Bintel Blog

McWhorter Questions Efforts To Save Dying Languages

By Elissa Strauss

  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: John McWhorter, Yiddish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.


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




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.