‘Segovia and Velazquez, elderly keepers of a dying language, have declared it already dead, because, getting to the essence of being human, they don’t have anything they want to say to one another’.

So writes Jenni Diski on the LRB blog about the furore over the last two speakers of Ayapaneco, an indigenous Mexican language, who refuse to speak to each other. She is right. The fact that no one wants to speak Ayapaneco means that it is no longer a living language. I can fully understand why linguists would want to collect as much information as possible about Ayapaneco and to try to preserve a memory of it as best they can. But the argument for language preservation goes far beyond the desire academically to expand knowledge about languages, including dying ones. It suggests that there is a moral good in maintaining and preserving languages even when no one wishes to speak them.

‘We should care about dying languages’, the linguist David Crystal argues, ‘for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.’ In their book Vanishing Voices, the anthropologist Daniel Nettle and linguist Suzanne Romaine link the campaign to preserve languages to the campaign for fundamental human rights, and for the protection of minority groups, in the face of what they regard as aggressive globalisation and cultural imperialism. ‘Linguistic diversity’, they argue, ‘is a benchmark of cultural diversity’. Language death ‘is symptomatic of cultural death: a way of life disappears with the death of a language.’ In the debate about Ayapaneco, one almost senses a despair that Segovia and Velazquez are being selfish and immoral by putting their personal feelings above the right of their language to survive.

The argument for language preservation is, as I pointed out a decade ago when a similar debate arose (that time about Eyak, an Alaskan language spoken by just one person) irrational and reactionary:

Campaigners for linguistic diversity portray themselves as liberal defenders of minority rights, protecting the vulnerable against the nasty forces of global capitalism. Beneath the surface rhetoric, however, their campaign has much more in common with reactionary, backward-looking visions, such as William Hague’s campaign to ‘save the pound’ as a unique expression of British identity, or Roger Scruton’s paean to a lost Englishness. All seek to preserve the unpreservable, and all are possessed of an impossibly nostalgic view of what constitutes a culture or a ‘way of life’.

The whole point of a language is to enable communication. As the renowned Mexican historian and translator Miguel Leon-Portilla has put it, ‘In order to survive, a language must have a function’. A language spoken by one person, or even a few hundred, is not a language at all. It is a private conceit, like a child’s secret code. It is, of course, enriching to learn other languages and delve into other cultures. But it is enriching not because different languages and cultures are unique, but because making contact across barriers of language and culture allows us to expand our own horizons and become more universal in our outlook.

In bemoaning ‘cultural homogenisation’, campaigners for linguistic diversity fail to understand what makes a culture dynamic and responsive. It is not the fracturing of the world with as many different tongues as possible; it is rather the overcoming of barriers to social interaction. The more universally we can communicate, the more dynamic our cultures will be, because the more they will be open to new ways of thinking and doing.

The demand for language preservation is rooted in a vision of cultural difference drawn from nineteenth century Romanticism. ‘Each language has its own window on the world’, write Nettle and Romaine. ‘Every language is a living museum, a monument to every culture it has been vehicle to.’ It is an echo of nineteenth century German critic and poet Johann Gottfried von Herder. ‘Each nation speaks in the manner it thinks’, Herder wrote, ‘and thinks in the manner it speaks.’ For Herder, the nature of a people was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people. Language was particularly crucial to the delineation of a people, because ‘in it dwell the entire world of tradition, history, religion, principles of existence; its whole heart and soul.’

This belief that different peoples have unique ways of understanding the world became, in the nineteenth century, the basis of a racial view of the world. Herder’s volksgeist developed into the notion of racial makeup, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential, and the basis for division and difference within humankind. Today, biological notions of racial difference have fallen into disfavour. But while racial science has been largely discredited, racial thinking has not. It has rather become re-expressed in cultural rather than biological terms. Cultural pluralism has refashioned the idea of race for the post-Holocaust world, with its claim that diversity is good in itself and that humanity can be parcelled up into discrete groups, each with its own particular way of life, mode of expression, and unique ‘window upon the world’.

The contemporary argument for the preservation of linguistic diversity, liberally framed though it may be, draws on the same philosophy that gave rise to ideas of racial difference. That is why the arguments of Crystal, Nettles and Romaine, on this issue if on nothing else, would have found favour with the late Enoch Powell. ‘Every society, every nation is unique’, Powell wrote. ‘It has its own past, its own story, its own memories, its own ways, its own languages or ways of speaking, its own – dare I use the word – culture.’ Language preservers may be acting on the best of intentions, but they are treading on dangerous ground.

The linguistic campaigners’ debt to Romanticism has left them with a thoroughly confused notion of rights. Nettle and Romaine suggest in Vanishing Voices that ‘the right of people to exist, to practice and produce their own language and culture, should be inalienable’.  They are, as I sugested in my Prospect essay, conflating here two kinds of rights – individual rights and group rights:

An individual certainly has the right to speak whatever language he or she wants, and to engage in whatever cultural practices they wish to in private. But it is not incumbent on anyone to listen to them, nor to provide resources for the preservation of either their language or their culture…  Neither a culture, nor a way of life, nor yet a language, has a God-given ‘right to exist’.

Language campaigners also confuse political oppression and the loss of cultural identity. Some groups – such as Turkish Kurds – are banned from using their language as part of a wider campaign by the Turkish state to deny Kurds their rights. But most languages die out, not because they are suppressed, but because native speakers yearn for a better life. Speaking a language such as English, French or Spanish, and discarding traditional habits, can open up new worlds and is often a ticket to modernity. But it is modernity itself of which Nettles and Romaine disapprove. They want the peoples of the Third World, and minority groups in the West, to follow ‘local ways of life’ and pursue ‘traditional knowledge’ rather than receive a ‘Western education’. This is tantamount to saying that such people should live a marginal life, excluded from the modern mainstream to which the rest of us belong. There is nothing in itself noble or authentic about local ways of life; they are often simply degrading and backbreaking.


  1. Paul Murdoch

    “There is nothing in itself noble or authentic about local ways of life; they are often simply degrading and backbreaking.”

    Well said…I recall my grandad just before he died watching a documentary on unpaid casual dock-labour. As the idealistic, misty-eyed young ingénue waxed lyrical on the dignity of labour and the tragedy of a lost code of mutual trust and respect among the pre-war Northern proletariat-yes…he actually said “proletariat”-my grandad nearly gagged on his cup of tea, before rolling his eyes and informing us that given the chance, he’d have gladly swapped all that dignity, respect (and his fused vertebrae) for the chance to stand in front of a camera and spout fanciful progressive revisionist social-history inspired by ignorance and wishful-thinking.

    My grandad was a lifelong Marxist (almost a lifelong party member); the presenter ended up contesting a seat for New Labour.

  2. One minor tragedy: A decade after your Prospect article, the William Hague character you namechecked in 2000 continues to enjoy a prominent position from which to burble his half-baked ideas.

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