Salvare le lingue del mondo.

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John McWorther si chiede sul New York Times se dobbiamo preoccuparci di salvare le lingue che si parlano nel mondo:

Should we care that in 100 years only about 600 of the current 6,000 languages may be still spoken?

The answer is still yes, but for other reasons.

First, a central aspect of any culture’s existence as a coherent entity is the fact of its having its own language, regardless of what the language happens to be like. Certainly, a culture can thrive without its own language: No one would tell today’s American Indians that if they no longer spoke their ancestral language it would render them non-Indian. Likewise, being Jewish does not require speaking Hebrew or Yiddish.

Yet because language is so central to being human, to have a language used only with certain other people is a powerful tool for connection and a sense of community. Few would deny, for example, that American Jews who still speak Yiddish in the home are a tighter-knit community, less assimilated into Anglophone American life and less at odds with questions about Jewish identity, than Jews who speak only English.

Second, languages are scientifically interesting even if they don’t index cultural traits. They offer variety equivalent to the diversity of the world’s fauna and flora.

For example, whether or not it says anything about how its speakers think, the fact that there is a language in New Guinea that uses the same word for eat, drink and smoke is remarkable in itself. Another New Guinea language is Yeli Dnye, which not only has 90 sounds to English’s 44, but also has 11 different ways to say “on” depending on whether something is horizontal, vertical, on a point, scattered, attached and more. And there is Berik, where you have to change the verb to indicate what time of day something happened. As with any other feature of the natural world, such variety tests and expands our sense of the possible, of what is “normal.”

These are the arguments I have ready for the “Why should we care?” fellow these days. We should foster efforts to keep as many languages spoken as possible, and to at least document what the rest of them are like.

Cultures, to be sure, show how we are different. Languages, however, are variations on a worldwide, cross-cultural perception of this thing called life.

Surely, that is something to care about.