Saturday, 07 October 2006

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The Trouble With Diversity: Cultural or Neurolinguistic Uniqueness? [Post inspired by a recent exchange on Unfogged and x-posted from the Valve.] I. Preserving Cultural Uniqueness On its face, the most salient criticism of Michaels’ discussion of language extinction invokes the idea that every language offers a unique perspective on the world—a perspective which is, if lost, irrevocably so. The weak form of this criticism insists that categories embedded in a given language tell us something about the ideology of its speakers. The most common example comes not from an endangered language, however, but from one spoken by 75,500,000 people: Javenese. Theoretically, Javanese speakers move between these registers based on their social status relative to that of their interlocutor.[1] If Javanese died, so too would intimate knowledge of the worldview it afforded its speakers. Despite myself, I’m sympathetic to this argument: linguists can learn more about a living language and its relation to the society of its speakers than they can infer from a dead one. But once a language has been thoroughly studied, what necessary investment should anyone have in keeping it alive? Many would answer “Because its life entails the cultural life of its speakers and their unique way of looking at the world.” Fair enough. Only what if we find its uniqueness morally repugnant? What if the perspective it preserves is violently misogynistic? I take this to be the point of Michaels’ hypothetical culture of American segregationists: What if American segregationists had described themselves as participating in a culture of segregation and had said ... that they didn’t, of course, claim that segregation was good for everyone but they did claim it was good for them and that their culture had a right to survive. (153) If they spoke a language all their own—a Southerner with relatives throughout rural Mississippi might even say they do—and still practiced segregation, claims that their culture deserved preservation on account of its uniqueness would be rare. Once linguists finished cataloguing the humilifics used to identity African-American skin-tone, most everyone except for the segregationists would call for the destruction of that culture, its uniqueness be damned. The moral imperative to preserve different cultures, I would argue, genuflects both to the pernicious myth of Western superiority and that of the noble savage: “Our lives can be enriched by your perspective, so we’re gonna send in the 51st Fightin’ Wordhordes to make sure you don’t go and die before doing us this good turn." I think Michaels is right to link the persistence of culture to something more “ought” than “is.” That is, I think such conversations threaten to tumble into abstractions instead of specifics; which result I find strange, since the specifics of a language are what attract linguists to it.[2] II. Preserving Biological Uniqueness Then I had another thought: What if the uniqueness of a language was more than cultural—what if it was biological? What if the loss of a language didn’t entail the loss of a cultural perspective on the world but a neurolinguistic steady state, one which would not...

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