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McWhorter Questions Efforts To Save Dying Languages

By Elissa Strauss

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In an essay in the recent issue of the World Affairs Journal, linguist and Columbia literature professor John McWhorter questions the effort to save dying languages:

What makes the potential death of a language all the more emotionally charged is the belief that if a language dies, a cultural worldview will die with it. But this idea is fragile. Certainly language is a key aspect of what distinguishes one group from another. However, a language itself does not correspond to the particulars of a culture but to a faceless process that creates new languages as the result of geographical separation.

At one point McWhorter discusses Yiddish directly:

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation — such as that of the Amish — or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity, but because they lived in an apartheid society.)

At first, McWhorter’s column made me bristle. I don’t speak Yiddish fluently, but feel that the mamaloshen is a linchpin of my Jewish cultural identity, and rely on it daily to adequately express myself. What a shame it would be, I thought, to just accept its death.

But, on second thought, McWhorter’s argument began to make sense. Yiddish language and Yiddish culture — the latter being hard to precisely define, but largely synonymous with American Jewish culture — has already been separated.

Yes, there is the study of Yiddish literature in universities, by Michael Wex, and in newspapers like this one, which to this day publishes a Yiddish edition. I admire all these efforts, and have certainly made my own attempts to pump some blood into the language.

But to a great extent, it is with the Haredi that the language lives. And that language is altogether separate from the culture of shlepping, kvetching, bagel-shmearing and Woody Allen-loving that takes place around the country.



Comments
julie Sun. Nov 15, 2009

The article is worth reading, and more thoughtful than the excerpts would suggest. As to Yiddish, its contributions to the English language are an indelible legacy, and, indeed, the richness of the English language is due to its constant and eclectic acquisition of vocabulary. Among others, we have MAD Magazine to thank.

Dave Sun. Nov 15, 2009

Go to any ultra-Orthodox community and see for yourself how Yiddish is not dying.

Brian Barker Fri. Nov 20, 2009

With regard to the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, can I point to the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign.

The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September. http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related

Your readers may be interested in http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

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