Lost Languages And Parrots

The BBC News article, in defense of 'lost' languages, discusses the issue of whether dying languages (of which there are many), should be preserved or saved. From a linguist's point of view, the more languages currently in the world, the better. Not just because it's nice, but because they can provide valuable data about pan-linguistic variations and constants, telling us something about how language and our mind works.

Predictably though, the article covers instead the idea, quoted of 'Mark Abley', that 'if a language dies out, it's also a whole way of understanding human experience'. The idea that language controls though was made famous by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and has largely been discredited now (with the assumption of a 'mentalese'). Language undoubtedly reflects society and culture, but thought can be translated into any language.

Mr Abley trots out an example from an inuit language, which has 'many verbs for the word 'know', ranging from 'utsimavaa' - meaning he or she knows from experience to 'nalunaiqpaa' - he or she is no longer unaware of something'. Sounds like the first meaning can be translated perfectly well into English as 'having learnt' (which probably isn't even much longer in terms of time it takes to say). He might just as well have repeated the popular meme that 'inuits have 400 words for snow', which has been well de-bunked by Steven Pinker.

I agree that language should be preserved, or at the very least recorded whilst still around, where possible. However, there are much better arguments for it.

The thing that made me laugh most in the article was the story that:

Some 200 years ago the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt stumbled upon the village of Maypures, near the Orinoco river, in what's now Venezuela. While there he heard a parrot speaking and asked the villagers what it was saying. None knew since the parrot spoke Atures and was its last native speaker.

Since when can a parrot be a native speaker of any language? No wonder they couldn't understand it...