Daily Archives: 28 December 2005

Linguistics & the Law of Unintended Consequences

In 2004, another University of Hawai‘i linguist with long experience of Micronesia, Kenneth L. Rehg, published a follow-up to Donald Topping’s article on attempts by professional linguists to foster the vitality of smaller languages. His article, Linguistics, Literacy, and the Law of Unintended Consequences appeared in Oceanic Linguistics 43:498-518. Here’s a taste of what he had to say.

At present, we have no predictive science of language vitality, and it is unlikely that we will ever have one, given the very large number of factors that impinge upon language survival. Topping was certainly correct, however, when he wrote (2003:527): “Our experience in Micronesia tells me that as long as the indigenous language gives the appearance of being robust, the alarm cries of linguists will go unheeded. It is only when the threat of cultural extinction becomes real that language and cultural retention becomes a serious matter of concern.” Ironically (or perhaps not), it is a fact about Micronesia that the major proponents of English have for the most part been the Micronesians, and the champions of the local languages have for the most part been the foreign linguists and educators. There are, of course, many exceptions on both sides, the most noticeable among the Micronesians being those individuals who participated in the University of Hawai‘i programs described at the beginning of this paper. What is also telling, though, is the fact that most of the funding that has been utilized in support of the Micronesian languages has come from external sources in the form of grants from the United States government. All too often, when these funds dried up, so too did the indigenous language programs they supported.

Thus, while it is clear that the Micronesians have the capacity to sustain their own languages, it is not nearly so obvious that their leaders have the will to do so. Ultimately, of course, the survival of small languages everywhere is beyond the control of foreign linguists. As Topping (2003:527) wrote, “… the real saviors of the endangered languages will be the people who speak them, not the linguists who talk about them.” But, if we are called upon to assist communities that care about the long-term well-being of their language, then we must carefully weigh our actions. In the case of Micronesia, some very good work was done on these languages, but the “Law of Unintended Consequences” also came into play. This is the law that reminds us that the actions of individuals–and especially agencies, institutions, and governments–invariably have effects that are not intended or anticipated. Thus, we set out to promote literacy in the Micronesian languages, but some of our efforts had just the opposite effect. Disputes over orthographies, unrealistic expectations concerning standards, an insufficient understanding of the literacy needs of these communities, and reliance on external funding all hindered progress toward that goal. Consequently, I have come to believe that if the linguistic community is serious about documenting and supporting the threatened languages of the world, we must move such endeavors into the mainstream of our discipline. What we need now, far more than good intentions, is excellent research that can serve as the foundation for excellent applications and excellent training. Further, given Topping’s observation that only the people who speak threatened languages can save them, I believe that linguistics departments everywhere must strive to recruit, support, and train speakers of such languages–in particular, those who evidence a wholehearted commitment to conserving their linguistic heritage.

UPDATE: Beaupeep asks in the comments:

But doesn’t that go back to the issue of unintended consequences? And isn’t it fair to ask why it should be necessary for outsiders to encourage populations “who evidence a wholehearted commitment to their linguistic heritage” to preserve a language they already hold dear?

Or is this suggestion more about telling people what they *ought* to think and do?

Fair point. To me, it seems more about telling linguists what they ought to do than telling native speakers of threatened languages what they ought to do. But remember all those linguistically trained educators from Micronesia that opted for careers in politics rather than education that Topping mentioned (in the preceding blogpost)? Some years back, I also had the experience of meeting one of my wantoks (that is, speakers of the same language, in this case a very exclusive club of c. 300) from the rather educationally progressive village where I did fieldwork in New Guinea as he passed through Honolulu with his family–and a set of golf clubs–after completing an MLS degree in Illinois. He was already aiming for a career in politics, not library science.

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