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PostPosted: Mon Dec 19, 2016 7:48 pm 
Avisaru
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Edwin Benson, last-known fluent speaker of Mandan, passes away at 85

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 20, 2016 11:50 am 
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But we still have Welsh!


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PostPosted: Tue Dec 20, 2016 1:11 pm 
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linguoboy wrote:
But we still have Welsh!


I get the joke, but I'm still sad.

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2016 8:46 pm 
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[Insert inappropriate remark about Mandarin]


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PostPosted: Thu Dec 22, 2016 5:21 am 
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I remember reading somewhere that estimates indicate that about half the languages that existed in the year 2000 will be gone by 2100. Assuming this isn't some half-remembered half-truth to begin with, do the statistics bear this out so far? How many languages go extinct per year?


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PostPosted: Sun Dec 25, 2016 4:36 pm 
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Languages don't stop with the last native speaker. There are ongoing revival efforts of Mandan undertaken by the Forth Berthold Tribe and the Language Conservancy. They have Mandan (and Hidatsa) workshops in the summer.


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PostPosted: Wed Jan 04, 2017 1:17 pm 
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Radagast the Third wrote:
Languages don't stop with the last native speaker.

That's arguable. I used to be far more sanguine about revival efforts before I learned about cognitive linguistics. Now I doubt that we've ever sufficiently documented any language to be able to recreate a community of fluent speakers once the natural chain of transmission is broken.


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PostPosted: Wed Jan 04, 2017 1:52 pm 
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Hebrew had no native speakers (tons of speakers, but was technically dead) when it was revived. I think that counts. (Few if any of the non-European languages that people want to revive have extensive research like Hebrew).

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 04, 2017 2:10 pm 
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mèþru wrote:
Hebrew had no native speakers (tons of speakers, but was technically dead) when it was revived. I think that counts. (Few if any of the non-European languages that people want to revive have extensive research like Hebrew).

It counts as what? It's exactly the experience of Hebrew which makes me pessimistic about these sorts of projects. Yes, there is a language called "Hebrew" which is spoken by a vibrant community of native speakers. But the more you learn about it, the more you realise how fundamentally it differs from the language(s) called "Hebrew" that existed before it--and how fundamentally it's been altered in the direction of Standard Average European. (Some linguists have even called Modern Hebrew "a Germanic language with Semitic vocabulary". That may overstate the case, but it highlights the core issue.) Modern Hebrew is fascinating in its own right and its existence adds to the linguistic diversity of the planet. But it doesn't add as much diversity as if Hebrew had never needed to be revived.

So, yes, something called "Mandan" may well continue to be spoken after Benson's death. The vocabulary will be recognisably distinct from that of any other language in the world. But the conceptual categories those words represent will be fundamentally altered once they appear in the mouths of people whose brains were formed speaking non-Mandan languages. The morphosyntax will retain distinctions unique to the language, but their use will be forever influenced by a generation who learned those distinctions late in life.

I've tried to learned a revived language before. Carolyn Quintero did an outstanding job of recording Osage. But she was fighting a losing battle against time with the help of a small band of very elderly speakers. She was only able to capture so much and there were many questions of grammar and usage she was never able to answer. The last persons who could've answered them intuitively are gone. In the course of revival, the new community of speakers will come up with their own answers. But how close will these be to the answers they would have given had their ancestors passed the language on to them directly? We will never know.


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PostPosted: Wed Jan 04, 2017 8:36 pm 
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linguoboy wrote:
I've tried to learned a revived language before. Carolyn Quintero did an outstanding job of recording Osage. But she was fighting a losing battle against time with the help of a small band of very elderly speakers. She was only able to capture so much and there were many questions of grammar and usage she was never able to answer. The last persons who could've answered them intuitively are gone. In the course of revival, the new community of speakers will come up with their own answers. But how close will these be to the answers they would have given had their ancestors passed the language on to them directly? We will never know.

And many Native American languages are sadly in the exact same boat: spoken by elders who even then don't speak the language with the fluency it once had. This seems to particularly affect polysynthetic languages; Mithun notes that many younger speakers, even those who are relatively fluent, no longer have the oratory skill or fluency with noun incorporation that once marked the languages. To my knowledge, Navajo and Cherokee are among the few Native American languages in the US that aren't in immediate danger, and even they are on the decline despite a robust native-speaking community, revitalization efforts, and new generations acquiring them as first languages. (I think Mithun's article on acquisition of polysynthesis is telling: she describes one child whose parents only speak to him in Mohawk and have gone out of their way to avoid exposing him to English--and he's still acquired English by the age of 5 and sometimes switches to it when he's not sure how to say what he wants in Mohawk.)

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 04, 2017 9:26 pm 
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I remember hearing Nora England say that the only indigenous language of the Americas that might not be endangered is (Paraguayan) Guarani. Quechua has more speakers (assuming we consider Quechua to be just one language), but it's also undergoing language shift at a much faster rate.

Regarding languages dying: I think I feel the same way about this as I feel about my own relatives dying. Sure, it's sad, and I almost wish I could feel sad about either of these things, but they both happen often enough without ever meaning that much to me on a personal level that I'm not sure there's any point. (My mom has a lot of siblings, which makes it basically impossible for me to get to know any one of them all that well without displaying arbitrary favoritism).


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 4:39 am 
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We must also not forget that languages change anyway. There's no use or need to conserve one particular form of a language, and say the language is dead when another form appears. For all we know, Navaho or whatever language would've lost noun incorporation anyway even without (English) language contact.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 8:16 am 
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Indeed, there can be a thin line sometimes between trying to preserve a language and prescriptivism. While it may not be necessary to conserve one particular form of a language, I still think it would be good to have a record of it for the sake of our understanding of language at least. The fact that Navajo does have noun incorporation is useful information; if it lost noun incorporation, that would be useful information as well.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 8:33 am 
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Sure, I totally agree. But the fact that, e.g., current day Hebrew is not the same as the Hebrew of 2000 years ago, well, they're probably more alike than if Hebrew still existed and had had the normal language evolution applied to it over that period.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 11:16 am 
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jal wrote:
Sure, I totally agree. But the fact that, e.g., current day Hebrew is not the same as the Hebrew of 2000 years ago, well, they're probably more alike than if Hebrew still existed and had had the normal language evolution applied to it over that period.

I see absolutely no solid basis for making that claim. Cf. Modern Aramaic, which evolved normally over the same period of time and still fully retains its Semitic character.

Modern Hebrew would sound completely different today if it had been revived by Oriental Jews rather than Ashkenazim.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 12:06 pm 
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linguoboy wrote:
jal wrote:
Sure, I totally agree. But the fact that, e.g., current day Hebrew is not the same as the Hebrew of 2000 years ago, well, they're probably more alike than if Hebrew still existed and had had the normal language evolution applied to it over that period.

I see absolutely no solid basis for making that claim. Cf. Modern Aramaic, which evolved normally over the same period of time and still fully retains its Semitic character.

Modern Hebrew would sound completely different today if it had been revived by Oriental Jews rather than Ashkenazim.
This is true, but I still consider revived Hebrew to be a genetic Canaanite language.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 12:36 pm 
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mèþru wrote:
This is true, but I still consider revived Hebrew to be a genetic Canaanite language.

I think the case for calling it something else is weak. (The only other established categories we have are "creole" and "a posteriori conlang", neither of which really fits.) But I also think one can lament what's lost when a language is "revived" without being labeled "prescriptivist". You could say it makes me a "sentimentalist", but I'm talking about the loss of valuable, concrete information about human creativity and cognition. As Vijay says, it's valuable to know that Navajo has noun incorporation. But morphology is only one of the more superficial features of language. To repeat what I said above, cognitive linguistics has made me realise how much information about a language is not recorded according to our current conventions of systematic language description. Without natural transmission between fluent speakers, all of this unrecorded information is lost. It's like breeding a new race of dog to resemble one you saw in a picture. It simply won't have the same habits.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 12:54 pm 
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Vijay wrote:
The fact that Navajo does have noun incorporation is useful information; if it lost noun incorporation, that would be useful information as well.


linguoboy wrote:
As Vijay says, it's valuable to know that Navajo has noun incorporation.


But Navajo was one of the Athabaskan languages which lost noun-incorporation over the course of its evolution (like Cherokee to Iroquoian); a quick glance at the verb template given by Wikipedia shows no incorporated-noun slot.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 8:05 pm 
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For me, studying linguistics has impressed upon me just how enormously enormous languages are...I would argue they're our greatest cultural heritage. And the prediction that we're going to lose half of these languages that have gone through so much, surviving wars, famines etc etc and thousands of years and many generations...only to die now at around the same time due to the same globalising processes, doesn't numb me, it makes me even more sad.

It also makes me even more fucking infuriated with people, usually without any knowledge of linguistics, who blithely go 'nah, let them die, we only need English/French/Russian/Chinese/Arabic'...if they only knew what this actually meant.

A grammar, a dictionary and some recordings don't cut it. Libraries don't cut it. English hasn't been documented well enough. When I look at a linguistics map of Australia, I just go for my whiskey.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 12, 2017 9:16 pm 
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Frislander wrote:
Vijay wrote:
The fact that Navajo does have noun incorporation is useful information; if it lost noun incorporation, that would be useful information as well.


linguoboy wrote:
As Vijay says, it's valuable to know that Navajo has noun incorporation.


But Navajo was one of the Athabaskan languages which lost noun-incorporation over the course of its evolution (like Cherokee to Iroquoian); a quick glance at the verb template given by Wikipedia shows no incorporated-noun slot.

It's true that Navajo does not have productive noun incorporation (though it has some fossilized forms with incorporated nouns). However, I wouldn't take that verb template too seriously: many of the Tlingit templates I've seen don't have a slot for incorporated nouns either, but Tlingit definitely has noun incorporation (I forget if it's level 2 or level 3 by Mithun's incorporation hierarchy). Also, another thought: as fluency declines, noun incorporation is one of the first elements to disappear, according to Mithun; consequently, I wonder how recently Navajo lost noun incorporation...

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2017 2:58 am 
Sumerul
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linguoboy wrote:
Without natural transmission between fluent speakers, all of this unrecorded information is lost. It's like breeding a new race of dog to resemble one you saw in a picture. It simply won't have the same habits.

I would consider this more a part of culture than the language per se . When a language dies, typically its culture dies with it. Without taking a Whorfian standpoint, I think that language and culture are pretty much intertwined.


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2017 11:21 am 
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jal wrote:
I would consider this more a part of culture than the language per se . When a language dies, typically its culture dies with it. Without taking a Whorfian standpoint, I think that language and culture are pretty much intertwined.

Language is a cultural artefact, so I find the distinction you're trying to draw nonsensical.

I also think you may be vague on what kind of information I'm talking about. It's not just "cultural" information like which ailment a plant was used to treat or which nouns could traditionally be given as names and which couldn't. Lakoff concludes Women, fire, and dangerous things with a fifty-page analysis of how the word over is used in English. This is a single function word out of hundreds in our language, and it's still not an exhaustive treatment. As Nooj says, we haven't come close to fully documenting English yet (though, arguably, we may have built up enough of a text corpus by now to answer most descriptive questions without needing input from active speakers) and it's easily the most thoroughly-described language in the world today.


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2017 2:53 pm 
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I like to think of cultural anthropology and linguistics as to seperate, though related, disciplines. Also, it's impossible to exhaustively describe a language - you'd need to capture everything that has ever been uttered. There's idiolects, regional variation, in-group jargon... not to mention changes over time. Come to think of it, perhaps what makes a specfic language is pretty undefinable. When would you ever be satisfied? With every speaker that dies, even English speakers, some part of the language and of the culture is lost...


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2017 4:38 pm 
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jal wrote:
With every speaker that dies, even English speakers, some part of the language and of the culture is lost...

And with every new speaker, the language and culture are expanded. With a sufficiently large community of speakers, it's more of a wash. Most of what makes the language distinctive survives.

jal wrote:
When would you ever be satisfied?

"Satisfied" with what, exactly?

If you mean satisfied that it's possible to completely revive a language once the last native speakers are dead, then I will never be satisfied. Yes, "languages" are huge unwieldy abstractions. Yes, they are moving targets. But still, I think it's possible to state that there are features which make each thing we call a "language" distinctive. And some of these features are obvious and easily documented and others are less obvious or completely unapparent. Nevertheless, the latter make as least as much of a contribution to the distinctiveness of the language as the former.

These features do get whittled away over time as there is more interchange between speakers of originally distinct varieties. Not only do I accept that, I find the mechanisms (and results) fascinating and well worthy of study in their own right. But I see a quantitative difference between this and the catastrophic loss of them when the natural chain of transmission is broken that is so immense, it is simultaneously qualitative. That is, a revived language is--in some important sense--not the "same language" as what preceded it. It's still a valuable cultural artefact--to its community of speakers as well as the scientific community and the world at large--but something irreplaceable has been lost.

Again, if you want a biological parallel, you can look at prairie restoration efforts in the USA. This is the most heavily compromised biome in North America; 98% of our original prairie habitat has been lost. Now there are dozens of efforts across several states and provinces to "restore" prairie habitat. But even after decades of cultivation, this restored prairie does not have the same biodiversity as the original habitat. It may never. (We're not far along enough in our efforts to tell.) That doesn't mean it's not worth trying, but we have to be clear about the inherent limits of such an enterprise.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 14, 2017 7:12 am 
Sumerul
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linguoboy wrote:
Again, if you want a biological parallel, you can look at prairie restoration efforts in the USA.

Good analogy, thanks. And thanks for the thorough explanation, I see your point of view (and agree with it for the most part).


JAL


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