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Minority languages: should we let them die?

Electrocution safety sign in English and Welsh

In the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, mankind is punished by liguistic diversity. On the other hand in the story of Pentecost, in the book of Acts, where everyone is able to understand the Apostles, universal understanding is seen as a blessing. The idea that we would be better off with only one language is an ancient intuition. It would assist diplomacy and trade just to start with. But this is not a view shared by many modern linguists. Many think that linguistic diversity is what we should aim at.

Sometimes the argument is couched in terms of an analogy with biodiversity. The linguist David Crystal says "We should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet."

Sometimes it’s a rights argument. Nettle and Romaine in their book _Vanishing Voices_ claim that everyone "has a right to their own language, to preserve it as a cultural resource, and to transmit it to their children."

Others talk in terms of the importance of preserving a folk-spirit. “Every language is a temple”, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “in which the soul of those who speak it is enshrined”.

In contrast the writer Kenan Malik thinks that a language is simply a tool for communication and if it no longer functions as that then it should be allowed to die. While people should be allowed to speak any language they like, speaking a minority language should be treated as a personal, private hobby. It should not be sponsored or funded by the state.

So is the death of minority languages a tragedy for mankind, simply a sad, private loss for those declining speakers or a natural evolutionary development of culture?

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