TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. September 2010

Sektion 1.3. Re-writing linguistic history – (post)colonial reality on the fringes of linguistic theories
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Eric A. Anchimbe (University of Bayreuth, Germany)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Globalization, dying languages and the futility of saving them

Anthony Onyemachi Agwuele (Universität Leipzig, Germany) [BIO]




Globalization is the process of interdependent connection across societies. As a result of globalization, the prior minimalist-interactionist relationship between cultures and societies has been replaced with increased linkage of societies in economics, technology, politics, culture, and language, to mention a few. In this view, it is practically difficult for any society to claim to have its own cultural domain where its language alone holds sway in the conduct of its affairs. The ever increasing linguistic interactions between what has come to be known as the developed(1) world (with mainstream languages) on the one hand and the developing world (with weak languages) on the other do not occur in a neutral fashion. Rather, globalization creates a sociolinguistic behavior that favors the expansion and acquisition of mainstream languages at the expense of the less empowered languages that have increasingly become endangered. On the basis of this, one of the main concerns of linguists is to save so-called endangered languages. Some of the good reasons warranting the activity of saving endangered language include: documenting human heritage; undertaking language typology, particularly in the absence of writing; conserving human history; satisfying intellectual curiosity as well as folkloristic pleasure, etc. In this paper, I argue that this activity is pointless and futile because of a whole gamut of constraints. Part of which is that a saved language is not a language indeed. Also, I argue that if a language dies, i.e., is abandoned by its speakers because it cannot aid them on the global stage, there is no basis for the preservation of such a language.



Nowadays, it is common to hear sociolinguists say, loud and clear, that certain languages are threatened or endangered. Languages in this category are those that are in the process of being eclipsed in their cultural domain by other languages. The reversal of this threat or danger of death of a language is what is referred to as language saving. The evidence for the concern about threatened languages can be seen in the steady stream of works available on this sociolinguistic issue. Among the many authors engaged in it are, Fishman (2001), Woodbury (1993), Hale (1992), Kraus (1992), and Dalby (2002), just to cite a few. Though they do not approach the issue of saving threatened languages from the same perspective; they and many other authors of the same ilk have something in common and that is a concern about the imminent loss of the linguistic variety in existence. They are convinced that, if nothing is done as quickly as possible, to save the threatened languages, there is a very high probability for them to die over the course of time. Quite frankly, the reality of some languages being under the threat of death or attrition cannot be denied. The reality of the phenomenon of language death is historically confirmed by Mufwene (1995). He observes that Latin died but survived through its numerous other offspring – French, Spanish, Latin, Portuguese, Rumanian, and Romansch. Furthermore, he recollects the death of Gaulish (Celtic) spoken then in present day France. The same is true for Celtic languages spoken in the United Kingdom which became subdued by English. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Mufwene notes the disappearance of Twa spoken by Central African pygmies and Khoikhoi spoken by Hottentots/Khoikhois in the Kalahari Desert. Other scholars such as Skutnabb-Kangas (2000), Maffi (2001), Dalby (2002), Phillipson (2003), Crystal (2004) also confirm the reality of language endangerment, but unlike Mufwene, they see language death (whether in the past or now), to be the result of domination by another. In other words, for them, dominant languages kill the weak ones. But contrary to this, the domination of one language by another cannot be correctly described as one language “killing” another; what actually “kills” languages is the choices of the speakers. It is the choices and preferences for particular languages made by speakers based on some factors that lead to the domination and or death of some languages. This position is in conformity with Mufwene (2005), who calls the idea that languages kill one another, a myth.

This paper discusses globalization as the main factor that influences speakers’ linguistic choices, and to that extent causes the death of languages. Globalization is arguably a formidable factor of endangerment and language death because of its capacity to diffuse societies around the world into some kind of close-knit circuit, from which it is difficult for any society to disentangle itself. The upshot of this diffusion presently, is the emergence of two categories of languages. On the one hand, there are the mainstream languages which are associated with developed societies and, on the other, there are weak languages which are associated with developing societies. The interaction between these two categories of languages has been favorable to the former but a source of danger to the latter. In response to language endangerment, linguists have been prompted to embark on the project of saving them. Not repeating what has been said before, the major reason on which this project is hinged, is the need to preserve diverse forms of languages, i.e., to ensure that the linguistic diversity in existence always flourishes. Though the proponents of this enterprise are up-beat about it, in spite of their many efforts the enterprise appears to be an exercise in futility. One reason for this is functionalism. There does not seem to be any need to save a language if it is abandoned by speakers for lacking a functional capacity they desire. The idea of functionalism intended here has some concordance with the more influential philosophical position of Bronislaw Malinowski(2) on social functionalism. He tried to explain a social phenomenon based on the ability of such a phenomenon to provide satisfaction for the individual’s needs; i.e., a custom must be able to yield an individual some dividend for partaking in it. In the same way, a language that does not serve its speakers well, in the sense of not functionally guaranteeing them the ability to survive socially, politically, economically, etc., (especially in this globalized world) can be rejected for another by the speakers. When they do, their rejected language should not be saved. 


Global world and the dying languages

I begin this section with an attempt to make sense of the concept of language. The main questions that I will like to answer are: What is language? What is the role or function of language? I follow this up with an outline of the characteristics of language, and I conclude with the examination of the term globalization and its impact on languages.

What is language? Language here refers to human language, also called natural language. It is a code for human social interaction. As a common human property, it is taken for granted that its definition will be easy and devoid of any disputes. But this has turned out not to be the case. Whether from the position of ordinary usage or from the epistemological standpoint, linguists, including psycholinguists, sociolinguists, psychologists, philosophers of language and a host of other experts concerned with language are not agreed on a common definition of it. Since we cannot here exhaustively examine the vast definitions of language offered by these disciplines and their inconsistencies with each other, let us restrict our definition of language to Sapir’s (2004 first published in 1921) functionalist definition and Crystal’s (1985) structuralist definition. Together, these definitions help us to clearly understand the sociolinguistic nature of language. According to Sapir (2004:5), “Language is a purely human and noninstinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.” Symbols he further observes are “in the first instance, auditory and they are produced by the so-called ‘organs of speech.’” (Sapir 2004:5). Seemingly taking off from where Sapir stopped, Crystal on his part, gives an overview of language as a hierarchically organized and designed tool consisting of sound, phoneme, morpheme, word, phrase, and sentence. This hierarchy, which is in the form of “lower” to “higher” demonstrate that a language is a composition “of sounds or letters, which go together to form words, which combine to form sentences” (Crystal 1985:1). These definitions invite the conclusion that a natural language is a unique system of verbal behavior patterned over time by users to exchange ideas and thoughts. Part of this uniqueness is that language is infinitely flexible – essentially to enable change in meanings of words, to allow the creation of new words, to vary the symbols and sounds associated with words and speech – in order to reflect transformations in historical and social conditions of users. Put differently, these definitions indicate that language is an art of encoding and shaping social customs.              

The prime function or use of language has always been taken to be communication. However, this view does not enjoy a consensus. For Searle (1998), the essential use of language is communication, this in turn corresponds to meaning and representation. For him, to utter a sentence entails the performance of illocutionary acts such as giving orders and asking questions. This implies saying something to someone and meaning it – i.e., making an utterance with a fixed set of intentions addressed to a particular hearer. But Chomsky (1986) in denying that the essential function of language is communication, simply rejects that it is a mere instrumental tool for achieving a given end. He posits that, language is a system and organ of the mind which can be studied independently of its function for communication. Thus, while for Searle the question of how communication is possible leads us to how language works, Chomsky’s (1986) attempt to focus on deep structures of language that are universal, draws attention to how the mind works. Clearly, they both approach language from different perspectives. Chomsky’s discourse is from a formal perspective and Searle’s is from a pragmatic perspective. But Hymes (1974) puts language use within the framework of social contexts and situations he refers to as the ethnography of communication. Hymes (1974:4) says, “it is not linguistics, but ethnography, not language, but communication, which must provide the frame of reference within which the place of language in culture and society is to be assessed.”

Another exciting function of language is that of recording and embodying the experiences of a speech community. It is seen as agreed upon medium to encode and share specific beliefs and cultural norms. In this vein, it enables users to share common memories and experiences. Accordingly, it is a means of integration for speakers – i.e., a means by which speakers are socialized into their community(3).  

The last function of language to be examined here is that which claims that thought is dependent on it. This view is associated with Whorf (1956) and Vygotsky (1961). It is further defended and strengthened by some philosophers (Davidson, 1973, 1975; Dummett, 1981; McDowell, 1994) who are of the view that various forms of propositionally structured thought rely on language. Also Lucy (1992) explores the influence of the language we speak on the way we think. Surely language plays a role in the process of thinking; however, whether it is so strongly implicated as emphasized by these philosophers is not something that can be endorsed or tested here. Nevertheless, this paper does not support any thesis that presupposes that language is just a process of conveying thoughts to and from the mind.     

Let me now outline certain general characteristics of language from the standpoint of sociolinguistics. First, language is human. It is a vehicle for human cultural expression. While culture is a people’s way of life, language is the encapsulator of that way of life. As features of human society intertwined in the way they render social utility to members of a society, it will be quite difficult to make sense of the notions of language and culture in the absence of human existence. What makes language central to human existence is its capacity to serve both as a trajectory and a repository of their cultural experience, practices and history.

Second, against the background of being a carrier of culture and its contents, language is an identity marker. It marks the identity of its speakers in at least two ways. First, speakers use it to code and conceptualize their interpersonal relationships (take for example the kinship terms of a language, that are used to show the extent to which members of that speech community are linked, how they are obligated to one another and to others). Second, speakers use language to reflect the social conditions and practices sanctioned by them.

A third characteristic of language is its structural nature. In other words, it is built up and used in a manner that follows a string of rules called grammar. The following of grammatical rules is important to determine correct use of language and vice versa. Language as a game of communication enables people to, among other things, share ideas, make things explicit(4) and play the game of giving and asking for reason.(5) Language is effective in this game because it has the capacity to denote(6) and connote.(7) That is, it has meaning and applies to things cognized by a society.

The interrelationship between a language and what a society cognizes is a clear anthropological institution explicable through ethnocultural and ethnolinguistic prisms. Ethnoculturally, a language is an embodiment of a society’s upheld and undiluted values as well as their diverse ways. Ethnolinguistically, a language is subject to the influence of a culture and vice versa – i.e., both language and culture co-determine each other. Altogether, the prisms show a language as a tool for chronotopic representations for a society. Specifically, it is a society’s device to express its worldviews. It also helps a society to cope with new and contingent experiences. In essence, a language is a social construct that evolves into a means for conveying shared socio-cultural experiences of a community. This is why it is an indispensable element of culture. But the contemporary reality shows that the ethnolinguistic cum ethnocultural situation has been vitiated by a process called globalization – a high level of interaction between societies.    

In other words, the ethnolinguistic situation where every society seems coherent in both culture and language; where every culture has its own cultural domain, so to say, and its own language enjoys dominion, hardly exists. The era where every culture spoke its own language; met its own cultural needs; regulated its people’s interpersonal relationships and conditioned their socio-economic circumstances; is past. The possibility for any society to remain as an ethnolinguistic enclave, with a minimal interaction with others is diminishing by the day. The minimalist-interactionist relationship between societies is vanishing as a result of globalization. With time, it will be difficult to find any one individual going through life in a monolingual environment, i.e. having just one ethnolinguistic identity.  

Globalization(8) represents a process of pervasive force which increases global connectivity and interdependence in the realms of life such as technology, economics, politics, and cultures. Though the process of globalization is more popular in its economic sense where it is seen as a course of unification of global patterns of production and consumption. But, equally in its technological, political, and social dimensions, globalization is an overwhelming force across landscapes of cultures. Another trait that is integral to globalization is the possibility and availability of instant information about everything almost everywhere. As a result, boundaries have dissolved and there seems to be few cultural frontiers that are immune from external interference. Hence, the areas where cultures previously exercised influence are now intruded on by strong external and dynamic influences, which occasion social cultural changes. This intrusion whittles down the hegemonies of cultures and equally endanger their languages.

A very typical instance of language endangerment, resulting from globalization, can be seen in the linguistic interaction between the developed world (with mainstream languages) and the developing world (with weak languages). The former has an undisputably high level of economic development evident in their optimal industrial capacity for the production of goods and services. Added to the economic prowess, is technological and political capitals. The coalition of all these has helped to make the culture-institution of the developed world to rise as a model for the rest of the world. And in tandem to this, their languages have permeated information technology, media, science, business and virtually every facet of life and have thereby emerged as the primary international languages of communication. For this reason, they are as strong and mainstream.

It is inevitable given the inequity existing between these two worlds, that the weak languages will be dominated by the mainstream languages in interaction. This is more so in view of the fact that globalization is not neutral in the interaction of the two worlds, but rather privileges the mainstream languages. It effects shift from weak languages to languages of the vanguards of globalization.(9) In other words, the sociolinguistic behavior that characterizes global interaction, favors the acquisition and expansion of the mainstream languages, while the weak and less empowered languages are increasingly beleaguered and endangered. Consequently, the route of globalization is littered with dying languages.

Lee & McLaughlin (2001:24) give us some hint about the number of languages that are faced with the cruel fate of dying; their suggestion is that out of “the world’s 3000 to 8000 distinct languages, depending upon how one counts, only 399 might be considered ‘power languages’ and thus assured, amazingly, of surviving into the 22nd century.” But, receiving this view with mistrust, Anthony Woodbury cautions that these “numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, because our information about many languages is scant or outmoded” (Woodbury). I do not share this mistrust. It may well be that the exact number of existing languages may not be clear, and the correct number of those dying unavailable. But this does not matter. We do not have to be certain about the number of languages still being spoken in order to come to terms with the reality of the death of languages. To refrain from talking about dying languages because of the uncertainty of the number of languages in existence or dead, is like not knowing how many people will have to die before a massacre is called genocide. There can be no doubt about the fact that some languages are weak and threatened and even die. This reality has been historically shown earlier on with the views of Mufwene and others. Yet, let us see some views on language policies in Nigeria, India, China, and Malaysia as further evidence of endangerment of language. 

Language policy, to briefly point out, is an overt survival strategy in terms of laws, charters, regulations and provisions put in place to assuage language shift. Mackey captures language policy more aptly when he says it is “accommodation of society to language diversity” (Mackey 1991). And making a distinction between language policy and language planning, Gottlieb defines the former as “consciously engineered language change” (Gottlieb 1995:1) and the latter as “the specific strategies formulated and implemented by planners to achieve their objectives” (Gottlieb 1995:1-2).  From this distinction, language planning leads to language policy, however, they can be used interchangeably.

In Nigeria, language policy came into effect, it seems, when the government came to terms with the detrimental effect of adopting English as an official language over the numerous autochthonous languages. Subsequently, it mounted a language policy on two fronts. The first front was through the National Policy on Education (NPE) of 1977, revised in 1981 and 1998, which contains the following paraphrased provisions:

  1. instruction shall be carried out in the pre-primary education through the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community (NPE, para. 11: 3);
  2. in the primary school, the medium of instruction will initially be the mother tongue or the language of immediate community and later, English (NPE, para. 15: 4);
  3. that in the interest of unity every child should learn one of the three major languages in addition to their mother tongue at the secondary school level (NPE, para. 19:4).

The three major languages referred to are: Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo (most times erroneously written as Ibo).

The second front was the constitutional reinforcement of the education policy. Sections 51 and 91 of the 1979 Constitution and sections 55 and 97 of the 1999 Constitution, say among other things that:

  1. The business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English, Hausa, Ibo (sic) and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made thereof (Nigerian Constitution, 1979 & 1999).
  2. The business of the House of Assembly shall be conducted in English but the House may in addition to English conduct the business of the House in one or more languages in the state as the House may by resolution approve (Nigerian Constitution, 1979 & 1999).

These provisions and the attempts to implement them generated controversies among speakers of Nigeria’s other languages (over 400 languages) who felt shortchanged because these policies did not extend the same national recognition conferred on Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo to their own languages. The concern here is not about the controversies but about the policies as efforts to mitigate the endangerment of Nigerian languages. To this extent, it should be pointed out that these policies are no more than a set of reactive contrived measure. They were selective and devoid of practical steps that can ensure the speaking of local languages at home in order to reduce the increasing number of Nigerians who are unable to speak their local languages. In view of this, they fail to ensure language survival.

Another pointer to language endangerment in Nigeria is Bamgbose’s (2006) advocacy for, and endorsement of, linguistic social responsibility. In a Keynote Address he delivered on the occasion of 20th Annual Conference of Linguistic Association of Nigeria (LAN), on November 14, 2006 in Abuja, Nigeria; he urges Nigerian linguists to add social responsibility and relevance to their scholarly work. He commends the activity of Prof. Kola Owolabi and his collaborators who are promoting the use of Yoruba in the State Houses of Assembly in the South Western States of Nigeria. He praises their effort which has seen Yoruba language move from limited use in debate and “general discussion on Wednesday in Ogun State,” (Bamgbose 2006:17) to a much higher level of progress “in Oyo State, where there is a lot of interest in the implementation of the policy” (Bamgbose 2006:17). For Bamgbose in this address, the crux of social responsibility for linguists is to ensure usage of mother tongues in extended domains. This can be construed as a strategy for mitigating language endangerment.

Providing another germane evidence for language endangerment in Nigeria is Adegbija’s “Survival Strategies of Minority Languages: A Case Study of Oko (Ogori) in Nigeria.” In this paper, he outlines cultural, linguistic and political strategies which he aptly refers to as a “cocktail of internally initiated survival ploys…for minority groups in multilingual and multicultural contexts for guaranteeing their own future security and existence” (Adegbija 1994:35).

Since language planning and policy are issues in linguistically diverse societies that consciously intend to maintain their linguistic diversity, India, a multilingual society, offers an example that is worthy of note. In India, the foremost cultural language called Hindi and all other local languages are under the hegemony of English. This, according to Nayar (1969), is prompting the Indian government at both the central and state levels and in all parts of the country, to have to tinker with language policy and planning. The main aim of this, in his view, is to ensure a balance between English and Hindi (in Hindi states); or English and other languages in non-Hindi states. In short, the idea is to ensure the survival of the local languages.

In Malaysia, language planning is also on the front burner of political development. This explains why initially, after independence in 1957, the government adopted Bahasa Melayu as official language and later in 2002 reversed this in favor of English. Even so, Bahasa Melayu and a host of other languages such as Tamil, Mandarin, etc were granted equal opportunity through a constitutional provision (see Omar 1979:11).

The same is true for China where language policy, in the last five decades, has taken the form of language engineering in a manner that has transformed the linguistic landscape of China. Consequently, the official language in China, called Putonghua or Mandarin, has become very important for both the majority and minority populations for the power, identity, nationalism, opportunities etc that it confers. For example, the majority groups are able to keep their vernaculars in addition to the official speech, while the minority groups are able to uphold their traditional heritages and identities alongside those offered by the official language. Moreover, both groups are able to enjoy the privileges and opportunities that accrue from being Chinese; and take delight in Chinese nationalism and power (see Zhou et al. 2004).    

These views and examples of language policies across cultures clearly show the reality of language endangerment. Consequent on this reality, the task of saving endangered languages assumes a logical necessity. This task which is a cogent response of linguists to the fate of weak and dying languages shall be the focus of next section.


Language saving: The response of linguists to threatened languages

Let us begin here by trying to make sense of language endangerment. The questions that I will seek to answer in connection to this are: What is language death? What are its causes? What is language preservation? The essence of exploring these questions is to gain some philosophical insights.

What does it mean for a language to be threatened, endangered, weak, or dying? A threatened or endangered language is namely, a language that is at the risk of disappearing. Fishman (1997:194) observes that language endangerment is caused by two things: lack of informal transmission from one generation to another and lack of informal daily life support; not because they are not taught in school or are devoid of official status. In other words, teaching a language and using it officially are not enough to safeguard it from endangerment. Saying the same thing in a different way, Hale (1992) observes that language endangerment is a process in which a culture becomes deprived of its diverse languages as a result of the emergence of a dominant culture and language. But, apart from the emergence of a dominant language, there are other factors that contribute to the endangerment of a language. Fishman (1991:88-109) identifies 8 stages of language loss. They are: Stage 8, where only a few elders speak the language. Stage 7, only adults beyond child bearing age speak the language. Stage 6, there is some intergenerational use of language. Stage 5, language is still very much alive and used in community. Stage 4, language is required in elementary schools. Stage 3, language is used in places of business and by employers in less specialized areas. Stage 2, language is used by local government and in mass media in the minority community. Stage 1, some language used by higher levels of government and in government. Limiting himself to African languages, Adegbija (2001) outlines the factors that endanger them viz.: the presence and prestige of ex-colonial language; the inferiority syndrome associated with African languages; officially and functionally recognized big or indigenous major languages which make smaller languages seem insignificant; low emotional, intellectual and functional investment in languages. What this suggests is that when these factors are present in any particular language, it has a threatened status and, gradually it begins to get curtailed, eclipsed, displaced and eventually replaced in its cultural sphere by another intruding language or languages. On the part of Brenzinger (1992), he narrows the factors that are responsible for language endangerment down to just one, contact with another language.

A simple way to illustrate language endangerment as a result of contact, in view of the foregoing reasons offered by Fishman and Adegbija is this; two languages (e.g. English and Igbo) meet, and if English is dominant, Igbo, is a weak and threatened language. In other words, dominance of English as it were, implies the weakness and attrition of Igbo. Arguably therefore, a threatened language is a language that is in the unenviable position of possibly falling into disuse (i.e., becoming unspoken due to progressive atrophy). An unspoken language becomes a dead language, one that has completely disappeared (Craig 1997) as a result of loss of both its domain and speakers. When such a loss occurs, language users are said to have switched or shifted to another language. Appel & Muysken (1990), describe language shift as a situation where language users focus and assimilate another language that is not theirs. To sum up, whether the speakers of a language die or they shift to another; what is clear is that their original languages exit existence.

The next question to be considered is that of the cause of language death. But prior to this, it is important to distinguish between language death and language shift, or endangerment. It should be noted that the two are not synonymous or equivalent, and they should not be construed as such. Rather, the end result of one, language shift, is the other, language death. In other words, language shift is causally responsible for language death. That is, language death is made possible by irreversible language shift. A time lag is involved, there is usually a period within which the factors responsible for language shift cannot be undone. Dorian (1981, 1986) calls this time lag the gestation period of language death (loss of language); he adds that despite the fact that there is a period, when language death occurs, it is still perceived as a sudden death. Craig (1997) tries to be more specific and assertive by identifying the central cause of death of language to be the pattern of language use in families, by which parents and older family members speak a language which the younger members do not acquire. This problem of lack of intergenerational transmission which is central to the death of languages is aggravated by globalization. As a result of globalization, younger generations do not speak the language of their parents.

This happens when under the auspices of globalization Igbo language meets with English and subsequently, the younger generations in Igbo community fail to emulate their elders to speak their own language. But rather prefer to acquire English even though doing so is to the detriment of their Igbo language. Yet, they acquire the English language because it can catapult them to the global stage and enhance their integration with it in a way their Igbo language cannot. In other words, globalization prompts speakers to change their linguistic behavior on a pragmatic ground. When they discover that their own language lacks the capacity to instrumentally and functionally secure them better opportunities, they take a purely logical step compelled by exigency to shift to a mainstream language that can do that. What the import of the foregoing depicts is the functionality of language. However, this does not mean that language is functional mainly in the sense of communication. There are indeed a host of other functions already noted: it bears historical memories about our ‘Dasein’, projects cultures, marks identities, embeds social issues, etc. But all these cease to matter when speakers give up on their language for a more functional one.

Still on the idea of speakers abandoning their own language for the mainstream one as a result of globalization, this seems no doubt a reprehensible thing to do. But to express a complete disapproval of this kind of linguistic behavior, is to ignore the helpless situation of the speakers of weak languages under globalization. They are entangled in a global world where no culture can isolate itself, but, must necessarily interact with other cultures no matter the scale of the consequence of the interaction to them. And indeed, the interaction is inimical to them on two grounds; one, the terms and structure of the interaction are beyond their control, two; they really have no means to counter the power differentials of the other major cultures and languages involved in the interaction. Therefore, by creating the existential circumstances that predispose speakers of weak languages to making linguistic choices that lead to acquiring mainstream languages, globalization is a major culprit in the death of weak languages. It brings societies that are unequal in terms of development together and privileges the developed world and their languages. For this reason, rapid acceleration of death of weak languages is an integral part of globalization. Although the possibility of weak languages dying undercuts globalization, it is not a matter to be regretted nor should it warrant a need to save such languages, which in the first place, were abandoned by speakers. This point forms the focus of the next section.

Let me bring this section to a close by looking at language saving also called language preservation. This is a reactive attempt to rescue threatened languages from dying. A threatened or endangered language as shown earlier on, is a language characterized by declining use, declining speakers, or both. And because there are many languages that fall under this category, language preservation has become a foremost assignment of sociolinguists. Fishman (2001) captures this by aptly observing that saving threatened languages is what the spirit of the new time has ordained.

Let us now closely observe language preservation in terms of Reversing Language Shift (RLS) proposed by Fishman (1991). RSL is hinged on the necessity of avoiding the death of a language so that it does not consequently lose its culture and all it entails. RSL is Fishman’s response to the 8 stages of language loss he earlier on identified. Each stage represents a typology of the status of threat to a language; in other words, stages 8 to 1 is a depiction for the most linguistically disadvantaged to the least linguistically disadvantaged. Each stage, he will have us believe, is a function of a degree of deficiency in intergenerational transmission. He calls this scales of deficiency – Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (Fishman 1991:88-109). In GIDS, he uses Xish to depict a specific threatened language and Xmen to depict the speakers of that language. Also, he uses Yish/Ymen to depict dominant language and the speakers of that language respectively. The 8 stages or scales of GIDS are:

Stage 8: most vestigial users of Xish are sociallly isolated old folks and Xish needs to be re-assembled from their mouths and memories and taught to demographically unconcentrated adults
Stage 7: most users of Xish are a socially integrated and ethnolinguistically active population but they are beyond child-bearing age
Stage 6: the attainment of intergenerational informal oralcy and its demographic concentration and institutional reinforcement
State 5: Xish literacy in home, school and community, but without taking on extra-communal reinforcement of such literacy
Stage 4: Xish in lower education (types a and b) that meets the requirements of compulsory education laws
Stage 3: use of Xish in the lower work sphere (outside of the Xish neighborhood/community) involving interaction between Xmen and Ymen
Stage 2: Xish in lower governmental services and mass media but not in the higher spheres of either
Stage 1: some use of Xish in higher level educational, occupational, governmental and media efforts (but without the additional safety provided by political independence)

Fishman says the intervention by RLSers or RSL activists is necessary in stages 8- 5 in order to transition to stage 4, the stage of steady intergenerational mother tongue transmission through guided literacy, compulsory education, etc. This transition is what Fishman calls RSL. But what is clear from this process, is that sociolinguists feel the need to intervene at the last 5 stages when it is already late and very clear that little can be achieved because other stages would have become emergency cases. Essentially, what the sociolinguist struggle to deal with when he intervenes on account of this process, are symptoms and not causes. On the contrary, however, if intervention comes at the earlier stages, it has a greater chance of producing shift reversal. Nevertheless, even if reversal is achieved and a society is able to ensure intergenerational mother tongue transmission, this does not seem sufficient to sustain a language in a globalized world. This is not a guarantee that younger generations will continue to speak their language when its communicative and instrumental functions are unable to assure them of the better opportunities they desire in the globalized world. It is possible though that reversal can make the younger generations go bilingual, and sometimes two languages do a better job than just one; but even at that, their language will remain weak and may still die in the course of time. 
What the foregoing highlights is that if a language fails to meet the functional requirement of speakers and they abandon it, it should not be preserved. This position will be further emphasized in the next section.


Saving threatened languages: the futility of it

I begin this section by refuting one of the usual arguments put forward for saving a threatened language. The argument is that many languages in their thousands are dying and many more are certain to die during the first half of this century, except they are saved. Therefore, to avoid the dire consequences of losing many human languages, linguists are said to have a principal duty to save them. This appeal to the fear of the consequences of losing many languages is implicit on human nature and it naturally arouses protective impulse over any human property. But, it does not, to that extent, amount to a valid raison d’étre for saving dying languages. The need to save threatened languages should be based on some cogent reason other than the fear of losing them. 

Now I come to the argument that language death is nothing to be regretted and so the threat of death should not prompt language saving. Language, it must be realized, is a form of existence (though not in a biological sense but in the sense of a semiotic system based on cultural conventions). In view of this, cessation or death is a possibility.

In the particular case of language, though its death is gradual, it is however accentuated under globalization, the moment the speakers of a language realize that the power of their language to express things explicitly(10) does not have a global functionality, i.e., once they recognize that their language is unable to take them from their local and marginal standpoint to the global mainstream, they begin to abandon it. When this happens to a language, it is just a question of time before it falls finally into disuse. The reason why the possibility of a language dying raises so much concern for sociolinguists is that they take language death to be analogous to culture death, for them the case is simply, “When a language dies, a culture dies” (Woodbury 1993),(11) and this consequently entails a concurrent loss in the linguistic diversity associated with human history. This may be true, i.e., language death may translate to culture death. But the concern about saving language on this basis is misplaced because language death is primarily a fulfillment of the law of change. Change rather than permanence is the norm even though it may induce loss. There is no reason not to allow languages that lose their communicative purposes and are abandoned by speakers, not to disappear from the public arena.

It is not difficult to see why globalization is imperative to language death. Under globalization, interaction of cultures brings about a lot of pressure on languages. In that languages which co-exist on different levels and for different functions come together, and as they do, they begin to compete against each other for speakers. In the course of this, some languages felt by speakers to shortchange them in the globalized world, are abandoned. So, such languages that speakers find to be of limited potential at the global stage, if abandoned and they thus come under threat or even die; so be it. There is no need to preserve them. Any attempt to preserve a language that is abandoned by its speakers is no more than archivization. The moment a language loses the continuant use of its speakers, it is dead and it should be allowed to remain so.

The other point is about lack of basis to save a changed behavior. Language is a human social behavior. It is a group behavior, or put differently, a collective behavior. Behavior, usually, is associated with an object or organism in relation to the environment and it can be voluntary or involuntary, overt or covert, conscious or unconscious. However, what is quite typical of any type of behavior, especially a human behavior, is change. The main reason why a social group will change its social behavior is that it is no longer auspicious and expedient. And the reason why every member of the group will toe the line of change is that no one wants to be at variant with other members of their social group. Thus, a group behavior is expectedly subject to a group influence. The moment there is a change, it is unanimously adhered to by most members, except deviants. Even deviants are sometimes deterred by the possibility of isolation or other form of reprimand by their society.

The point here really is that behaviors change. A collective behavior such as language is not exempted. Any group can change its linguistic behavior if it so wishes, especially, when there is a cause to do so. The advent of globalization and its concomitant linguistic interactions, provides speakers of weak languages the cause to change their languages to the more influential mainstream languages. This change to mainstream language is basically a change in linguistic behavior. Once this change occurs, there is no need for linguists to preserve the speakers old language or former linguistic behavior. Since every old behavior changed is never saved, why save an old linguistic behavior? What can be an issue in doing this, is the problem of paternalism when the sociolinguists solely decide what is good for a group of people with respect to their language. Thus, when a people decides to adopt another language, there is no reason to save their former language.

Let us observe briefly, the pragmatic(12) views of Quine and Rorty, among many, which haunt language saving. Quine’s (1969) Ontological relativity is a pointer to the fact that the correlation between word and world (objects) has no right way of being deployed across natural languages. This removes any basis for saving a language.

Rorty’s pragmatic themes largely recapitulates Quine’s. For Rorty the use of language to depict things does not presuppose an expression of pre-existing reality but a tool for the construction of being and its becoming. Thus, he observes that “we have no pre-linguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate” (Rorty 1989:21). What this possibly suggests, among other things, is that language-act occasions changes. That is, when a speaker speaks, he not only modifies himself but the world too. As a result of this, there is no need to save a threatened language because no linguistic structure, rule or theory is to be followed axiomatically. The consequence of this pragmatic position is that individuals and societies (including different ages) are able to construct their selfhood and identity based on their use of language. In other words, if earlier and later generations of speakers are unlikely to refer to the same things with the same set of words and if they may not share the same social utility of meaning, then it is simply futile to save a threatened language.

Granted that earlier and later generations may use language differently, it appears that saving a threatened language does not seem to achieve anything meaningful beyond storing languages in textual forms or other devices and displaying them on the shelf. Even so, some problems arise. Firstly, it remains to be seen the extent to which a language on the shelf is a language indeed. For every language is specifically connected to cultural events, worldviews and realities of the speakers; this is not the case with a language on the shelf. Secondly, even if a language can be saved in devices, a culture cannot be saved by same token. In other words, the truth of “when a language dies, a culture dies” does not imply the truth of when a language is saved in device, a culture is so saved. In view of this, the only thing that can be achieved by the enterprise of language saving, is the capturing of linguistic data which is essential and useful for intralinguistic studies. Nothing more.

Again, the idea that a language defines a space of reason further weakens the need to save a threatened language. The space of reason according to Wilfrid is a community of language users. He asserts that, the essence of acquiring language in this community is no more than allowing members to be able to “exchange justifications of assertions, and other actions, with one another”  (Sellars 1963:169). In other words, language enables users to socially practice justification in accordance with the rules of that language. On this account, the question that arises is, does a language on the shelf constitute a space of reason? The answer is by no means in the affirmative. Though a language on the shelf is, doubtless, occupying a space, it does not constitute a space of reason in and of itself.

Perhaps, one way to explain the involvement of linguists in saving threatened languages, is to see it as a fallout of the archiving mentality of the contemporary time. The current epoch is notorious for archiving anything and everything - from works of arts, artifacts, automobiles, books, to stamps, etc. Saving threatened languages is an evidence of the entry of this art into the intellectual realm. But regrettably, it has turned linguists into undertakers of cultures, because every saved language is no more than an epitaph, a testament, or better still, a commemorative monument, of a dead culture.

Defenders of language preservation may however argue that the question of language preservation being futile because of globalization does not arise since preservation of languages precedes globalization. The motivations for this claim, can among many be that: Yoruba became documented in the 1800s when Bishop Ajayi Crowther translated the Bible into Yoruba (Rev. Johnson 1921:xxiii, Ade Ajayi 1960:50-53, 1970:9, Bamgbose 1969:87, Ogunbiyi 2001:4-5)  and, Geez an Ethiopian language was documented over 2000 years ago (Wallis 1928, Stuart 1991, Sellasie 1972, Summer 1976, 1994, 1985). Nevertheless, this argument fails to diminish the contention that language preservation is futile because of globalization. At issue is not which precedes the other. Even if it is conceded that language preservation predates globalization, the point of this paper is that language preservation is no longer necessary for two reasons. One, globalization, a conditio sine qua non for language endangerment is strong and irreversible; two, there are communities of speakers of weak languages that are willing to shift to mainstream languages because their own languages lack the prospect to make them global players, i.e., they cannot guarantee them any opportunities in the global stage.



The overall position in this paper that languages that are not functional for their speakers on the global stage should die and not be saved, can be misunderstood in two different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as expressing a strong bias for mainstream languages; and on the other, it can be taken as a discountenance of the identity debate, a very critical debate of our time. But these views are wrong for two reasons. One, with respect to the identity debate, I am not unaware of it, especially, the nexus between it and language. There is no doubt that it is a genuine debate, even though it is contentious. But, this notwithstanding, I do not think that the issue of identity can be solely crystallized through language. Rather, it should be approached holistically, through language and a host of other tangential issues such as race, sex, dress, religion, class, nationality etc. Two, with respect to the issue of bias for mainstream languages, I have to say, very clearly, that I have no special preference for them. I do realize that there are a lot of societies in their hundreds or possibly in their thousands whose non-mainstream languages are used for numerous things that cannot be culturally realized in the mainstream languages. Take the Igbo language for example. The Igbo do not believe that any other language (including the mainstream), has the capacity to explicitly articulate the cultural underpinning of their tradition of presenting and breaking of kolanuts at social and traditional religious events. Thus they have a popular saying that the kolanut does not speak English.(13) There is no doubt that, in the area of breaking of kolanuts in Igbo culture, the Igbo language functionally makes things clear in a way no other language probably does. But the major disadvantage of Igbo, like every weak language, which is why its speakers abandon and it dies, is that its propriety does not extend to the global stage.

Presumably, the idea of saving threatened languages sounds good and the enticement to it is prima facie understandable. But this is as far as it goes. The idea is difficult to sustain in the face of the fact that speakers have a right to change their linguistic behavior, i.e. shift to another language. Once language shift is a fait accompli, there is no logical basis for saving a past linguistic behavior. What is more, globalization as it were, is a melting pot and not a mosaic; it will continually engender language shift. This trend is not likely to abate.





1 The terms developed and developing refer to economic stages of development. The highly industrialized are developed while the less significantly industrialized are developing. In addition, the developing countries are characterized by low well-being and welfare in the forms of low capita income, low life expectancy, low literacy, low standard of living, low GDP, etc., all of these are measured by what is called HDI (Human Development Index). For further readings on the notions of developed and developing nations see (i) Bozyk Pawel’s, Globalization and the Transformation of Foreign Economic Policy (New York: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2006), (ii) Joseph E. Behar & Alfred G. Cuzan, (eds.) At the Crossroads to Developed and Developing Societies (Leiden, New York, Köln: E. J. Brill, 1997).
2 Social functionalism developed on two different fronts due to the efforts of two contemporaries: Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, a British anthropologist, and Bronislaw Malinowski, another British anthropologist of Polish descent. Both of them were influenced by the works of Émile Durkheim, the French sociologist. On their view, a society can be seen as an organism whose parts function together. But Malinowski’s more influential version of functionalism hinges the functionalism of a social phenomenon on its ability to provide utility for its participants. It is this sense of functionalism that is deployed in this paper. A language is functional if it aids the speakers on the global stage. If it ensures they are not disenfranchised from global opportunities for jobs and positions. For more on Radcliffe-Brown see two of his works; The Andaman Islander, 1922, and Social Organisation of Australian Tribes, 1931. And for more on Malinowski, see among his many works, The Trobriand Islands, 1915, and Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1922.     
3 For more on the capacity of language to bear the experiences of a speech community and also enable speakers to share them see Chomsky (1986). And for further reading on language as a means of socialization see B. Schieffelin & E. Ochs (1986) and D. Kulik (1992)
4 I here construe R. B. Brandom’s Making It Explicit: Representing and Discursive Commitment, Harvard: University Press, (1994) to imply that a language must be adequately able to articulate social realities clearly.
5 Again this is taken from Robert Brandom’s “Knowledge and the Social Articulation of the Space of Reason” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LV, No. 4, December 1995. pp. 895-908. It is a reaction to John McDowell’s “Knowledge and the Internal” pp. 877 – 893 (1995) Brandom argues that the language game of giving and asking for reasons involves the connections of the relations that exist between linguistic expressions and practical consequences i.e., actions. For him, this is what knowledge as standing in the space of reason is all about.
6 Denotation is one half of meaning. It is the extension or referent of a word, term or phrase. The notion of denotation as reference is based on the view of Gottlob Frege in his 1892 paper entitled “On Sense and Reference.” For him the reference of a term is the object designated, whereas its sense is the manner or content of the designation. 
7 Connotation is the other half of meaning. It is intensional because it is the implied meaning given to a term, word or phrase based on its properties and qualities.  While denotation picks out the actual referents, connotation on the other hand, picks out all the possible referents including the symbolic ones. The word-object relation can be called denotation while the word-meaning (definition) relation can be called connotation
8 I have here followed a Jameson-like concept of globalization. For further reading, see Frederic Jameson & Masao Miyoshi (1998).
9 These are the languages of the operators of the globalization machine. The operators in reference here are the leading developed and industrial nations. They also double up as the writers of the rules of globalization. Globalization harbors injustice. For a sustained criticism of the injustice of globalization and a proposed reform agenda for it, see Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents (New York; Norton, 2002) 
10 The hallmark of a language is that its propriety makes things explicit and has the flexibility to improve on this practice (i.e., able to make implicit emergent realities explicit)
11 This is the thesis pursued by Anthony C. Woodbury in “A Defense of the proposition, when a language dies, a culture dies.” In Proceedings of the First Annual Symposium about language and society – Austin (SALSA): Texas Linguistic Forum 33: 1993, 101 – 129
12 By this I refer to the process of querying or rejecting the assumption that there is a single linguistic tool-kit that can be used to depict the world and can be bequeathed to posterity
13 The Igbo saying that kolanut does not speak English is an assumption that the cultural essence of the rite of presenting and breaking kolanut as well as the implicature of doing so cannot be captured in English.

1.3. Re-writing linguistic history – (post)colonial reality on the fringes of linguistic theories

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