Saving Endangered Languages with Prescriptivism

Re-Printed from the Speculative Grammarian

Neil de Veratte
Director of Fieldwork Studies
Winter Academy of Language

All over the world, languages are being lost at an alarming rate. Field linguists do their best to preserve these languages, but find their speaker communities apathetic. “Why should I learn WotʃaKorlitt?” they ask, “It’s Spanish I need to get a job.” We need to look at successful languages, whose speakers are engaged with their language, to see what endangered languages can learn from them. When we do, we inevitably find that the most successful languages are those which possess a tradition of prescriptivist grammar. English has an army of armchair pedants who tell us all to never split an infinitive, that the passive should be avoided, and that prepositions must not be used to end a sentence with. French has the Academie Française to pronounce arbitrary bans on loanwords, and Spanish the Real Academia Española, which aims to ensure everybody talks like Cervantes. The Chinese are taught from an early age to regard all Sinitic languages as dialects of Mandarin.

…with prescriptivism?

All these languages were originally documented by their own speakers, who made up arbitrary rules to show off their own cleverness. The results are invigorating. Such rules are endlessly debated, denounced, defended and defied, and as a result, the speakers care about their language.

Contrast the situation with endangered languages. These are documented by outsiders, schooled in the descriptivist method, and content to simply record what they find. Their work may result in a Bible translation, but that is as close to arbitrary commandments as they’re likely to get.

A new approach is necessary. Fieldworkers should no longer passively describe a language. They must set out to create new rules for the language, so as to stimulate the debate that keeps a language alive. As such rules must be internally unmotivated, the researcher needs to think carefully about where to obtain them. A good strategy is to copy rules from a language that the speaker community considers prestigious, as English pedants do with Latin. In South America, Spanish or Portuguese would be the first choice, although it may be wise to base rules on the European form of the language rather than the local one. This approach has two advantagesthose who accept the new rule will see it as conferring the prestige of the dominant language on their own, whereas those who reject it will see the dominant language as tainted by association with the hated rule.

Other researchers may prefer to manufacture rules based on theoretical considerations. This raises the question of which framework to use for the purpose. On one level, it makes little difference, as they will all be equally incomprehensible to the speaker community, but I would recommend Metasyntactic Heuristics, since it is now understood only by two aging academics in remote English universities, and they haven’t spoken to each other for 25 years.

Our fieldworkers are now reporting back from the first trials of this method. We are still analysing their findings, but one has reported spectacular results from convincing an Amazonian tribe that they are not allowed to discuss abstract concepts.

 

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This article was originally printed in SpecGram Vol. CLXXII, No. 4

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