Linguistic diversity = poverty

By Razib Khan | July 15, 2010 4:05 pm

In yesterday’s link dump I expressed some dismissive attitudes toward the idea that loss of linguistic diversity, or more precisely the extinction of rare languages, was a major tragedy. Concretely, many languages are going extinct today as the older generation of last native speakers is dying. This is an issue that is embedded in a set of norms, values which you hold to be ends, so I thought I could be a little clearer as to what I’m getting at. I think there are real reasons outside of short-term hedonic utility why people would want to preserve their own linguistic tradition, and that is because I am no longer a total individualist when it comes to human identity. I have much more sympathy for the French who wish to preserve French against the loss of their linguistic identity against the expansion of English than I had a few years ago.

Language is history and memory. When the last speaker of English dies, or, when English is transmuted to such an extent that it is no longer English as we today understand it, our perception of the past and historical memory, our understanding of ourselves, will change. There is a qualitative difference when Shakespeare becomes as unintelligible as Beowulf. Though I tend to lean toward the proposition that all languages are a means toward the same ends, communication, I agree that there are subtleties of nuance and meaning which are lost in translation when it comes to works of literature and other aspects of collective memory. Those shadings are the sort of diversity which gives intangible aesthetic coloring to the world. A world where everyone spoke the same language would lose a great deal of color, and I acknowledge that.


But we need to look at the other side of the ledger. First, we’re not talking about the extinction of English, French, or Cantonese. We’re talking about the extinction of languages with a few thousand to a dozen or so speakers.  The distribution of languages and the number of speakers they have follows a power law trend, the vast majority of languages have very few speakers, and these are the ones which are going extinct. We are then losing communal identity, a thousand oral Shakespeare’s are turning into Beowulf’s and Epic of Gilgamesh’s, specific stories which have to be reduced to their universal human elements because a living native speaking community is gone. Let me acknowledge that there is some tragedy here. But this ignores the costs to those who do not speak world languages with a high level of fluency. The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs).

Over the arc of human history individuals and communities have shifted toward languages with more numerous following. Sometimes, as in the case of the marginalization of the dialects of France for standard French in the 19th century, there was a top-down push. In other cases there needed to be no top-down push, because people want to integrate themselves into networks of trade, communication and participate in the family of nations on equal footing. Losing the languages of your ancestors means that your ancestors are made to disappear, their memory fades, and is replaced by other fictive ancestors. Modern Arabs outside of Arabia will often acknowledge that they are the products of Arabization (this is most obvious in the case of regions like Egypt or Mesopotamia which have long and glorious historical traditions pre-dating Islam). But they also in particular circumstances conceive of themselves as descendants of Ishmael, because they are Arab. A similar sort of substitution occurs when peoples change religions. The early medieval European monarchies, such as the Merovingians and the House of Wessex, traced their ancestry to German pagan gods. Later European dynasties tended to establish fictive ties to the House of David.

But letting one’s ancestors die also means that one can live with other human beings, and participate clearly and with a high level of fluency. You may object that this does not entail monolingualism. And certainly it does not, but over the generations there will be a shift toward a dominant language if there is economic, social and cultural integration. The way we can preserve local traditions and languages in the face of the homogenizing power of languages and cultures of greater scope is to put up extremely high barriers to interaction. The Amish have preserved their German dialect and religious traditions, but only through opting out of the mainstream to an extreme extent (and the Amish are bilingual too).

On a deeper cognitive level some readers point out that there are hints that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be correct. This is still not a strong enough reason for the perpetuation of linguistic traditions which are not widely subscribed. Humans have a finite amount of time in their lives, and the choices they make may not be perfectly rational, but quite often in the aggregate they are. When it comes to some aspects of cultural diversity, such as dress and religion, the importance we place on these traits is imbued by aspects of human psychology. Not so with language. Communication is of direct utilitarian importance.

Now that I’ve addressed, at least minimally, the tensions on the macro and micro level when it comes to linguistic preference, I want to address the aggregate gains to linguistic uniformity. My family is from Bangladesh, which had a “language movement”, which served as the seeds for the creation of that nation from a united Pakistan. Though there was a racial and religious component to the conflict I don’t think it would have matured and ripened to outright civil war without the linguistic difference. Language binds us to our ancestors, and to our peers, but also can separate us from others. A common language may not only be useful in a macroeconomic context, reducing transaction costs and allowing for more frictionless flow of information, but it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict.

So if only everyone spoke the same language there would be peace and prosperity? Perhaps not. Recently I have been convinced that it is best to have an oligopoly of languages so that “group-think” doesn’t impact the whole world in the same way. I’m basically repeating Jared Diamond’s argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel, as to why Europe was more cultural creative in the early modern period than China. Institutional barriers can allow for more experimentation, and prevent “irrational herds” from taking the whole system into dead-ends. Another way to think of it is portfolio diversity. Though linguistic diversity will introduce frictions to communication, on the margins some friction is useful to prevent memetic contagion which might occur due to positive feedback loops.

Below I present my model in graphical form. One the X axis is a diversity index. Imagine it goes from 1 to 0. 1 is the state where everyone speaks a different language, and 0 is the one where everyone speaks the same language. A state of high linguistic diversity converges upon 1, and one of low diversity upon 0. I believe that as linguistic diversity decreases one gains economies of scale, but there are diminishing returns. And, beyond a certain point I suspect that there are decreases to utility because of the systematic problem of irrational herds. I didn’t put a scale on the X axis because I don’t have a really clear sense of when we’re hitting the point of negative returns on homogeneity, though I don’t think we’re there yet.

lingdiv

Note: My confidence in the hypothesis that there are negative returns at some point is modest at best, and I have a high level of uncertainty as to its validity. But, I have a high confidence about the shape of the left side of the chart below, that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth, social cooperation, and amity more generally scaled beyond the tribe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Economics
  • dave

    It will be interesting to see what effect the new language translation tools have. Already I can read and navigate web pages in languages I can’t read by having Google translate them. And Google Goggles let you use your cameraphone to translate text in signs you see while out and about. Another decade or two of improvements and the average human will be able to function in practically any part of the world.

    Will this lessen the pressure to learn one of the few big languages? I have family in immigrant communities that have learned just enough English to function, but spend 90% of their time living/working in the ethnic community. They suffer an economic penalty, but they function at a reasonably high level. That’s sort of how I imagine the near future — language translation tech will allow all of us to function at that level almost anywhere.

    And long-term the language tech might advance to the point where it’s the equivalent of having a human translator with you 24/7. But even if I had live human translator I’m still functioning at a major disadvantage compared to a native speaker.

    Some future augmented reality glasses could overlay English translation over real world signs and menus, which might be even better than a translator. Hard to see how the same could be done with real-time audio, but perhaps some future noise-canceling headphones could mute the spoken foreign language while playing the English translation. So perhaps that could also exceed human translator performance.

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  • Chris T

    “I’m basically repeating Jared Diamond’s argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel, as to why Europe was more cultural creative in the early modern period than China. Institutional barriers can allow for more experimentation, and prevent “irrational herds” from taking the whole system into dead-ends.”

    This was the argument (not just from him) that turned me against the idea of a unified global government and made me much more libertarian in economics. This also describes the inherent advantage of having a federal system such as the United States (although it has been steadily getting more centralized).

    Unfortunately and ironically, the best argument for cultural diversity, intellectual diversity, is forgotten in our modern discourse. Instead we wind up with groups of people who look different, but think the same.

    I think there is a certain geographical limit to how similar languages can be. At some point a language starts to fragment due to most human interaction being local. Once there are enough speakers and there is a definite ‘native’ region for a language, it’s likely here to stay.

  • Bridget

    You seem to be dismissing the issue from the perspective of languages with primarily (or solely) oral traditions, as is the case with many of the languages that are going extinct. There is no Beowulf or King Lear written down that could EVER be analyzed. So you not only lose the language, you lose the opportunity to understand something about human beings. A facet of the complexity that helps us understand Homo sapiens. Therefore as we lose these languages, we lose the entirety of that specific culture, and thus the opportunity for enriching our collective culture.

    Unless you only consider monetary gains (greater trade due to lack of a language barrier) as the only important reflection of “human prosperity.” That is not a world in which I want to live.

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

    Unless you only consider monetary gains (greater trade due to lack of a language barrier) as the only important reflection of “human prosperity.” That is not a world in which I want to live.

    since you’re leaving a comment on this weblog, you also don’t live in the world of someone who doesn’t speak a world language :-) you also have access to a computer, so i can see you not being too concerned about monetary gains, since you are likely to have a modicum of prosperity already.

    in any case, for people who don’t read my stuff, i’m interested in history and human nature. but that’s less important that people being able to speak a world language and so integrate themselves into the world economy, if they so choose (they generally do). a byproduct of this is going to be language extinction.

    i think there is a certain geographical limit to how similar languages can be. At some point a language starts to fragment due to most human interaction being local. Once there are enough speakers and there is a definite ‘native’ region for a language, it’s likely here to stay.

    literacy and mass media has pushed out the boundaries of this though. though i think you are correct at the boundary condition.

  • syon

    Razib: “hints that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be correct…”: But even these hints, as I read the data, only tend to support a weak version of linguistic determism.

  • Zora

    I wouldn’t want to condemn anyone to live in a quaint language preserve, cut off from the main currents of modern life. But I’d also hate to lose languages, or the myths and legends told in those languages. Salvage linguistics! Let’s at least have copious tapes, texts, and dictionaries, collected and created while it’s still possible.

  • toto

    Wait. I’ve probably misread you, but your argument seems to assume that “preserving old languages” and “learning world languages” are mutually incompatible?

    I’m not sure they are. I think Scandinavia, the Netherlands, etc. show that you can preserve your local language while still becoming fluent in Worldspeak (and getting damn rich).

    So if only everyone spoke the same language there would be peace and prosperity?

    The example of Yugoslavia seems to indicate that anything that can be used to divide between an “us” and a “them” (no matter how trivial) may ultimately result into an “us against them”. If it’s not language, it will be something else. As you say, it may remove a dimension, but that’s only one among many possible group markers.

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

    Wait. I’ve probably misread you, but your argument seems to assume that “preserving old languages” and “learning world languages” are mutually incompatible?

    NO. didn’t i give you the example of the amish?

    I think Scandinavia, the Netherlands, etc. show that you can preserve your local language while still becoming fluent in Worldspeak (and getting damn rich).

    from what i can tell near universal english fluency is a feature of the last 40 years. a larger proportion of older scandinavians (i don’t know dutch) do not know english, so that maintains a necessity for bilingualism. once *everyone* is bilingual though the necessity for bilingualism ironically disappears. if what i have read about the fennoman movement is correct a large number of elite finnish speakers became bilingual during the period of swedish rule, eventually become monolingual in swedish, then became bilingual again by learning finnish. today the state mandates the learning of swedish and finnish, maintaining that bilingualism by fiat (otherwise it is likely that the fluency in swedish would drop since all finland swedes know english, so there’s a link language).

  • chris w

    I don’t know if you discussed the issue of Finnish/Swedish bilingualism with the Finns that you met during your trip to Finland, but at least from my conversations there, I was told that most Finns’ Swedish-speaking ability is pretty lackluster and vice-versa, in spite of the official bilingualism. None of the Finns I spoke to regarding the issue were fluent in Swedish.

    Less anecdotally, check out the graph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Finland#Swedish

    40 percent of the Finnish population speaks Swedish — a lower frequency than English, which is not an official language.

  • bioIgnoramus

    “the best argument for cultural diversity, intellectual diversity, is forgotten in our modern discourse. ” I doubt that it’s “forgotten”, Chris; I suspect that it is deliberately suppressed.

  • Eleanor

    I agree that monolingual in a little spoken language is a bad thing, but think there really isn’t an overarching rule which will describe the maintenance of a little spoken language. Language is far too intertwined with politics and identity, and each individual case is shaped by what goes on around it. Luxembourgish is a language spoken in a small country which is highly affluent and well integrated with its surrounding neighbours (France, Germany, Belgium) but the language is not in decline, instead everyone is multilingual. My gut feeling is that a substantial proportion of the global populaiton in affluent societites are multilingual, but can’t find any figures for that.

    I don’t think we will ever end up with a single linga franca, as fixed differences rapidly occur between the blocs of population which speak it – e.g. Kenyan english is distinctly different from British english, to the extent that I have difficulties following it (but it is a perfectly correct language).

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    Luxembourgish is a language spoken in a small country which is highly affluent and well integrated with its surrounding neighbours (France, Germany, Belgium) but the language is not in decline, instead everyone is multilingual.

    Also by fiat. School instruction actually switches languages for basic instruction at different grade levels.

    No question there are economic incentives for many people to be multilingual, and that governments can create more such incentives. I think it’s an interesting question just how long purely social incentives can last, and how numbers-dependent they may be.

  • Dominic

    My kids speak English and Chinese. With the possible addition of Spanish, I see no need to learn any additional languages. Let French and the other languages die off. May “Globish” reign supreme one day.

    http://www.economist.com/node/16213950

    Go hang out at universities almost anywhere and you can already here Globish being spoken. Big language wins. Little language loses. Tough luck.

  • Ponto

    I made a decision as a child to dump my parents’ language for English. I was born in Malta, and live in Australia since a young age. I could see no good reason to speak a minority language on any level. In European terms the Maltese language links Maltese people with people outside Europe of different culture and religion, and confuses most non Maltese people to think all sorts of fanciful ancestries for Maltese people based on that language. The assumptions are erroneous and frankly stupid but it is a good reason to dump the Maltese language. I can speak Italian and Indonesian as well as Maltese and English but I don’t ever intend to use those other languages. None can compare to the usefulness of English, it is definitely a Global language. Mandarin Chinese, there are other languages in China, the Spanish language, there are other languages in Spain, and other languages spoken by millions of people, are not Global just spoken by a large number of people. Not too many people speak Spanish or Chinese in Australia but millions of Spanish and Chinese people speak English. English is a defacto second language in the world, which Spanish or Chinese or one of the Arabic languages are not.

    I sincerely hope that Maltese does become extinct. It does not deserve to survive on any level.

  • http://www.esperanto.net Brian Barker

    Globish reminds me of another failed project called “Basic English” which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use :)

    So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    I don’t see the rigid rules of English syntax as a problem. If you want a language which can express subtle variations in ideas, it’s going to have to be rigid about something, because you need a large number of variations capable of representing those nuances of meaning you wish to communicate. If not syntax, then something else must be strictly adhered to.

  • Chuck

    “I am no longer a total individualist when it comes to human identity.”
    “Below I present my model in graphical form. One the X axis is a diversity index.”

    Razib,

    I’m impressed. Not only have you morphed into a sane-semi-right-minded thinker, but you also picked up on the large scale dynamics involved.

    1) As for the former there is a balance between the individual and the all: The particular — that Mencian mean between the two extremes. That dreaded us/them

    2) As for the latter, the various costs involved in having US/Them configurations, or particulars, needs to be weighted against the cost of having, at the one extreme, an indefinite amount of individual varieties (which maximizes transaction cost and individual licence/ (Liberties) — and with it, in a social context, the threat of bellum omnium contra omnes) and, on the other hand, having just one collective (which minimizes transaction cost and licence/ (liberties) — yet maximizes the threat of systematic societal collapse).

    As you note there is a socio/axio/poli/eco/nomics and dis-socio/axio/poli/eco/nomics of scale, which of course is contingent on the sociobiology of the humans, relative to whatever we are talking about — language, religion, political organization, business, etc — given a level of technology.

    Of course, what we are talking about is rather important. As you suggest, idioese might not function as well as globalese when it comes to languages, but it might be fine for religions, in the sense of Political Liberalism and one defining one’s personal Good — as as opposed to global Hinduese. Political organizations, businesses, etc. will each have their own theoretical optimal mean between the extremes.

    Of course, some of these might work in systems. Hindu-democratic-capitalism might not work in the way Liberal-democratic-capitalism does.

    I will note…you see what you are talking about in philosophy too. Western philosophy pioneered one way of thinking, a more objective/logical/dualistic/external way, which led to a quicker development of scientific thinking — and other traditions did their own ways, pioneering different aspects of human reality.

    As you know, much of the discourse in what’s left of the West — given globalism and multiculturalism –is fairly anti-particularistic. I guess we will see if that’s an “irrational herd,” of sorts. And if other philosophical perspectives — which have more nuanced take — are better suited for the job.

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

    chuck, i’m basking in the glow of your respect :-) i was waiting for the day….

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  • Jen

    Yikes! I think part of the problem of dying languages is a linguistic colonial mindset on the part of major languages and their proponents (be it native or second language learners). I just hope the beauty of many languages never die. “Communication is of direct utilitarian importance.” This idea on the part of the author ignores the the rhythm if English poetry, the lilt of Russian, the intimacy of German, the fluidity of French, or the aching simplicity of Chinese. And that’s not even to mention the major languages and the minor languages I am unfamiliar with.

     In Canada, aboriginal groups that do have access to technology are attempting to preserve near-dead languages with it. That is also what happens when groups attain affluence, their actions reflect what is important to them. 

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    The argument for preserving languages assumes that the survival of a language can have a net benefit to society (and in particular, the society of the reasonably far future), even if it does not have a net benefit to most individuals who speak that language, although not much thought have been devoted to solving this conundrum.

    For example, our understanding of the ancestral legacy of all of the hundreds of millions of Indo-European language speakers today would be dramatically richer and more accurate if Tocharian had survived as a living language with a small community of native speakers, rather than as a mere collection of administrative and religious texts. Similarly, our understanding of our heritage would have been greatly improved if a few pockets of people who spoke the non-Indo-European; non-Uralic languages of Europe other than Basque had survived. We mourn the death of the Etruscan language far more than we do the death (or near death) of Faliscan (the closest relative of Latin).

    Likewise, we today would have benefited tremendously in the understanding of our cultural heritage if Emperor Theodoric had not ordered the widespread destruction of pagan texts in the late Roman Empire.

    Conversely, the priesthoods of ancient pagan cults who preserved the Hattic language and Sumerian languages as liturgical languages long after they had been replaced by Hittite and Semitic Akkadian as living languages did us, their successors, a great service in allowing us to understand our roots in a way more human than bones and shards of pottery could. We likewise treasure the legacy that the Vedic sagas and Avestian literature of provided us by giving insights into the worldviews held by our ancestors.

    Tiny languages have value in much the same way that nearly extinct species do, and modern science is incapable in preserving either in all ways that the people of the future will wish that we could have preserved them. Many languages and religions and cultural ideas are received by us solely as substrates of their successors.

    If the virtue of dying languages is mostly in the cultural legacy that they afford to our descendants, then perhaps we should prioritize our efforts to preserve them in a way that reflects this purpose. Languages that are the sole representative of a group are more important, particularly the higher up the linguistic family tree they are. The language of the indigeneous Andamanese so deeply separated from any of its neighbors, might be more critical to preserve than one of many Bantu languages of Africa. Languages that were once important, but are no longer important, might similarly be a greater priority than those that have always been the exclusive province of a few thinly populated villages. We mourn the loss of the language of the Huns who once ruled a large swath of the world or Fulani, more than the loss of one language of several hundred in the same part of Papua New Guinea. We might care more about preserving the closest descendant languages of the Aztecs and Mayans who left us a rich cultural heritage, than some other indigenous languages of Latin America.

    The greater the importance of a dying language to the cultural legacy of us all, the more it makes sense to devote resources of a larger society that doesn’t speak those languages to subsidize communities that can preserve the old tongue and the culture that goes with it in a way that approaches authenticity.

    It might also be sensible to try to preserve languages with a mechanism similar to that of pre-modern language death — e.g. it might make sense for speakers of many Amazonian languages in a region to unite to preserve just one of those languages for their community that is vibrant, rather than to try to save them all when they are all at high risk of becoming moribund and then going extinct.

  • Chris T

    ohwilleke – Preserving languages presents a number of costs to a culture in question. Since learning a language takes time, that necessarily means less time learning other tasks. When you have a single common language that you can speak with everyone, the utility of speaking an ancestral language becomes a lot less and the effort of preserving it too great.

    As much as we may mourn the loss of diversity; the actual speakers have the final say.

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  • Anthony

    The happy medium seems to be bilingualism for ethnic groups being absorbed into a larger culture. A Basque who speaks Euskara and Castellano will be better off materially than a Basque who does not speak Castellano (unless he speaks English instead), but a Basque who does not speak Euskara has lost some connection to his Basque identity.

    It’s not that hard to raise children bilingually from birth (it’s much harder if you wait until the child enters school at age 5 or 6), if the parents speak both languages.

    Definitely, there is a strong case for documenting as much as possible languages which are in apparent terminal decline, especially those without extensive written (and recorded!) literature. But that’s

  • Anthony

    Razib – the folks at Neuroanthropology.net came up with some hacked-together statistics about linguitic diversity. It turns out that there *is* an actual measure called the “Linguistic Diversity Index”, though publication of the details is “forthcoming” (http://www.terralingua.org/projects/ild/ild.htm)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_Diversity_Index
    http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=country
    http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001852/185202E.pdf (pg 81, and 304-308)

    It would be interesting to see the correlation between GDP or 10-year growth rate and LDI.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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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