The ethics of saving endangered languages

My 88-year-old grandma, my mamanjoon

My 88-year-old grandma, my mamanjoon

My 88-year-old grandma, my mamanjoon, is the most wonderful nana anyone could have and I am very close to her. She has played a significant role in my development. Throughout my education, she has always been a great source of support and encouragement. When I crammed for various high-stake national exams, I suffered from anxiety and tension. However, no sooner would I begin to speak with my grandma that all my worries would fade away! The melodious tone of her voice, the words and expressions she uses, would serve to relieve any anxiety or tension. She speaks an old Isfahani dialect which is not only different from the Persian of other parts of Iran but also differs markedly from the speech of younger Isfahanis. In particular, my nana’s speech is characterized by older Isfahani words that are no longer in use and religious terms borrowed from Arabic. Whatever she says bears a spiritual connotation which is sweet, encouraging and uplifting. Yet, her dialect can no longer be heard in the streets of modern Isfahan. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why she feels alienated as she walks in the streets and prefers to stay at home. Her dialect is dying out.

I have often felt saddened by the lack of attempts to preserve the old Isfahani dialect. It goes without saying that, as time passes by, all languages change and that this process cannot be foiled. However, shouldn’t we at least try to record and document this dialect which is so intimately interwoven with our history?

As a professional linguist, I could start by recording the many conversations I have with my grandmother. However, there is a problem! The problem is that my grandmother objects to recordings of any kind for religious reasons. It is only during wedding ceremonies that old women like her can be caught on tape because during these ceremonies the camera nowadays keeps rolling no matter what, and old women have to choose between their objections to being recorded on camera and blessing the newly-wed couple and the next generation. Of course, the latter wins.

Isfahani Muslim women of my grandmother’s generation are not the only ones who object to being audio- or video-recorded. Many traditional peoples around the world have similar objections. This makes me wonder whether saving endangered languages is really all it is cracked up to be. Who are we to disregard the explicit wishes of speakers – people – so that we can “save” a language, which is, after all, nothing more than a set of practices and ideas?

Author Vahid Parvaresh

Vahid Parvaresh is an assistant professor of English at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the University of Isfahan, Iran. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Isfahan and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Tehran. His research interests are in discourse analysis and cross-cultural pragmatics.

More posts by Vahid Parvaresh
  • Juan Pablo

    In Spain we spend a lot of money preserving different languages. We have created a nation where every village with a dialect wants to be a nation. We have transformed an apparent naive fact into a continous demand of diferenceness. We now see animals as human beings and we do the same with languages. Language is just a tool. People born and die without having used more than 3.000 words. Most people never discuss the magic of an adverb as linguists do. People have renounced their languages voluntarily throughout history and nothing happened. New languages are born when some languages die. Spanish,romanian, catalan, french and sardinian were born when latin died. Ebonics, swahili, creole where created because people needed them. Languages are tools: nothing else. People move around the world and create new languages letting others die. It’s a waste of money to preserve languages, but an understanding view in a world that has humanized everything.

    • Peter Austin

      Unfortunately, your approach is bwrong/b and has been demonstrated to be wrong throughout human history. Languages are bNOT/b just tools but are means by which people also express their identity, history, heritage, traditions, songs and so on. People often have strong emotional connections to their languages and the other people who speak them, and so they dont get discarded like we might throw away an old piece of clothing or an old computer that doesnt work any more. Do you actually have a breal/b example where [p]eople have renounced their languages voluntarily throughout history and nothing happened as against the loss of hundreds of languages around the world because people were bforced/b to abandon them. Have a look at athis blog post/a for further discussion.

      • Language per se is neither just a tool nor just a means of identity. It lends itself to either-or and both. The Dutch and Germans in post-war Australia provide textbook examples of voluntary language shift.

        If language becomes closely associated with identity, there are still many different and complex identities to choose from (ancestral vs. aspirational identities; hegemonic vs. non-hegemonic ones etc.) Susan Gal’s classic study of women pioneering language shift from Hungarian to German in Austria provides another textbook example.

        Particularly on gender and language shift see some of our resources at http://www.languageonthemove.com/language-learning-gender-identity

  • Shima

    Nice argument! What you are talking about is what Blommaert calls dogma of homogeneity. Societies tend to maintain the integrity of the nation through a monolingual system, but such a system is totally contradicted by multilingual realities. They view differences as dangerous and avoidable, and consider the “best” society as the one without intergroup differences. People all over the world are denied their absolute rights of citizenship (in their countries of residence), immigration and even entry to a country by linguistic requirements and in the name of national inclusiveness. Powerful languages and standard varieties are reinforced at the expence of other languages, varieties, and dialects fading away! Your grandma beautiful accent and wording is not an exception then!

    • vahid

      Thank you, Shima, for your comment!
      You are right! Usually societies try to silence certain minority groups by silencing their language.
      I just add one point:
      The old Isfahani dialect is disappearing mainly because of the fact that the new generation of Isfahan are exposed to language choices which were not available before, to technologies which were not available before. Besides, younger people/generation have naturally different needs, values, and assumptions compared with their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers and this is why their language tends to be sharply different.
      Health peace

      • shima gahhari

        Of course you are right! Both death of a language and globalization of another langauge are motivated by their users, whether they drop in number or grow. But given what Jacoby calls indigenous assessment, those naturally occuring moments in our everyday interactions when we make judgments and assessments about people by their language and specifically their accents…..so why not thinking of people as adopting the strategy of not going against the grain !!! People are judged, identified, and labelled by their languages and accents as representative of their identities. Powerful languages keep up well with technology requirements and modernization,so it is viable. But in case of minor languages,accents and varieties,I think the story is different. They die because societies are advocating a norm which Prof. Piller in her illuminating 2001 article calls one language,one nation, and like it or lump it people are identified and judged against this norm any way…..

  • Dariush Izadi

    Language and at times its origin have long aroused researchers interest. Researchers have been carrying out extensive research studies on the development of language macro skills over and over again. However, what has been neglected in this process is an attempt to keep dialects alive. To date, based upon my limited knowledge, not many researchers have shown their interests in the most neglected area of all.
    Due to differences in standards of speech, people with different dialects are more prone to misunderstandings and negative judgments are easily made among people of different regions and cultural backgrounds. These judgments and misunderstandings help in reinforcing unfavorable aspects of society, such as racism and discrimination. It is important to teach and demonstrate various dialects that occur in society as a whole. This will promote understanding of others of different regional locations and cultures.

  • Tahmineh

    I, as an Isfahani person, personally believe that there is a matter of prestige-seeking in avoiding the Isfahani accent among younger generations. And I assume this is partly because people generally tend to consider the standard accent to be the one mainly common in Tehran as it seems to be more impressive and prestigious! Therefore, no wonder why younger generations try to avoid the accent here.

    I truly feel what you are saying; the conversation between my own nephew and my grandma is- linguistically looking- full of metalingual questions cause natije doesn’t seem to understand a lot of words his moms grandma is using! Not that her dialect is old or low-class, but only because it is mostly forgotten!! Thanks to the prestige of the younger generation, of course!

    Your post is ,as always, really heartfelt and that picture of Bibi and Majid crowned it! Thank you!

  • vahid

    Thank you, Tahmineh & Shima for your nice comments…
    I did not exclusively focus on accent in the post because it seems to be rather tricky!
    Isfahani accent has highly been stigmatized by the media (especially in the past few years) but is still at work in Isfahan in conversations among Isfahanis, but quite a few number of Isfahani words have lost their appeal and as a results their speakers (you hive rightly mentioned some possible reasons for this).
    This is exactly due to this stigmatization that sometimes Isfahanis try to hide their accent when they interact with people from different parts of Iran, which is not always possible! When I was at Tehran University, people would easily recognize me by my accent!

    • Shima

      So how lucky Isfahani people are that this stigmatization could not have Iessened the beauty of their accent. It is much appreciated everywhere!
      By the way, I wonder how one may consider these posts of you as uninteresting!!! Many idiologies, comments are shared. Fantastic! Thank you both for the posts and for the immediate feedbacks…. Please do keep up the good job and write more….

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