helped us locate plants and animals that have medically useful chemicals).

    For example, regarding languages, I don’t like learning the very common ones. I’m trying to learn Romanian, which is only widely spoken in two countries and overall concentrated, except for small expat communities, in a relatively dinky region of the world approximately half the size of California. Romanian is a more interesting language to me than Russian or Spanish or French. I like the sound and feel of it and the way it reads and its legacy from Latin, Daco-Thracian, and local Slavic languages. Plus I have a very dear friend in Bucharest, so it is ultimately useful to me (when I visit, which I plan to do soon, it will be necessary).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    (part of the common heritage of humanity)

    that’s kind of a vacuous point isn’t it? what does that mean? like i indicate above, there’s a lot of stuff in the richness of human culture that’s nasty, brutish and unpleasant. that’s lot’s that good. and there’s lot’s that neutral.

    let’s make this concrete. who cares if 100 years from now there are only 25 living languages in the world vs. 10,000? or 1,000 vs. 10,000? linguistic diversity has caused major issues in development in many parts of the world, because language tends to be a way that people divide themselves in conflict. additionally, there’s a strong correlation between economically developed and integrated regions and linguistic homogeneity.

    it’s fine that you learn language for fun. but there are people who speak cornish and klingon for fun. languages live or die as native home languages. the extinction of languages with few speakers happens because people who speak those uncommon languages don’t see the benefit practically in being monolingual, and if they’re bilingual they tend to shift into the dominant language over their lifetime, and their children lose touch with their ancestral language.

  • Prasad

    Am a regular reader of your blog posts and notice that Firefox live bookmarks does not show your blog updates. The discover main feed does not show your blog updates either.
    Is there something wrong with how the RSS feed is published for your blog?
    Am able to subscribe to 80beats and the discover main feed and they show me updates. Its only your blog posts that dont

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    thanks. there’s an error in the xml feed. google reader can handle it so i didn’t notice it. i’ll alert management.

  • Chris T

    Most of what is claimed to be ‘preservation of diversity’ is moral preening and in the interest of personal gratification. Rarely is it ever taken into consideration what would actually be best for the people in question or what they want. One would note that most of the unique cultures in question are trying to adopt modern civilization and integrate themselves culturally as fast as they can.

    Such advocates don’t want diversity; they want a zoo.

  • Katharine

    On second thought, yeah, I have to admit most of my position on preserving languages comes from the idea that at least to me the world would be a whole lot more boring without them.

  • Matt

    There’s increasing evidence that language affects thought and other languages probably are better at particular things, but I still think the gains of switching language or studying languages and making changes to language based on that probably are marginal compared to what can be done within any language.

    And realistically there’s no chance that we will, for example, end up testing other languages, working out what they’re effective for and then implementing changes back in the mainstream community. It’s just not really the way our language instincts and culture works. We can’t even implement Esperanto or Lojban!

    And in terms of studying languages and recognising analogous structures and then building them into things that are useful to us or artistically interesting, I think that’s quite questionable as well.

    One argument for preserving languages I remember reading from an otherwise quite clever guy (Mark Rosenfelder/Zompist) was that we should preserve languages in order to preserve the ability to understand beings who use different forms of communication, in case we ever encounter aliens (whether aliens we make or aliens we encounter). It’s an interesting idea, but it’s quite sketchy when you think about the cost for the benefit (and the fact that there are probably other ways to “preserve” and develop this capacity that are more immediately useful) . I can’t imagine it appealing that much to anyone who isn’t interersted in linguistics and speculative fiction type possibilities.

  • Chris T

    “preserve languages in order to preserve the ability to understand beings who use different forms of communication, in case we ever encounter alien”

    As different as human languages can be they’re still created by humans. Any human language is going to be far more familiar than beings with completely different perceptions and mental architectures. It really wouldn’t help us.

  • prelevent

    I remember the first time I heard about Deng Xiaoping sending soldiers from southern China into Tienanmen square because the local troops he had sent in had been unwilling to engage the protesters. The inability to communicate fluently in a common language made all the difference. I still think that this event is one of the strongest examples of why a common national language is a good thing. I would be willing to wager that a great deal of conflict and isolation comes from groups of people not understanding each other.

    I think that the desire to preserve languages is like so many things a way to assuage guilt, and often ill defined guilt. On the other hand I see a utility in having access to even very rare languages for linguistic and historical purposes (a good amount of early Roman history could be elucidated if only Etruscan had survived). But even then it is still a kind of elitism that has very little impact on everyday life.

    On a side note, I had a friend in my undergrad years who felt that the English language was a vehicle of atrocity and imperialism (hehe, to paraphrase that saying “you would have to have a college education to say something that stupid). However, if you pressed him for the rational behind this, or a solution to it, he could never come up with any alternative. That being said, he himself could not speak any language other than english, which he felt was a legacy of racism and bigotry that his immigrant grandparent’s did not speak their native Italian with their children.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    you’re friend’s probably even more retarded than you implied. his grandparents almost certainly did not speak italian as their mother tongue, they spoke a native dialect. which would be unintelligible to most people in italy today.

  • http://replicatedtypo.wordpress.com/ Wintz

    I’m not sure where I sit on this question. On the one hand, I agree with your point about linguistic homogeneity being good for economic development and general prosperity. However, as a linguist, I would like there to be a large sample size of languages — for purely academic reasons of course. And, in the case of dying languages, these are the outliers of interest: they have, or in some cases, lack, certain features that may tell us something about linguistic typology.

    Or to put it another way: wouldn’t geneticists, for example, love to have larger sample sizes of Neanderthal DNA? Sadly, in the case of languages, we don’t have the option of extracting material from archaic remains, so we’ll take what we can get on the basis of existing data.

    Having said that, so long as there’s some well-documented record of these languages, and their underlying features, then I don’t really have any vested interest in whether they are still alive or not.

    I think the emphasis should be on documenting, not saving.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I think the emphasis should be on documenting, not saving.

    agreed. but thats not what get’s out into the media. i wonder if part of it is a maximal strategy on the part of some linguists. act is if living languages are valuable in and of themselves, and hope that that will allow for funding of recording and documentation as they disappear.

  • jemand

    well if (insert endangered species) was so great than why didn’t (insert endangered species) write the article! /hrrrumph

    Studying how languages evolve and how it affects communications seems pretty important to me… HOWEVER, unlike animals, languages survive in people who should not be treated as zoo animals. So if a group begins to modernize or two small groups merge, just *document* the dying language, rather than insist it be saved against the well being of the people speaking it.

  • Pingback: Linguistic diversity = poverty | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • Mike L

    Razib: You may be interested in an article in the June 2010 issue of Canadian Geographic by Chris Wood. The article makes the point that invasive species usually “integrate uneventfully into their new homes”, and that they can often enhance the local genetic diversity. The article gives some examples in North America, and consults Mark Vellend, Canada Research Chair in Conservation Biology, and Paul Wilson, Canada Research Chair in DNA Profiling, Forensics and Functional Genomics.

  • ana

    Razib —
    “that’s kind of a vacuous point isn’t it? what does that mean?”

    The common heritage of humanity — in other words, a language, any language, no matter the individual faults of its speakers, is the distilled knowledge of thousands of years of human experience. Language is the root of culture. At some point, every language was a sacred one, the vehicle of religion, and even when the community has turned to a non-indigenous religion (such as is the case in Europe) the old metaphysical structure remains. Our thought patterns are, to some extent, influenced by the language we speak; hence why bilingual children, who are accustomed to operating according two different worldviews, have greater cognitive flexibility than monolinguals. We’re heading to a world of linguistic groupthink. In the words of Kenneth Hale, language death is like having a bomb dropped on the Louvre.
    Comparing that and different attitudes toward slavery is simplistic. Culture and opinion are two different things.

    Prelevent —
    “On a side note, I had a friend in my undergrad years who felt that the English language was a vehicle of atrocity and imperialism (hehe, to paraphrase that saying “you would have to have a college education to say something that stupid.)”

    Native North American boarding schools, anyone? Or how about the Australian stolen generations?

    Jemand —
    “So if a group begins to modernize or two small groups merge, just *document* the dying language, rather than insist it be saved against the well being of the people speaking it.”

    Actually, studies have shown that Native Americans & Aboriginal Australians who are taught their traditional languages tend to do better in schools.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ana, sorry, but a lot of your whole comment was vacuous. thousands of years of human experience? oral languages evolve really fast. you sound like a platonist.

    Actually, studies have shown that Native Americans & Aboriginal Australians who are taught their traditional languages tend to do better in schools.

    bilinguals are more cognitively flexible, and, it is important to be taught in your traditional language. right.

  • ana

    Oral languages do evolve quicker than written ones, but that doesn’t prevent the transmission of older material — note the similarities between the various images of a “sun chariot” in Indo-European mythologies, which doesn’t appear anywhere else. Things which were relevant to daily life would presumably be preserved longer.
    Having multiple sets of connotations around a single word makes you think in more complex ways about the word: you’re navigating two different systems, so to speak.
    For marginalized/forcibly assimilated communities, it’s a question of pride in one’s identity & hence in oneself. One can argue that a language extinction is a violation of the associated ethnicity’s rights: Article 13 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples guarantees that they have the right to use their language.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    One can argue that a language extinction is a violation of the associated ethnicity’s rights: Article 13 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples guarantees that they have the right to use their language.

    wtf. the whole point is lots of aboriginal people abandon their languages and assimilate. so it’s a violation of their rights for them to make their personal choice? seriously. i reject on a factual basis a lot of your assertions, which are totally unsupported.

    and no, no one this thread believes people shouldn’t be able to speak whatever language they want to. a lot of times people like you would prefer they not assimilate because you like them preserving folkways you find of interest or enriching to you. though thanks for being concrete and actually offering up the example of the “sun chariot.” that wasn’t a vacuous contentless assertion, but i don’t think it helps your case.

  • ana

    “so it’s a violation of their rights for them to make their personal choice?”

    I never said that. It’s a right to be able to vote; it’s a personal choice whether to or not. At the very least, a language should be documented to the extent that someone could be able to learn it if they choose. That’s not the case with many recently-extinct & endangered languages.
    Razib, I hardly made my arguments off the top of my head — there’s at least one reference in every comment. Where on earth is the support for your opinions?
    Sorry, but it seems like anything you don’t have a rebuttal for is automatically dismissed as “vacuous.”
    Anyway, I don’t think I could convince you at this point if I beat you over the head with an Eyak dictionary. :) Shall we agree to disagree?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Sorry, but it seems like anything you don’t have a rebuttal for is automatically dismissed as “vacuous.”

    it’s because you’re not even wrong. so yeah, we don’t really even disagree, we start with fundamentally different presuppositions. e.g., i simply reject any but the very weakest of the sapir-whorf hypothesis (and even here, i’m more agnostic than an acceptor). you take it as a given from what i can tell. by vacuous i mean ‘without content.’ of course you think there’s content to what you’re saying because it’s framed by presuppositions which i lack. the stuff about the golden chariot was concrete, you were making an assertion about something which i could, or couldn’t, reject. by analogy, a roman catholic discussing abstruse theology is basically speaking in a vacuous manner to me because i reject the foundations of theology as a discipline. but arguments about the benefits or costs of specific rituals have content because that’s concrete.

    , I don’t think I could convince you at this point if I beat you over the head with an Eyak dictionary

    if you showed me a regression which showed a positive correlation between linguistic diversity and human development indiex, you might. i didn’t find anything like that in the cursory lit search i did. the other stuff is besides the point for me. so yes.

    and btw, i made it clear that i want languages to be recorded and documented. but activists for dying languages don’t speak like concerned scholars all the time, they talk as if they’re human rights campaigners. i don’t think that’s appropriate, and i offered my reasons why.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    and btw, for the record, english was not the first language i learned, and i was born in bangladesh. one reason i’m skeptical of a lot of the bicultural/lingual stuff is i have some experience with it personally. additionally, the effect sizes seem relatively small in terms of gains to cognitive flexibility which i’ve seen. on the balance i think economies of scale and removing cultural ‘friction’ redound to the benefit of being in the minority (though since a person of the majority culture already benefits from that, ironically the gains you’re talking about might be more relevant for them!).

  • Pingback: Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #10 – Society for Linguistic Anthropology()

  • Pingback: Language extinction ain’t no big thing? « Neuroanthropology()

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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