Written by Dyami Millarson
One of our readers left an interesting comment under my recent article on the vulnerability of the written word. Welcoming his viewpoint on this blog, I have given his comment a like; it is a contribution, and it inspired me to write a lengthy response, which I posted under his comment. Seeing that my comment had reached the length of an article, I decided to adapt it somewhat to fit the normal format of our articles and then republish it as an article on our blog:
This is going to be a long and philosophical post. As a disclaimer, I would like to say to anyone reading this, please do not take my openness to different points of view in the wrong way; after all, being interested in and curious about different modes of thinking can teach us a great deal.
Let me analyse the commenter’s definition of progress; I want to explore the implications of this idea, and finally share my own idea. What I am going to say should, therefore, be read in an unbiased and inquiring way; it may be shocking and appear unpalatable, but why not philosophise?
I understand that the commenter is saying that the death of languages is progress, and he is assuming this is inevitable, or as expressed in his own words, “it cannot be stopped.”
Given that this is how he analyses progress, then does he analyse the death of species and plants around the world as progress as well? Because, does not the destruction of languages and cultures fall in the same category as the destruction of plants, animals, and peoples?
He acknowledges, as it seems to me, that destruction on a global scale is occurring in various ways, and he believes this is necessary for human progresss. If we analyse this without passing judgement, it is an interesting and even compelling point of view; there is a sense of evolution in it.
After all, we are the apex predator, and so if we, for example, wish to destroy the entire planet for our own idea of progress, no one can stop us.
I have read old books making a convincing point about how the destruction of “savage races” is inevitable, and that it is progress. Again, if we do not pass judgement, it is an interesting and even compelling point of view; we can interpret the destruction of various peoples as simply an inevitable sacrifice for progress.
We can come up with an imaginary example: without passing judgement, we can analyse what “government A” is doing with “ethnic minority B” for (coerced) assimilation as progress. Government A of our imaginary example is – as they are acknowledging – putting ethnic minority B in training camps, so they can become good citizens. Others perceive those camps as prison camps since people cannot leave of their own volition. My reason for mentioning this is not politics (because this blog is politically neutral), but I am talking about how we can analyse certain developments as progress; it is therefore not a reference to any specific government.
The other imaginary countries may condemn imaginary government A for this, but there are also other ways to look at it; government A ultimately wants everybody within its borders to be the same ethnicity, and so it is progress for them to make sure everybody belongs to the same ethnicity. There is, again, a sense of evolution in it.
If we posit the destruction of languages, cultures, plants, animals and peoples as progress, the step we took before that is to define those forms of destruction as inevitable or necessary (i.e., “it cannot be stopped, resistance is hopeless”), amorally processual (i.e., “it is evolution, so it is neither good nor bad”) and useful, desirable or good (i.e., “this destruction is merely a means to an end because it is helping us achieve a better future”).
These three key elements are the first step we take for defining some specific form of destruction as progress, and since this allows us to define the destruction as (1) inevitable/necessary, (2) amorally processual, and (3) useful/desirable/good, we can breathe a sigh of relief and feel good about the on-going destruction which we acknowledge to be true and of which we do not feel the need to deny the existence/reality.
So an alternative perspective will depend on whether there can be reasonable doubt about the correctness of points (1), (2) and (3). In fact, (3) provides the key for undermining points (1) and (2); for it acknowledges human volition and agency in the acknowledged on-going destruction.
If human volition/agency can alter the course of events, then points (1) and (2) are, strictly speaking, not true. Since many linguists believe in some variety of points (1) and (2), our blog is focused on disproving (1) and (2) through actions showing that if the will is there, endangered languages can be learned and consequently be kept alive.
One might counter, however, that points (1), (2) and (3) are not mutually exclusive, and that if something is useful/desirable for human ends, it may still be inevitable/necessary and amorally processual.
This, however, fails to acknowledge that destruction is not an amoral process if it can be desirable/useful. Additionally, if a change is not good, then it cannot be progress. The idea of “for good or worse”, therefore, is incongruent with the idea of progress, which is essentially “change that is good”. We would not call something progress if it were not good somehow, and therefore progress cannot be amoral. In other words, progress can never be an amoral process, because that is not what progress is fundamentally; it has to be (unquestionably) good for it to be progress, and otherwise it is not progress. Moreover, if the goodness can be questioned, then the term “progress” is actually not applicable.
If something is an amoral process, then we humans have no influence over it, and then point (3) is incorrect. However, if point (3) is incorrect, it cannot be progress, but only an unstoppable change; and if the latter is the case, we have no agency in that change, and this is a falsifiable assumption, which means we can either prove or disprove that we have agency in say the destruction of languages.
Moreover, if we can prove that we have agency in say the destruction of languages, we can disprove point (1). Another vector of attack for undermining the premise of the destruction of languages being progress is using point (3) to point out that there can be different human views on what constitutes useful/desirable/good. In fact, I can see the preservation of languages as good, and such deviation from the norm of the destruction of languages being seen as good/desirable/useful is, fundamentally, a problem, because if we cannot agree that the destruction of languages is good/useful/desirable, then it cannot reasonably be defined as progress.
Additionally, when we prove that languages can be saved by learning the language, which means the failing transmission is being solved, or when we prove that languages such as Wangerooge Frisian can even be brought back from the dead, force can be added to the idea that the destruction of languages is not inevitable, and when we realise that languages do not inhibit us from achieving knowledge, it may be argued that language preservation leads to progress, while the cultivation of knowledge is good.
Of course, one may also argue that knowledge is bad, and that humans should stay ignorant forever and should definitely not know about human diversity. In that case, the preservation of languages is bad, and is not a progressive move.
However, it is reasonable to perceive the acquisition of knowledge as good; humans know that little can be achieved in life without knowledge, and so we tend to agree that knowledge is good.
In that case, it can be argued that the preservation of languages is progressive, and that the opposite is regressive; for the former helps us get further in life. If we know our ancestral language or if we know endangered languages not ancestrally related to us, it can help us solve things spiritually or philosophically, and with these spiritual/philosophical problems out of the way (i.e. new insights), we can make progress in other areas of life. Things affect each other in life, there is a ripple effect.
There is much more to say on this topic – and I could write a book about it – but it is safe to say that the inevitability, as well as the irreversibility, of the death of languages is a myth; it comes down to human agency. We have to ask what we want, do we want a future with more knowledge or do we prefer to destroy knowledge that does not suit us for whatever reason? (Surely, my recent article on the vulnerability of the written word acknowledges the vulnerability of the mediums we may employ for storing that knowledge.)
People may, of course, construe the diversity of languages as an inhibition to scientific and technological progress, but the opposite is rather the case; the diversity of languages has rather aided science and technology in varying ways already since the dawn of time.
In fact, the diversity of human languages has been the origin of science and technology; without all these languages and cultures, there would have been so much less inspiration to be found and there would have been little to compel us to think differently and thereby achieve progress.
Human languages and cultures have inspired us for millennia, they have helped us develop new ideas and tools, they have helped us adapt to new environments and they are testimonies to our ingenuity. In fact, it can be argued that the diversity of languages has sped up human development. (If one views languages as a problem, by the way, for crossgroup transmission of ideas and tools, one might want to consider such knowledge always has a way of passing from one group to another, as human history teaches us.)
Why did the diversity of languages speed up human development? In other words, why does nature favour diversity over homogeneity? The diversity of human languages and cultures led to intergroup competition, which became the driver of technological and scientific progress.
Human tribalism is, in my view, the ultimate cause of our current level of civilisation. I see the diversity of languages and cultures as expressions of human tribalism, and I interpret human tribalism as an evolutionary mechanism, which has allowed humans to achieve certain things which other creatures have not.
Removing what makes us tribal from us, removes what makes us human and therefore removes from us what we need for making progress in the fields of science and technology. We need to embrace our human nature to achieve our fullest potential; for denying our human nature has averse effects on the development of science and technology.
Conscious robots, which the commenter brought up, will be no match for us if they do not possess the same “human nature” as what has brought us this far. Our “human flaws” such as our diversity are not necessarily flaws, there are more sides to this.
While the commenter is saying in the opening line of his comment that the bets are off since the arrival of cyber technologies, I would like to raise attention to the fact that such technologies are inherently vulnerable. Additionally, they depend on us for their continued existence, and it is unclear when or if that ever will change.
One should also consider that although the universe is hostile to us, the universe is also hostile to cyber technologies. I could elaborate on this at length, but given that my article is already lengthy, I recommend a YouTube video on the hostility of the universe to computers: the video is appropriately titled “The Universe is Hostile to Computers” and published by the YouTube channel Veritasium.
In conclusion, I should state openly that the underlying assumptions of our blog are that (1) language death is by no means necessary or inevitable, (2) language death is, therefore, not an amoral process and (3) adding force to this idea is the fact that we can desire to preserve languages and we can match this preservation with our very human aims such that the preservation of languages can be perceived as useful, desirable and good by us. These three points, moreover, form the raison d’être of Foundation Operation X for languages, cultures and perspectives; our educational efforts are focused on spreading awareness about the aforementioned three points.