Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Language Preservation

Languagehat writes about an effort underway in Israel to preserve Ladino, which is in a similar relation to Spanish as Yiddish is to German.

More than 500 years after Jews were expelled from Spain, an effort is afoot here to save Ladino, a medieval dialect that helped preserve the exiles' culture as they scattered across Europe and the Middle East.

Ladino, also called Judeo-Spanish, is slowly dying. Israel is believed to have the largest number of people — perhaps as many as 200,000 — who can speak or understand the language. But many are older than 60.

Recognizing that the oldest generation of Sephardic Jews soon will disappear, some Israelis are trying to pump life into the flickering language — collecting written works, recording Ladino love songs and teaching Ladino to young people.

The Israeli government joined the efforts seven years ago, establishing the National Ladino Authority, which has prompted a surge of interest in the language and culture. The agency spends $275,000 a year on organizing lectures, promoting festivals and sponsoring language courses.

Thanks to the push, Ladino is now taught in several of the largest Israeli universities. Two schools recently opened centers devoted exclusively to the study of Ladino language and culture.

And the second national Ladino music festival, to take place here today, already is a popular showcase for young composers and musicians from all over the world, including the United States.

"It is a disappearing language, but more and more people I know are starting to play it," said Yasmin Levy, a 28-year-old Israeli singer who has recorded two CDs in Ladino and performs often in Europe. "It's beautiful."...

Nowadays one is expected to automatically show hearty approbation of such efforts, but I have to say that I don't really see the point to keeping every last small and declining language on life-support in perpetuity, especially in a nation where the dominant culture already has another more widely-spoken language which acts as a cultural determiner. It seems to me at least that in our age of global trade and large-scale population movements, it is a futile effort to try to keep every small language around in the face of powerful forces drawing their speakers to adopt the more popular tongues spoken around them. There is an extremely strong network effect when it comes to languages - the more widely spoken a language is, the more valuable it is to know it - which means that in the long run, barring a breakdown in civilization along the lines seen with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, we ought to see a monotonic decline in the number of languages spoken in the world, with probably no more than 1-200 surviving till the end of the 21st century.

Language lovers and anthropologists will decry the prospect I've laid out as a nightmare which will cut us off forever from the rich cultural heritage which many small languages serve as bearers for, but I'm not ready to jump to any such conclusion myself. First of all, we have to weigh the benefits against the losses when deciding these things, and the benefits of giving up some language spoken only in some isolated hamlet for a global language like English or Spanish can be tremendous, the difference between living one's life in isolated poverty and becoming, say, a lawyer or a doctor; certainly, the benefits of such trades are apparent enough to so many speakers of minor tongues that they make precisely such a choice every day. Language death will definitely lead to losses in terms of knowledge of the cultural practices of various groups, especially if the languages in question have historically been unwritten, but then again, this sort of anthropological knowledge, while valuable, is far from being on the order of discerning the fundamental laws of nature, or the workings of the human genome; furthermore, not all cultural practices are really worth preserving.

I've said this before, but I think it needs saying again and again: those who seek to preserve dying languages ought to ask themselves if they aren't trying to keep others frozen in the ways of the past for their own edification and entertainment, like so many animals on a game reserve. Languages live, change and die all the time, and it's far too tempting to make a fetish of their preservation when there are so many more worthy objectives to which time and energy can be devoted.