Last week, Atticus Bookstore and Café came under assault by activists and politicians for its “Here we speak English” policy. The problem, it seems, is that the cradle-tongue of many workers at the café has been called unwelcoming and banned within earshot of customers.
The language in question here is Spanish, so whether or not Atticus’ policies stand, the language will survive. But all over the world, much rarer, much less healthy languages are threatened by the same pressure to conform. Take Ainu, for instance.
Ainu isn’t quite dead, though you’ve probably never heard of it. But it very nearly is. Let’s call it moribund.
This is all very painful for me. Ainu, the isolated native language of northern Japan, is one of my favorites. But, perhaps it’s for the best.
As much I love languages and as much as I love native tongues and regional dialects, I understand and even embrace their deaths — or, at least, their reduction to second-language status.
For a long time, I was a proud supporter of language preservation. I firmly believed that we needed to make this a national issue. The United States had, in my mind, a responsibility to take steps to preserve and promote both domestic minority languages (Amerindian languages, Pennsylvania Dutch, Gullah among others) and endangered languages internationally. Keeping language alive sounds very nice. It is progressive, but at the same time, it is in line with tradition. It is something we can all feel good about.
But the more I’ve pondered this sentiment the more I’ve questioned it. It’s easy to look at a language like Pirahã (of Brazil), Scottish Gaelic or Ainu, and condemn the proximate foreign government for not being proactive enough in promoting the language and bemoan its imminent death. But what’s a government to do when, the native speakers don’t want the language themselves?
We often take it for granted that speakers of these dying tongues want to keep the language alive and that their children wish they could speak it rather than the boring national tongue. We assume that it’s the mean authorities — or store owners — and their misguided language policies, which are causing all the problems.
But often, this not the case. Admittedly, the United States did set out to destroy many Native American languages through its system of Indian schools, and other countries have been guilty of the same sort of crime. More frequently, however, languages die not because of direct oppression but because their speakers have outgrown them. It’s not as if, for example, the British government focused its energies on crushing Cornish, the Celtic language of Cornwall, during the 17th and 18th centuries. (The Prayer Book Rebellion was not an attempt to silence the language, whatever Wikipedia might insinuate.) Cornish died because only speaking Cornish was not economically viable.
English allowed a man to live, work and communicate throughout and with the vast majority of the British Isles, whereas Cornish let one live, work and communicate with an ever-dwindling population in Cornwall. When a language starts to die, it’s a “winners win” scenario: Fewer speakers mean a smaller incentive to speak the language — the number of speakers becomes smaller, and so on.
This is not only the case with Cornish. Whatever ill treatment the Ainu and their language received over the years it’s still no surprise that few Ainu, almost all of whom monolingual in Japanese, want their children to speak their ancestral tongue.
Japanese lets you get a job (or not, given the current state of the Japanese economy). Ainu, even in a boom, does not. After all, there were only about 100 speakers left in the 1980s.
So, as good as it feels to chastise the Japanese and other nations — or ourselves, when it comes to more local matters — about ignoring minority languages or pushing their speakers to use the language spoken by the majority, maybe there is another side to the story. Perhaps, pressure to conform leads to a society better able to communicate with one another.
The benefit of language conformity is something that’s hard for me, an aspiring linguist, to admit. But it is something we need to start thinking about.
In an increasingly globalized society, even well-established languages may one day (and sooner than we think) be threatened in favor of international languages like Mandarin or Russian. One day, it might be Italian or Dutch, rather than Ainu. Who knows? In a thousand years, English might even be on the line.
But by that point, I hope, we and the world have a coherent policy for language preservation—or to not preserve languages, as the case may be.
J. Max Mikitish is a freshman in Silliman College.