Dying languages:
Languages are dying out so rapidly that we stand to lose half of those that exist in the world during this century.  (What’s Lost When Languages Are, Acrisio Pires SCIENCE vol. 328 no. 5977 April 23, 2010 page 431 reviewing When Languages Die, K. David Harrison, Oxford University Press, Oxford)  My impression is that much if not most of ones personality is simply ones vocabulary.  We know a lot more than just our words, but for most things we know there is a word.  Of course those words evoke different feelings in different people.  The same flag may be a thrilling reminder of joy to one person and a cruel menace to another. 

There are things we know for which there is no ready word.  As a child and even as an adult I used to get a sort of a wistful nostalgic feeling from time to time.  I know I am not alone.  I once saw a little illustration.  It was a large lawn at night with a few scattered ornamental trees and a rabbit gazing up at the moon. I had a strong emotional response, and I am quite sure that was the intent of the artist.  But I have no word for that feeling.  I believe that the term “death wish” has been applied to it, but that strikes me as nonsense.  In my mind neither death nor a wish is associated with the feeling.  It is a little like a wish, but nothing is specified about just what the wish might be.  Homesickness comes close, but again it does not quite work because that is longing for a real actual home. 

It seems to me that such tender feelings as homesickness are fading out of the culture.

Less difficult and far more common are facial resemblances.  People in a family often have a distinctive look to them.  There are a few namable attributes – high cheek bones, an aquiline nose, a pug nose and so on – but it is the ensemble that one picks up on.  I have a good friend who used to look just about exactly like the Emperor Hirohito.  I cannot identify anything they have in common except the hair.  To my eye Tomás de Torquemada and the Marquis de Sade look alike, but they do share a kind of pale, dumpy look.  But there are simply not enough words to describe all the ways families look alike.

Still in all, ones vocabulary and ones interpretation of it are a large part of what one is and thus a large part of what it is to be human.

So the loss of half the languages in the world is a tragedy of cosmic proportion.  Half of the ways there are to be human are going away, and few there are to mourn them. 

There is more to it than that.  If humans are to survive at all in the long run, and barring humans it appears that the universe cannot observe itself, so again we are dealing with a cosmic issue, then we must survive as one or more social groups numbering no more than a few hundred each.  I hope it doesn’t come down to just one.  There would be no more good books to read. 

And a language, particularly an obscure highly endangered language, would be just the ticket.  It is a built-in social horizon small enough to be biologically useful. 

If what I teach here ever strikes home in peoples’ hearts, then I would expect all and one to rally around the project of preserving every language out there.  We are certainly going to have our hands full preserving humanity, and those languages could help.

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