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Some Links #11: Linguistic Diversity or Homogeneity?

July 21, 2010

Linguistic Diversity = Poverty. Razib Khan basically argues, correctly in my opinion, that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages. Razib has recently posted another, quite lengthy post on the topic: Knowledge is not value-free.

When did we first ‘Rock the Mic’? A meeting of my two favourite interests over at the New York Times: Linguistics and Hip Hop. Ben Zimmer writes:

In “Rapper’s Delight,” the M.C. Big Bank Hank raps, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist,” using what was then a novel sense of rock, defined by the O.E.D. as “to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance.” To be sure, singers in the prerap era often used rock as a transitive verb, whether it was Bill Haley promising, “We’re gonna rock this joint tonight,” or the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup more suggestively wailing, “Rock me, mama.” But the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display. Later elaborations on the theme would allow clothes and other accessories to serve as the objects of rock, as when Kanye West boasted in a 2008 issue of Spin magazine, “I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken.”

It’d be nice to see more stuff on linguistics and hip hop, and, having said that, I might write a bit on the subject. In fact, I would go as far as to say that hip hop is part of reason why I fell into linguistics: the eloquent word play encouraged, and perhaps moulded, my fascination with language. To demonstrate why, here’s a track by Maryland rapper, Edan, who certainly knows how to rock the mic:

Edan — One Man Arsenal

Life without language. Neuroanthropology provides yet another great read. This time it’s on the topic of life without language — something that’s always crept into my thoughts, yet seems impossible to imagine (as I’m already so embedded within a language-using society). The post goes on to discuss Susan Schaller and the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who did not learn sign language:

The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.

One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw

One Man’s Take on the Facts of the Matter. Babel’s Dawn takes a look at Tecumseh Fitch’s book, The Evolution of Language, and concisely explains a clear departure between two camps in evolutionary linguistics:

One clear difference between the scenarios is in the role of the individual in relation to language. Language is somehow built into the brain in Chomsky’s thought-first scenario, while it is learned from others in the topics-first approach. Empiricists, like Morten Christiansen and Nicholas Chater, see language as ‘out there’ to be learned while nativists, like Fitch and Chomsky, say there is an internal, I-language, and the language out there is merely the sum of all those little I-languages. How to settle the dispute? Look for factual evidence.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 3:50 pm

    Then Switzerland should be having problems?

    • wintz permalink*
      July 21, 2010 5:26 pm

      Haha. Maybe an exception to the rule..?

      I see where you’re coming from, but Switzerland is smack bang in the middle of several countries with widespread languages. And the major native language in this region, Romansch, is spoken by less than 1% of the population. All of its neighbours provide good examples of homogeneity, and are spread across a relatively large area, whereas Switzerland is confined to a small area.

  2. July 21, 2010 6:43 pm

    Hey. I’m also thinking of something else. Canada has ten officially recognised languages. Of course we only see French and English, but I wouldn’t bet that it’s a country with difficult economics — but the 8 other languages are Natives and minorities, who, alone, have major problems. But that’s more because of a lack of effort to understanding & integrating them than because of a “wide range” of languages. The problem is mostly social, not economic, at its root.

    • wintz permalink*
      July 21, 2010 9:35 pm

      Yeah, I agree: integration is a social problem for minorities and natives. Having said that, history shows us that homogeneity is a good unifying force for large communities, helping foster trade, which, when we get down to it, is one of the crucial factors to economic growth.

      I think the point is whether or not we should be actively encouraging these people to ‘save’ their culture and language. I’m relatively neutral on this point: I think it’s up to each individual community, and each individual themselves for that matter, to decide whether or not they want to stay. There are reasonably strong arguments for and against.

      Now, whether or not homogeneity is an artefact, or a producer, of growth is something that remains to be answered. Maybe it’s both. I’ll write a post if I’ve come to any firm conclusion. Thanks for your comment.

  3. July 22, 2010 3:50 pm

    While the globalisation of some languages has been a key factor in economic and political ties,

    Daniel Nettle, in his book Linguistic Diversity, talks about how linguistic diversity is tied to bio-diversity. In Papua New Guinea the land is so rich in resources that natives don’t need to trade good with each other. However, forming alliances with neighbouring communities is important for warfare, so communities invest in each other in the only way they can: Socially. Children from one community are often sent for a year to another community in order to learn their language, and bilinguals who can mediate between groups have high status. There have been recorded cases of community meetings where a decision is made to change the pronunciation of certain words in order to distinguish them from other communities. In other words, linguistic homogeneity may only be necessary if people need to trade.

    Of course, people do need to trade. However, advances in technology could make communities more self-sufficient. Furthermore, technology may take over from spoken homogeneous languages. I refer you to Jim Hurford’s vision of Lator Culture – devices that mediate between two speakers may allow an explosion of linguistic diversity but maintain strong Economic ties.

    And let’s not forget Major Kusanagi’s wise words:
    “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”

  4. July 22, 2010 4:26 pm

    Then Switzerland should be having problems?

    you should look up the world ‘probability.’

    though , switzerland isn’t that linguistically diverse compared to india or much of africa. calculate it’s shannon’s index of diversity. additionally, the swiss are also radically decentralized by plan. that’s how they managed to have both linguistic and religious diversity in their nation for so long (during the reformation there was a short-lived attempt by zurich led by zwingli to forcibly reform the catholic ‘forest cantons’; zwingli died in the attempt).


  1. Language extinction ain’t no big thing? « Neuroanthropology

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