Language preservation is necessary for maintaining cultural identityBy John David Thompson | 11/18/2014 12:01am
Crêpes are one of my favorite delicacies. In fact, they may be one of my top reasons to travel to Paris. What I was surprised to learn, however, is that crêpes are not a symbol of French culture, but Breton culture. Foods, like crêpes, are considered part of a society’s cultural identity. What ties all of these cultural aspects together is a language. As the world becomes smaller, we must fight to preserve those things that make us unique.
In Brittany, a cultural region in northwestern France, Bretons are in fear of losing their cultural identity through the loss of the native language, Breton. Breton is a Britannic language closely related to Welsh and Cornish and is considered “severely endangered” by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. According to Ethnologue, there are only 206,000 speakers and that number is not expected to grow. Policies were instituted in the 19th century, such as banning Breton in schools that discouraged people from speaking Breton and switching to French.
Furthermore, Breton was seen as an inferior language to French as it was traditionally spoken by people in poor rural areas. Even today, Breton as well as several other minority languages in France, and the rest of the world, are not legally protected. Also in France, the Académie française, which regulates and protects the purity of the French language, has protested efforts to give minority languages legal protection in France.
The situation in France is hardly unique. Of the 7,106 of the world’s living languages, 1,519 are categorized by Ethnologue as “in trouble,” and 915 are “dying.” In comparison, only 560 are “institutional.” Some people argue it is not worth the effort to save these dying languages because they have ceased to be, or never were, languages of thinking, innovation and diplomacy. As the languages die out, their speakers are assimilating into the modern world and perhaps are utilizing more aspects of modern technologies and the comforts of today’s society.
Furthermore, how do you save a dying language? For example, as many Native Americans have assimilated into modern American life, they are speaking their native languages less and less. The language dies, so does the former cultural identity. In California, there is supposedly only one fluent speaker left of Wukchumni, a Native American language. As the U.S. government systematically oppressed Native American societies, it killed their languages as well.
There is a reason to save these many dying languages that exist all over the world. While perhaps they represent a way of life that is dying, they preserve a peoples’ cultural identity and are sometimes the only way to express certain thoughts and ideas. In Siberia, the Tofa people, who historically herded reindeer, speak the Tofa language, which in 2010 only had 93 speakers. The language has many single words for describing reindeer that do not exist in any other language. As these languages become extinct, a vast amount of knowledge of the natural world is being lost. Unfortunately, many of these languages have no writing system, and with a dwindling number of speakers, they will be virtually impossible to save.
Far too often, Americans do not see the benefits of knowing other languages. The belief that English is the only language that really matters is too widely accepted. However, it is just not true.
E.O. Wilson says, “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.” Part of preserving biodiversity is preserving languages.
John David Thompson is a sophomore majoring in piano performance. His column runs biweekly.