Written by Dyami Millarson
It has often been asserted that every individual is unique. This assertion has ethical implications. Although humans have similarities, they also have differences that ought to be respected. The assertion of the individual’s uniqueness stems from the age-old observation that although humans are very similar, they are also very different. Everyone is different in their own way. This seeming contrast between similarity and difference is no contrast at all, but it is to be seen as part of an abstract whole, and this whole is what I call ‘individual uniqueness’. We have established a philosophical principle and it is important to think about the implications of this principle:
Individuals are unique, so what are peoples? After all, we may define a people as the sum of all its unique individuals. Synonyms for people are group, community, collective, tribe. It follows logically that if individuals are unique and a people is the sum of all its unique individuals, then every people is unique. As cultures and languages are created and modified by their peoples, all cultures and languages are unique. In essence, peoples are accumulations of uniqueness (i.e., the sums of all individual uniqueness) and languages and cultures are the products of that accumulated uniqueness. This is why saving the world’s languages and cultures is so undeniably vitally important. Indeed, it is on the same level as saving humanity. Realising this, we should perhaps think more deeply about morality and the relationship between individual and collective:
If a collective derives its uniqueness from all individuals belonging to it, then what are the moral implications of language death for the individual? Let us define the collective’s derivative uniqueness as ‘total uniqueness’ to distinguish it from the individual’s ‘original uniqueness’. A people is on a different level for combining all the uniqueness of the humans involved, and this is reflected in the language that this people creates and modifies over time.
A language may be inherited from another people and be modified to the inheriting people’s needs, these are derivative languages that people are tempted to call ‘dialects’. However, is Afrikaans a dialect of Dutch merely because it is derived from Dutch? Is Italian a dialect of Latin? Most people think not, and so derivation doesn’t equal being a dialect. Rather, dialect is an abusive word that shows contempt for any language that is called that. It is just like ‘idiot’ is abusive. Dialect attaches negative values to a language and attacks the legitimacy of a language just like ‘idiot’ attacks the individual’s legitimacy: a dialect is a simplistic, unoriginal, low-class language and thus unworthy of attention just like an ‘idiot’ is in people’s minds. With the dialect/language issue out of the way, we must continue answering the moral question that was posed previously:
Humans, if they respect others’ dignity, have a moral incentive to support saving languages and cultures from death or to support such efforts, because languages and cultures are products of total uniqueness. In other words, the appreciation of original uniqueness should logically lead to the appreciation of total uniqueness and all its products (e.g., cuisine, dance, religion, philosophy, music, culture, language). After all, if the individual appreciates hinself for being unique, he should also appreciate others for being unique, and a total sum of unique human beings (i.e., a people) even more so, because total uniqueness transcends original uniqueness. Total uniqueness is entirely the creation of original uniqueness, but it is ethically a completely new entity worthy of respectful attention from all individuals. All individuals are ethically worthy entities, and the collective is a separate worthy entity that deserves separate attention.
We must, therefore, conclude that language death is an ethical disaster for the individual as well as the collective, and the individual has every moral reason to act in such a way as to prevent or reverse that unfortunate outcome. To allow language death is to allow disregard for total uniqueness, and this is as much an ethical problem to the individual soul as allowing disrespect for the individual soul. Language death is a weight on our conscience, for it is becoming to give due attention to total uniqueness, if you do appreciate original uniqueness truly. Unless total uniqueness is respected fully, individuals’ uniqueness will be violated as a result; total and original uniqueness are ethically separate, but they are also morally inextricably linked, just as human similarities and differences are one whole that contributes to human uniqueness.