After this general introduction, I tried to collect as many voices as possible on the issue whether language revival is obsolete or not. To be more precise, I investigated the question if language revival is a slowdown of social evolution. In the following point, this problem is visualized by an example out of the present situation in Latvia, where Russian people are discriminated because of their culture and heritage. Chapter 3 of my term paper copes with language loss in general. Reasons why language loss occurs and its impact on a society are investigated.
The very last section consists of several theoretical approaches how to revive or revitalize languages, as well as a very interesting report on Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who is considered to be the person initially responsible for the revival of the Hebrew language. Hebrew, the only extinct language which has ever been successfully revitalized. 2. General Questions 2.1 Ethnicity – Culture – Language This figure shows that these 3 terms: Ethnicity, culture and language are inseparably connected. Ethnicity describes a group of people who developed a unique culture. Unique because of the specific set of conditions on which the ethnic group flourished. These can be the climate of the territory the ethnic group is settled, existence of threats (nature, warlike tribes, …), if there is contact with other civilizations, the quality of the soil and many more.
The language, a bare necessity in a culture, could be seen as a by-product of the whole development. The real interesting aspect of a people’s language is, that it is the prime means of identification. This measure of identification works in both directions: Members of other communities and ethnic groups identify our society mainly by our language as well as we do it for ourselves. The main point is: When matters of culture are discussed (even in our globalized modern world), language plays a very important part in it.
2.2 Pro and contra “People in command of 3 languages are trilingual, people in command of two languages are bilingual and people who know one language are Americans” (Timothy W. Kennedy, Professor for Communication – University of Tampa, 2003) This quote pretty much reflects a general basic-attitude in the United States of America. Namely that it is sometimes seen as bad or unpatriotic to be bilingual.
This also explains why several Native-American parents refuse to teach their Indian mother tongue to their children. The question is: Why is that kind of thinking wrong? According to Prof. Bierbaumer, every language, especially English, is undergoing a certain development towards a more simple status (see Bierbaumer, VU “The History of the English Language”, 2001). Wouldn’t the world be a much more peaceful and productive place if the whole humanity shared one simple code of communication? So, why should we care about language loss?
Languages are a major achievement of a society, an achievement that often demanded centuries of development. Nobody knows what treasures of knowledge and wisdom lie within a dying language. So, can all efforts to revive or revitalise languages be seen as futile attempts to hold on to antiquated values? Could one even say that it is a conscious slowdown of social evolution?
Crystal presents five arguments: from the general value of diversity, from the value of languages as expressions of identity, as repositories of history, as part of the sum of human knowledge, and as interesting subjects in their own right.
But the most important point of all is the fact that language is inseparably connected with culture. So when a language is on the verge of death, the society around the language is always too. A rivalry between cultures and its result is a part of the regular course of the world, where the stronger defeats and conquers the weaker one. And it can be considered as one of the world’s worst calamities, when a culture dies, and all the wisdom and cultural treasures, such as the language, dies with it.
“Russian in Latvia” A very interesting example for Language in conjunction with Ethnicity was brought up by Steven C. Johnson, an Associated Press reporter who lives and works in Latvia (see Johnson 19991). Things changed after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. In newly independent nations such as Latvia, the linguistic minority had become the majority. Former captive nations began righting the wrongs of decades of Russification. (Johnson 1999)
After half a century of Soviet influence, Latvian was almost extinct. As any superpower in history did, the Soviet-Union tried to form one homogenous state out of the many cultures which were held together by a common border. Now, the native Latvian people’s anger is directed towards the hundred thousands of Russians who have immigrated the country during the past 50 years. It seems paradox, but the measures taken by the Latvian government are quite similar to e.g. the ones taken by the British Crown to extinct the Aboriginal culture of Australia. “Latvian-only” signs went up, while Russian or bilingual signs were successively scratched out. The Parliament passed laws that forced the people to use Latvian at public events, and set up a corps of language officers to ensure that the population knows enough Latvian to get along.
The government’s actions do also throw up certain questions of ethic and morale: Is it justified to discriminate 40% of the population whose mother tongue is Russian, in order to keep the superior status of the Latvian language? Or, is the systematic extinction of a language (which is, as seen above, inseparably connected with its culture which is destroyed too) less bad if there are millions of speakers left located on another spot of the world?