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February 22, 2008

LIKE MOST IRISH-AMERICANS, I have a sort of vague sentimental notion that the conversion of Ireland to an English-speaking nation is a linguistic and cultural tragedy. Like most Irish-Americans, I also would not want to actually live in a non-English-speaking nation. What I really want is to have learned Irish from my Grandmother, and be able to impress friends by ordering drinks in my ancestral tongue while on holiday. This is the sort of thing that makes my Irish friends complain--justly--that Irish-Americans would really like to see the whole country preserved as a sort of Colonial Williamsburg with shamrocks and twee wool caps.

This is not just a question for the Irish. Language Log is meditating on how we should feel more generally about linguistic loss:

Serious questions about the benefits (and perhaps the losses) of having an assortment of distinct native languages within one national society should be addressed through research that objectively determines and assesses the effects, not through emotional appeals to imagined cultural riches not vouched for by the language users themselves, or self-serving demands that aboriginal tongues be kept alive (by poor people) for (comparatively wealthy) linguists to study.

Something like half the world's languages are supposed to go extinct in the next century. I find it hard to believe that the bad outweighs the good here--it is a good thing that more of the world's people will be able to communicate with each other. Still, with each language that dies, something goes out of the world that can never be rekindled.

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