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The Reason Some Hyperlocal Languages Survive (www.theatlantic.com)
34 points by curtis 2 months ago | hide | past | web | 28 comments | favorite

From the article: "Languages are often considered to supply the very framework on which our thoughts coalesce—a framework that is completely distinct in each language and gives rise to distinctive modes of thinking and expression" (emphasis mine).

It never ceases to amaze me how addicted the media is to the so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis." Follow the link, and you discover that there is actually fairly narrow evidence for this claim (at least the strong version of it). Look into actual experiments on linguistic relativity, and it becomes even weaker.

That phrase "often considered" makes it sound like it's a majority view among linguists, when it's actually a quite fraught contention. It would be like saying, "panpsychism is often considered an explanation of the relationship between mind and matter." Some hold that view, but "often considered" makes it sound more like a widely held position, or even a consensus position. Which it certainly is not.

Is it really that surprising that writers would want it to be true?

It is unsurprising only if you fail to consider the implications of it being true (in the strong sense).

Some languages have extremely complex ways of indicating tense (making a grammatical distinction between, for example, past events that occurred and then ceased, versus past events that are still ongoing). Some have retained complex grammars for expressing wishes (the optative mood, for example). Other languages have far fewer grammatical ways of expressing tense and mood. Tenses in Mandarin Chinese are often "optional" in a sentence, for example, and in general the mood system of English is a lot simpler than it is in, say, ancient Greek. Ancient Hebrew, strictly speaking, does not have past, present, and future tenses at all (but instead combines context with perfective and imperfective aspects).

Now here's the possibly dangerous leap. "The Chinese think differently about time" (or are less concerned about it). "The ancient Hebrews were very focused on the present and rather feckless about the future." "German and Greek are the only languages worthy of philosophy" (a direct quote from Heidegger). "There are certain emotions in Hopi that cannot be expressed in English." "People speaking a creole are less capable of nuanced rational thought." You can probably see where this is going . . .

One of the more interesting grammatical features is evidentiallity, which requires you to indicate how you know what you say, e.g. if you saw it, deduced it, or if it's something you were told.

Another is grammatical honorifics, which use suffixes to indicate your relationship with the speaker and sometimes also with who, or even what you are talking about.

Same reason writers insist that reading literary fiction gives you a true and deep understanding of the human condition unachievable by any other means.

A huge problem in fiction is that it usually greatly overestimates people's ability to understand each other. Characters never make mistakes reading each other (unless it's a part of the plot) When they see something one on another, it's assumed to be true, even though in reality this is extremely unreliable.

Habitual readers of fiction tend to be a chore to deal with, as they overestimate their ability to read and understand the thinking of others, inadequatelly communicate as they assume you should be able to read them, and blame any of the inevitable errors on intentional deception from your side.

A strong formulation of the idea/theory is unsupported. But, a weaker version is hard to deny, at least entirely.

Recently I learned that there are several Sami languages spoken in northern Finland, all of which are classified as endangered, at most a few thousand speakers each. Yet also, due to modern technology like health care and food security, there are more Sami speakers living right now than ever before...

Which leads me to suspect that such languages must have been evolving, breaking apart and dying all the time.

Yes, that's true of all languages.

Those Sami languages are endangered not so much because of their absolute number of speakers as because you can't get anywhere by speaking them. Languages like that tend to die out in favor of more useful ones.

If all the Finns were wiped out and nobody could go into Finland, the Sami would thrive and so would their languages.

That seems like a naive understanding of language and population dynamics.

Nobody prevents the Sami from reproducing in bigger numbers and living all over Finland (and they consider themselves Finnish citizen, mostly). Also, the usefulness argument contradicts with these languages surviving and Latin having dyed out despite being widely understood (to this day).

Died out? Latin is the national language in Italy, Spain, France, Romania, Portugal, and all of central and south America. (You know... "Latin America".) And other places.

The Sami languages haven't "survived" to any greater degree than Latin has. Quite the contrary.

None of those places speak Latin, they all speak Romance languages. None of those languages are anything like Latin.

> None of those languages are anything like Latin.

Are you sure you know what Romance languages are? This is not a statement that anyone sane would be willing to support. Why do you think the Romance languages are so similar to each other?

It is conceptually incoherent to say that the modern languages of Sami tribes have survived while Latin hasn't. The Latin of 2300 years ago is not mutually intelligible with the Latin spoken anywhere today. The Sami of 2300 years ago is also not mutually intelligible with any Sami language spoken today. It was even more different, because Latin has a robust written tradition and writing slows language change.

If one has survived, so has the other, and Latin is massively more successful.

On the other hand, if you want to take the position that Latin died out, then the concept of an "endangered language" is meaningless, as we know that all languages will inevitably die in the same way.

What, not even Italian? English is also strongly influenced by Latin. Leaving the word "Latin" aside, your post uses the words "place", "none", and "language" which derive from Latin.

The claim that none of these languages are anything like Latin is overblown.

Romance languages are literally defined as the languages derived from vulgar Latin. Basically, the places spoke vulgar Latin back in the day and then languages evolved, as languages naturally do if there is no inter-communication. And of course they are still very similar to Latin.

Grouping similar languages together like that would mean the Sami and the Finns speak the same language anyway. Problem solved, right?

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