Thor's "Language Maintenance and Language Shift
- a contrarian viewpoint"
All ideas expressed in Thor's Articles and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

Language Maintenance and Language Shift
- a Contrarian Viewpoint

"Language is use"  - Ludwig Wittgenstein

Thor May

Abstract: This short informal paper stems from reflection on an address by Ken Hale, doyen of minority languages (and now sadly deceased). It looks at the role of linguists themselves in the dynamic of language maintenance and the twin phenomena of language loss and language birth. The uniqueness of each language is weighed against the costs and benefits of language homogenization. It is recognized that the majority of speakers are ultimately pragmatists about language choice, yet an argument remains for offering some minority language support to groups struggling with their ethnic identity. Finally, it is asked whether language maintenance or revival can actually pose other risks under certain conditions.


Linguists' arguments for language maintenance are often ideological. It is an ideology which tends to rationalize the linguists' own interests as a surrogate for the interests of language speakers in affected communities. Both interests may actually coincide, but often enough they do not.

If a debate amongst linguists on language maintenance is to be honest and practical, it has to begin by identifying the values and self-interest of linguists (which are as legitimate as any others in their own domain). Next, and separately the interests of various social groupings, political entities, institutions and finally affected speakers themselves need to be addressed.

1. Linguists as Actors:

Let us start with the obvious. Linguists like languages, the more the better. This is a matter of romance, fascination and intellectual challenge. We don't hear much about the romance, but to encounter a coven of descriptive linguists and their acolytes is (for the iconoclastic observer) much the same as stumbling upon a clique of American artists in Paris, twenty-something bond traders on Wall Street, New York, or petrol-head drag racers in the western suburbs of Sydney. What all these groupies have in common is a belief that they are doing something very sexy, something that has a special cachet. Each milieu has a style, an in-group language, peer pressure for a unifying set of values, and a network of mutual support which gives members a sense of the rightness of their cause.

There is nothing wrong with linguists having a sense of community like petrol-heads and bond traders. The world is made up of such intersecting communities, and without them we could have no commitment to vocation or research. Problems do arise however when academics project their own particular vocational romance into a universal condition for all humanity. When it comes to language preservation, the linguist's ideology expressed as an assumed value for everyone else is both naive and self-defeating.

2. The Tragedy of Language Loss

Ken Hale told us that the number of languages in the world has been dropping for at least half a millennium. Apparently this is at a rate which is inverse proportion to the tide of intercultural exchange from mass migrations, trade, industrial growth, education, and communication revolutions.

For linguists, the loss of languages seems an unparalleled tragedy. The extraordinary intricacy, flexibility and functional power of a human language is the very pinnacle of achievement in our species. Each language is unique, and the historical vehicle for whole eras of regional culture. Surely such a thing is worth preserving. Yet every act of preservation does carry an opportunity cost.


3. The Threat of Language Homogenization

The human upheavals of the past 500 years have been generally catastrophic for other life-forms on the planet. The sheer numbers in human populations mean increasingly that the rest of nature is corralled as either an agricultural factory or a theme park for one species.

Further, the human species itself differentiates into the users and the used, where "ethnic" groups, by coercion or choice, become vaudeville entertainment in "service industries", and the unreflective content of cultures (including language) is massaged by spin doctors to soothe the sensibilities of tour bus groups. Actually, for large numbers of people in post-industrial societies, general ethnic domains have similar properties to language domains: we slip in and out of these shells according to personal, institutional or commercial demand.

If a human plague threatens animal species and decimates the biodiversity of plant forms, it is perhaps not surprising that scientists, aware individuals and finally governmental institutions feel that they have step in and try to save the planet which nourishes us all.

Nor is it surprising if linguists react with alarm to the apparent homogenization of natural language into fewer and fewer systems, which also borrow heavily from each other. There is an immediate temptation to equate the process with a general loss of biodiversity. Is this sensible? When the gene pool for a plant type is reduced from hundreds of varieties to only several, then disease strikes, we must anticipate human disaster. The Irish potato famine of the 19th Century was a potent example. When a hundred languages disappear, to be replaced by, say, English, Indonesian or Tok Pisin, should we anticipate a terminal decline in cultural variety or human inventiveness? What is the evidence?


4. The Uniqueness of Each Language

As an artifact, no language is replaceable. We might think of a language synchronically as the sum of (mostly subconscious) knowledge that a speech community holds about a set of protocols for mutual communication, and their skill in deploying those protocols. The product of exercising such protocols can be partially preserved in books, or on audio tape, or in oral myths, but valuable as such items are, they are not the language itself. Whenever a synchronic sample of the protocols of a language is extracted, it will differ slightly from all other samples taken before and after it. That is, the totality of protocols which constitute a language evolves constantly, and is indeterminate within a range which defines the phenomenon itself. In this we can compare a language to a cyclone, which is unpredictable within the range of cyclone-like phenomena, or an economic cycle which is unpredictable within the normal limits of all economic cycles.

5. The Functional Replacement of Any Language

As a communicative tool, any language is replaceable. It is at least arguable that the phenomenological cycle which defines a particular language is only a subset of the cycle which defines natural languages in general, and can be substituted by any member of the larger set. Moreover, new subsets of language will emerge and evolve if the need arises. Linguists might gnash their teeth, and traditionalists regret a popular inability to read the Dead Sea Scrolls in the original, but each new generation of children will get on with shaping the world as they find it.


6. The Pragmatism of Speakers

Most people are not full-time philosophers. They are concerned to feed and breed and maximize their comfort zones. Having achieved a level of comfort they may turn to designer clothes or meditation classes or cultivating some linguistic cleverness to secure their sense of being special. More likely on this planet, having been denied a level of comfort apparently available to others, they may identify some language as a barrier or a pathway to the millennium. They may promote a minority tongue or dialect as an act of defiant solidarity, or pursue a language of wider community to increase their life opportunities. The fact that a majority of people on earth are multilingual is good evidence that compromise is usually made in both directions. The fact that the overall number of languages has been declining dramatically is strong evidence that people ultimately find it more effective and comfortable to talk one or two languages than three or four, and that their choices will ! ultimately be less and less parochial.


7. The Linguist's Choice in Language Maintenance

Linguists are often called upon to support the preservation or maintenance of minority and threatened languages. In general they are eager to help. In some cases they may incite a group of speakers to preserve a language that would otherwise have passed away unmourned. There is not much point in saying what linguists should or should not do in such circumstances. Each situation has its own merits. In any case, being human and having self-selected for an interest in languages, most linguists will continue to follow their heart's desire.


8. Language Maintenance as a Icon for Cultural Identity

The effects of language maintenance programs can be extremely positive for threatened cultural groups. Psychologists often talk about the power of self-visualization: the ability of successful individuals to achieve difficult ends by projecting themselves mentally into a state where those ends are already achieved, and then actualizing the vision. The penniless immigrant who asks for his first bank loan, already seeing himself as a captain of industry, is apt to become just that. There is an important sense in which whole cultures are also driven by a kind of collective visualization. It may be a religious vision, or it may be a vision which says "I am Australian (or Japanese or German) and this is where Australians are going...". Such visualization underpins an individual's behaviour, his ambition, his health, even his posture.

All over the world small aboriginal groups (in particular) have had their cultural vision shattered, and physical disintegration has rapidly followed. It is in this context that I feel (and this is a personal view) that language maintenance, or even language resurrection can be extremely potent medicine. Here I align language with all the other cultural artifacts that may be used for self-definition, used as a tool for the revisualization that can help to give a people back their humanity and hope. I would defend it in this situation in the same way as a religious belief that I might reject privately, or a way of building houses which might seem ridiculously inefficient but would for the maker be a home and not merely a building. If the children of newly confident communities went on to buy project homes, opt for agnosticism or extend their linguistic comfort zones by shifting to a major metropolitan language, I would not count it a cultural catastrophe. They would have achi! eved a psychological condition where choices were no longer coercive.


9. Wider Risks from Language Revival?

Can language revival have damaging effects? Yes, I believe so, where cultural preference becomes a vehicle for linguistic nationalism. The long suppression of minority languages in the old Soviet Union has led to an explosive reaction of xenophobic intolerance in the disintegrated empire. Empires, for all their bureaucratic insensitivity, do convey major benefits for general communication and the flowering of creative achievement. The collapse of the Roman empire led to the European dark ages, not an instant renaissance. The military and cultural colonization of the Indonesian archipelago by Javanese is burying hundreds of languages and island cultures, often in a most brutal way. An intermittent visitor to Indonesia over the past quarter century does not have an impression of most island people sinking into a bottomless morass of despair. They might not like the cultural imperialism, but there is an accelerating dynamism about the place, and a new mobility for large numbers of people that the majority would not substitute for an earlier way of life. Some might welcome the teaching of local language as a locus of communal identity, but they would not wish to see the movement go feral and become a force for secession. This is a matter for fine political judgement, where the linguist's voice is only one amongst many.



Woodbury, Anthony  What is an endangered language? in Linguistic Society of America's online FAQ :   - presents an alternate view to the one in this paper

writing & photography on this site is
   copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2012
   all rights reserved,

thormay AT  
The Passionate Skeptic 
[and what this website stands for ..]

Doubt well, do what you can, then let it be. Presidents, priests, wage slaves, hustlers, men and women, kids, we all live by the grace of those we love to despise...

note : The observations in this piece grew out of an Australian Linguistics Institute workshop on Language Shift & Maintenance in the Asia Pacific Region. It was held at Latrobe University, Victoria, Australia on 9 July 1994. The convenors were Patrick McConvell and Margaret Florey.

I jotted down these notes after the workshop to clarify my own ideas. They are impressionistic, and coming from an instinctive contrarian may well please nobody. The purpose is merely to help crystalize some social issues which often remain unspoken.

The Latrobe workshop was a venue for the presentation of information and views which ranged from the factual to the ideological, from the local to the universal. Some speakers assumed a communality of purpose and values which was belied by the skepticism of others. There was an intermixing of professional ambitions, private beliefs and the cultural concerns of absent communities which made it impossible to draw many coherent conclusions. However, the meeting did succeed in forcing those present to reexamine their own positions.

[Historical note : These notes were actually forgotten for a decade. Somebody else was more diligent, and I stumbled across them in 2004 at

Human habits haven't changed so much, so the comments seem worth resurrecting ... Sadly, Ken Hale, a leading champion for minority languages and a gracious guide in this workshop, has now passed away.]

Direct Link to Thor's Aphorisms

©2012 Thor May