Languages live like bread and love

Daniel Everett is best known for his controversial research into the Pirahã language, which he popularised in a book called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (steadily crawling up my to-read mountain.) The post title is a phrase adapted from Carlos Fuentes, which Everett used in a talk titled “Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge”:

[T]he general principle that makes languages alike or different is very simple. You talk like who you talk with, so if you talk with somebody all the time, you’ll talk like them, and if you don’t talk to them, eventually you won’t talk like them at all. So, languages live like bread and love, by being shared with others.

But languages die also, and languages die in one of two ways. First way is that the speakers actually die, and so if the speakers of a language die out the language is going to die . . . . Another reason languages die is because the speakers stop speaking – speakers lived but they shifted to another language. So, the languages that are gone, usually won’t come back.

The full lecture, delivered at the Long Now Foundation, is on Fora.tv, where you can download the video, audio, and not-very-accurate transcript. It’s a fascinating discussion of a remarkable language and it gives an idea of what we can lose when a language dies. [Edit: Here's a short clip.]

For more on Everett’s work and the Pirahã language, I recommend this post at Language Log and Everett’s old page at Illinois State University.

[Edit: Unfortunately, the latter link has disappeared. See his new site, Dan Everett Books, and also Wikipedia's page.]

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5 Responses to Languages live like bread and love

  1. [...] written about Daniel Everett before, in a short post titled “Languages live like bread and love”, the purpose of which was to share a talk he gave on Pirahã and other endangered languages. [...]

  2. sekhargoteti says:

    Essentially languages constructed for memorizing past events and experiences so to refine them in present. Even the refined state of consciousness is inadequate to meet the present.

  3. Stan says:

    sekhargoteti: Languages can do this, certainly, but I wouldn’t say that’s why they developed.

  4. sekhargoteti says:

    We have to bear in mind that we are exploring virtual world, otherwise known as linguistic knowledge, which has a fraction of relation with the real. This relation is only with image, which we get out of sound. Sound and touch are the basic ingredients to formulate a picture.

  5. sekhargoteti says:

    Reblogged this on Sekhargoteti’s Weblog.

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