Although it is difficult to be sure about the precise numbers, most linguists estimate that somewhere around 50 percent of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages will be gone by the end of the century, disappearing at a rate of about one every two weeks. Many of us share the sense that with each language that becomes extinct, something of considerable significance will be lost. Saying exactly what that something is, however, is trickier than it might at first appear.
If you read articles about the subject in the popular press or speak with people who are involved in language revitalisation projects, you will probably encounter claims like “a language is a way of seeing the world” or “to lose a language is to lose the body of traditional knowledge that it encompasses.”
On one way of understanding statements like these, we might take them to mean that particular languages make it possible to say things that cannot be said in another language. On an even stronger formulation, the idea might be that the language you speak determines the kinds of thoughts that are available for you to think. Many of us will have heard a folk story about languages spoken in the Arctic that is intended to illustrate these points. On one telling, the richness of the variety of expressions for snow that speakers have access to is supposed to make it possible for them to say things about the weather that would be impossible for an English speaker to say. According to another presentation, having a vocabulary for a huge variety of different kinds of snow makes it possible for speakers to actually think about snow in ways that people who speak only English could not.
If the Arctic tale were true, it would offer a straightforward answer to our question about what is lost with a language, one that would clearly do justice to the popular intuitions mentioned above – with the vocabulary of the Arctic language, humanity would lose the ability to say or think certain things about the world. Unfortunately, however, few linguists or philosophers think there’s much to be said for the thesis of what, in the jargon, is called “linguistic relativism” or “linguistic determinism.” Most experts in the relevant areas hold that, with exceptions for very small differences at the margins, the same propositions can be expressed in any language, and most agree that the range of thoughts you are able to entertain does not depend on the particular language (or languages) you happen to speak. Instead of looking for thoughts that can only be expressed or entertained by someone who speaks a certain language, then, I propose we shift our attention, and look instead at the range of different actions that different languages allow us to perform (philosophers generally call these “speech acts”).
To see what I mean by saying that actions can be performed in speech, consider an example. When a meteorologist utters the words “temperatures are in the low single digits at the moment in the Southwest,” it’s natural to think of what they are doing primarily in terms of the information conveyed. The temperature in the Southwest is whatever it is whether anyone says anything about it or not, and the meteorologist’s goal in speaking is not to change the temperature, but to give listeners information about what the temperature is.
Offering information, however, is not the only thing we do when we speak. In addition to the role it plays allowing us to send and receive messages, language is also a tool that we use to perform actions that shape the social landscapes we inhabit. For example, when a judge utters the words “I find you guilty,” they are not merely informing you about a certain state of affairs but rather making it the case that you have been convicted of a crime.
Sometimes it is pretty clear how the words we use determine the kind of action we realise in uttering them. In the right context, for example, a speaker can place a bid simply by saying “I bid,” or undertake an obligation simply by saying “I promise,” and so on. In other cases, the relationship between the words we use and the kind of action they allow us to perform is subtler. Saying “I offend you” is more likely to make someone laugh than it is to offend them, but offending someone is very often something we do by employing certain words. So, for example, if you see someone placing a “for sale” sign on their car, asking “How much do you want for the old banger?” will have a predictably different effect from “Have you decided yet on an asking price?” If you walk into a restaurant and ask “What are you slopping out today?” there is a sense in which your question means the same as “What is for lunch today” but the social effects of formulating the question one way over the other are clear.
I think we can use the idea that certain words are implicated in the production of certain speech acts to tell a compelling story about what is lost with a language. On my view, when a language disappears, so does a class of possible actions that can only be realised using expressions of that language. Unfortunately, one of the clearest ways of illustrating how speech acts are language specific is to look at the example of slurring expressions, which have a particularly obvious social impact, and one that is produced in a particularly clear way.
Many philosophers working on the topic of slurs recently have followed the 20th century Black writer Langston Hughes in thinking that the history of a slur is what explains the fact that uses of it are offensive or morally objectionable. In 1940 (in his autobiographical The Big Sea) he wrote:
The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America: the slave-beatings of yesterday, the lynchings of today, the Jim Crow cars, the only movie show in town with its sign up FOR WHITES ONLY, the restaurants where you may not eat, the jobs you may not have, the unions you cannot join. The word nigger in the mouths of little white boys at school, the word nigger in the mouth of the foreman at the job, the word nigger across the whole face of America!
In this passage, Hughes suggests that every time the n-word is uttered, the terrible background of its previous uses and the racist practices that came with it are invoked. On this line of thinking, the violent offensiveness of the word – that is, the nature of the action that is realised when someone utters it – is the result of the word’s history (which, importantly, may have a role to play in explaining the sense of solidarity that some speakers take to be associated with “reclaimed” uses of it as well).
It is important to emphasise that I am not suggesting that if English should disappear, or if the n-word should disappear from English, we would be losing a valuable kind of action. I use the example because I take it to show that there is, for better or worse, a very specific kind of speech act that English makes possible that depends on the history of that word. While there are unfortunately many possible ways of derogating someone using racist language, both in English and in other languages, to do exactly what someone does when they use the n-word in English, you have to be speaking English.
While slurs provide a particularly striking illustration, I take the point here to be general: what you can do with any word depends, in part, on its history. This suggests that the distinctive history of every language makes a distinctive range of speech acts possible.
The connections between the particular language someone speaks and the speech acts they can realise, however, goes much further than this – in addition to a word’s history, speakers consciously and unconsciously track a wide range of other properties, like the “dictionary” meaning of a word, the way it sounds, how it is spelled, its associations with other words, and many other things, when deciding how to speak or what to make of the things others say to them. The specific nature of the speech acts we perform depends on extremely precise constellations of features associated with the words we employ. But these constellations will not typically be replicated across languages – so, while nearly any language will presumably have some expression that means what “potato” does in English, the translations will not rhyme with the word that means what “tomato” does, or have three syllables, or remind people of a certain age of Dan Quayle’s self-confidence and inability to spell, and so on. But all of those properties are properties that speakers of English can use to do things with the word “potato” – think of the possible jokes the word can be used to make that involve its sound, similarities with other words, history, and so on.
Taken individually, any of the individual actions of this sort that we might imagine – and thus, any of the actions that are at stake when a language is threatened – might seem insignificant. Who cares if we lose the ability to pull off the particular range of puns that Cornish makes possible, or to rhyme certain words in Achuar for a poetic effect? Taken as a whole, however, the class of speech acts that a language offers represents nothing less than the range of options speakers have about how to develop their public identities and structure their social worlds.
I said earlier that when a judge pronounces someone guilty, their pronouncement does not merely report on, but rather constitutes a new social fact. On a smaller scale, the same is true of nearly everything we say to one another. Even when our primary aim in a conversation is to exchange information about a particular topic, the huge variety of ways in which we can achieve that aim allows nearly every word we produce to count as a socially significant speech act. By speaking in a particular way, I can make my sense of humour or propriety manifest, defer to my interlocutor or attempt to put myself in a position of authority, associate myself with certain groups while distancing myself from others, and many more things besides. By using a form of expression that activates a certain set of associations, or encodes certain historical facts, or sounds a certain way, I stake out a position for myself in social space, and in so doing, set the tone for my interactions with the people I encounter.
Although our ability to share information simply by producing sequences of sounds (or signs) is certainly astounding, the kind of social dance that we do with one another by modulating our speech in this multidimensional way is, in my opinion, where the real magic of language happens. When two native speakers engage in a conversation, they consciously and unconsciously track, deploy, and respond to a staggering variety of cues of all the subtle sorts mentioned here, like virtuoso jazz musicians engaging one another in a dynamic improvisation.
The musical analogy can help to bring out the sense in which the loss of a language is a harm both to its last speakers as well as to the rest of us. People whose native languages are at risk of extinction face the prospect of essentially being able to play incredibly rich and complex music on an instrument that no one else can hear. For the speakers in question, this amounts to a huge restriction on their ability to manoeuvre socially. Even someone who is fluent in another language, and who can thus manage to express all of the same propositions will be left with a greatly reduced register, as many of the particular speech acts that go into constructing their public persona become acts that no one else can recognise. For the rest of us, thinking of languages in terms of the speech acts they make possible leads to a perspective from which language extinction amounts to a catastrophic foreclosure on the space of ways in which human creativity can be manifest. With every language that disappears, we lose a universe of possible compositions, and with each, a space of ways of being human.