Why should all languages be preserved? The problem is the question

Of the ~7,000 known human languages, about 40% are endangered, dead, or dying.* And by 2100 less than half of them will remain, possibly less than 1,000.* There isn’t much missing; one recently discovered language, Bengime of Mali, has managed to stay hidden to the present only because it is spoken in secret.

In talking about language death, I’ve heard a funny question come up — I’ve even asked it myself: “Why do we need all of these languages? Why not just one?” How many systems of communication do we actually need? And wouldn’t we all get along better if there were fewer languages?

The point of this post is to sidestep the question and very concisely argue that its existence is a problem.

First, why are there 110-some elements in the periodic table? Why not just one?

More importantly, why haven’t you heard that question before?

Because we don’t control how many elements there are. It’s not up to us. It shouldn’t be. And the number of languages shouldn’t be either. These are ways of being, not curiosities. The UN recognizes deliberate elimination of languages as genocide. It should be easy from there to condemn systems that result in the elimination of languages more indirectly. The languages and cultures of other peoples should have protection and resources. If it’s our choice that some survive and some don’t, then there is an immoral exercise of power over the variety of human experience. The existence of the question is evidence of a way of thinking that is based in an evil attitude toward other cultures. Losing an element from the periodic table or a language from the Ethnologue is a tragedy because it artificially limits the kinds of things that can exist. If we’ve been given 7000 languages then there should be about 7000 when we’re done.

  • stats:
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_diversity
    • http://www.ethnologue.com/endangered-languages
  • why save them?
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/faq-on-endangered-languages/
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/biodiversity-and-linguistic-diversity/