More on Minority Tongues

Note: Repost from the old blog.
Ploni Almoni, a really smart Jewish Israeli, asks about the Migration and Language Policy post:

A question, which you may have already addressed in other postings on the subject: Why should we care? That’s not a cynical or smart-ass question. What’s so important about a language?
Seems to me, we care about languages mostly as proxies for something really important: nations, in the original sense of the word (ethnoi).
But it’s a truism of political science that language is a poor proxy for nationhood. The Irish are a nation even though their mother tongue is English. The Jews are a nation even though they’ve got dozens of mother tongues, and most Jews probably don’t speak Hebrew. I do care a lot about the survival of the nation–my nation, that is, not all those funny other ones.
Why do people care about all those funny nations and languages not their own? My guess is, for the same reason they care about those funny species like the snail-darter or whatever.
It’s kind of sad when something that’s existed for a long time goes out of existence, even something that was never worth paying any attention to when it was around.
This is very different from our attitude towards biological death. There’s a sense of nostalgia, of loss. An aesthetic thing, which I can appreciate. But that’s just my guess.

I’m not really sure why we should care. I’m a linguist, and linguists do care for obvious reasons. The opinion is split on whether people care or not. Within a large nation, even majorities often say the Hell with all small tongues, and everyone should speak the national language.
And you will find many “common sense” folks advocating for getting rid of all the small languages and everyone just speaking English or whatever. The idea being that all these small tongues just hinder communication anyway, and a lot are not even very useful in the modern world. My Mom says, “Why should we keep all these small languages alive just so linguists can study them?” That attitude is quite common.
As far as those who do care (and the nonlinguist types actually exist), it’s probable that you may be correct. The death of a language often does signal something larger – the death of a culture, and in that sense, the death of a people itself. It’s one more step on the way to Multinational Idiocracy World.
And even in a nonlinguist sense, I find these little nations (especially ones that still live traditional lives)  fascinating. I love the customs, the dress, the hats, the architecture, the trades, the clocks.
Here in the US, we don’t seem to have any traditions in the sense of clothing, architecture, style, dialect, trades, or much of anything. You can go all over the country, and I swear all the buildings look alike.
Compare that to photos of Trieste, the Dolomites, Sciacca in Sicily, Lucca in Trento, the Dalmation coast, the Greek Islands.
These are places steeped in history, culture and architecture. There are old castles, clocks, buildings, cobblestone streets and churches. The buildings are very close together, and the stone streets wind here and there without much sense.
Everyone is out in the streets, or hanging out their windows, or standing in the doorways. The socializing is continuous. People are walking in and out of friends and neighbors’ places all day long. To me, this is real community.
They look at One World Multinational Idiocracy and say no thanks.
In the White US neighborhoods I’ve lived in, people jump in their cars alone and head to work alone, work all day, then drive home alone. Everyone goes into their homes and apartments and seems to hide in there. You would almost think the neighborhood is deserted.
I wonder if that is any kind of a community at all. A community of atomized individualists – this is what capitalism wants? It’s great for business, great for capitalist culture. Sure, I guess so. Set every man against himself, a fight of all against all, and watch all social solidarity vanish in a flash.
An Esperantist notes, commenting on The Record of Communist Language Policy post:

It seems to me that a partial solution to the survival of the smaller languages lies in that neglected international tongue Esperanto.
At present the speaker of Welsh, Breton, Friulian and so on has to make use of a powerful neighboring language when accessing services outside his/her immediate community, for shopping, for contacts with the tax office and so on. These contacts serve to strengthen the more widely spoken language and weaken the minority one.
Imagine a situation in which everyone spoke an international auxiliary language – Esperanto – in addition to their local, regional or state language. They would then not be necessarily compelled to speak the language of their neighbours, and could use the auxiliary language for those wider contacts.

Problem is that Esperanto has not really gone anywhere. It has 2 million speakers, and 10 million people have some knowledge of it, but I think the Esperanto fad was bigger a few decades ago. Anyway, it’s already being eclipsed by Interlingua.
However, there are 100,000 articles on Esperanto Wikipedia, and the Esperanto community on the web is a big deal.
I’ve never met anyone in my life who ever spoke Esperanto.
The language is nice, and there is now good evidence that learning Esperanto before learning a second language helps you learn the L2 sooner and better. Esperanto is one of those great ideas that never really worked out. It’s a great social engineering project that ran up against various walls of human nature. Truth is that English is becoming the de facto Esperanto of the world anyway.
But there remain many good arguments for Esperanto or another constructed language.

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5 thoughts on “More on Minority Tongues”

  1. As a speaker of Catalan, I felt very identified with what you wrote on minority languages. We can’t rely much on the policy of the centralized states: they will always try to reinforce the “national language” by all possible means. I guess independence or at least a very high degree of autonomy is a requirement if you want a small language to survive. Another requirement for survival is standardization: if a language has no unified ortography or grammar or no oral standard suitable for the media it is bound to become not much more than extravagant folklore.
    As for having an international language, I think English is becoming the new esperanto. I’ve even used English when addressing to French or Italian tourists in Barcelona, the place where I live. It mattered little that our mother tongues are not that distant! It’s a bit sad, being both sides speakers of Romance languages, but it’s a fact that English is being used every day more as lingua franca for intercommunication even between speakers of languages of the same family! I don’t know if English is also used as lingua franca between the different linguistic communities in Switzerland or Belgium but it certainly would be a very practical solution.
    For me, being able to use English as a tool allows me to reach the whole world without need of resorting to Spanish. I mean I’m not allergic to Spanish, i’m not a hispanophobic but Spanish is only my passport to the rest of Spain and Latin America, not to the “world”.
    Spanish chauvinists will always say I’d better abandon Catalan and be monolingual in Spanish since only the latter is “a universal language”. I guess that as a way of survival many cultivated Catalans have learnt English and French (which is extremely easy for Catalan speakers in its written form), so that they have a greater choice of “universal languages” than that offered by Madrid.
    I mean, if I couldn’t read French newspapers (my oral French is very poor but I can read it without need of dictionaries) or I couldn’t read, talk and write in acceptable English I’d be bound to use only Spanish if I were to communicate with a larger community than the Catalan speaker world. But I’m lucky I can choose among English, French and German and use Spanish for what it really is useful: to communicate myself with non-catalan Spaniards or Latin Americans.

  2. “Anyway, [Esperanto] is already being eclipsed by Interlingua.
    It must be quite a partial eclipse (of maximum 5%).
    Some are claiming that Klingon is the fastest growing language in the galaxy: it would have 20 fluent speakers capable of being rude with each other.
    To have an estimation somewhat closer to reality, visit
    You can see the results at
    2993 people answered the question: Which language should be the world’s official common language?
    294 chose English less than 10%)
    1959 Esperanto (65%)
    117 Interlingua
    27 occidental
    156 ido (surprisingly the only real contender to Esperanto is based on Esperanto)
    Note that the survey is in English, not in Esperanto.
    Of course this estimaion is also wrong.
    If the people better knew what esperanto is, the figure would be well over 80%.

  3. Mr. Lindsay,
    You say you’ve never met anyone who spoke Esperanto.
    I say, do you know that for sure? Have you asked everyone you’ve ever met if they speak it?
    Many, many people meet me weekly and I’d be surprised if they realize they’ve just met a speaker of Esperanto. I’m sure if you asked them, they’d say, as you do, that they never met one before. And they’d be wrong. 🙂

  4. I’ve never (knowingly) met anyone who goes shark fishing …….
    Have we learnt anything about shark fishing? I don’t think so.
    However, if I conclude, from that, that shark fishing and shark fishers don’t exist, then we do learn something about me …….

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