Language and Value

Lydia Green, fellow advocate for endangered languages and dear friend, recently came across this blog post, about one undergraduate’s first encounter with endangered languages:

This past semester, I took a course that affected me more deeply than any other course I’ve ever taken. It was an anthropology seminar on the reasoning behind, and processes involved in, language revitalization. I signed up for the class because, as a linguistics major, I have always felt guilty about not caring so much about language death. I was hoping that learning more about the phenomenon would allow me to have a more educated (if not comple … Read More

via Les aventures d’un été

The post is striking in both its honesty and the way in which the author found their views changing over time. Originally, the author approached language revitalization with something of disdain and disinterest:

To be completely honest, the arguments for language revitalization I encountered in the first few weeks of the class were pretty lame… My answer to all of these claims was a resounding SO WHAT. Languages die – so do people, and animals, and species, and plants.

But through study of the endangered Breton language as part of a class assignment, the author comes to sympathize with its speakers:

I will not say that I have completely changed my attitude about language death, because I haven’t. But after getting immersed in the politics, philosophy, and culture surrounding Breton, I am a lot more careful about what I say. I care now, about minority languages, in a way that I didn’t before.

This is largely my own position – I don’t think there are particularly good a priori arguments for the preservation of endangered languages in and of themselves. I’m also not a big fan of Crystal’s book, even though it was one of the seminal works in the field, precisely because I think the arguments he makes fall flat (and he’s more than a little patronizing towards indigenous groups). As a linguist, I of course find all languages valuable, but that is my personal valuation of the matter, arising out of my interest in language; it is not a more general statement about the inherent value of language. It does no good to sustain the fantasy that there exists some a priori reason to value indigenous languages, just because I find them valuable. There is an important difference between personal valuations and metaphysical or intrinsic value, which most people fail to appreciate.

This is what struck me most about this post – the apparent contradiction in rejecting any intellectual defense of language revitalization while simultaneously advocating for it. And yet, I think this is close to the proper attitude to have. The reason is not because I think we should disdain ‘intellectual’ approaches to emotive issues – far from it. Instead, it is because this position is entirely consistent with a proper understanding of value theory and the notion of inherent value.

What on earth do I mean by that? And how does it relate to language revitalization? Well, advocates of language revitalization have presented numerous arguments making the case that we ought to support language revitalization (a moral claim), based on the idea that languages – and especially minority / indigenous ones – carry some type of value (a metaphysical claim). Value theory is a sub-branch of metaphysics in philosophy which seeks to understand how humans value things, what they ought to value, and what types of things can be the object of value. Can physical objects carry inherent value, for example, or is value limited only to immaterial things (like knowledge or love, say)? What the author of the above post is doing is denying the existence of objective, inherent value for things like language. But one can do this and still be perfectly consistent when they say that they value language diversity anyway. How so? Because one does not have to assume an objective theory of value in order for something to be valuable.

There have been many attempts throughout the history of philosophy to show that value is objective or intrinsic. The worst and most naive versions of this position hold that physical things in the world have objective value. In one specific case, called the labor theory of value, it is assumed that the value of an object consists of the sum of the labor put into its creation. But labor theorists have trouble accounting for things like time preference or explaining the marginal utility of goods.

The greatest success in value theory is decidedly the subjective theory of value, which states that values are conferred upon things by the wants and goals of individuals, rather than being inherent in those things. It is because a person sees an object as a means towards accomplishing a specific goal or satisfying a specific desire that the object becomes valuable to them. In the case of language, subjective value theory would say that languages are valuable because the goals and desires of the people who use them make them so. English to me is highly valuable because it allows me to fulfill many of my goals and desires, namely via interaction with fellow English-speakers in my community.

Can we make broader statements about the value of language – and specifically minority / endangered languages? Is there any sense in which languages can be considered valuable without reference to the individuals who value them?

The answer is decidedly no.

In Marion and I’s recent presentation at James Madison University, we listed a number of reasons which have been presented in the literature arguing for the the value of indigenous languages. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Languages are inherently valuable
  • Languages are valuable for scientific inquiry
  • Languages are valuable for economic purposes
  • Languages are valuable as a cultural heritage
  • Languages are valuable as a store of knowledge (Whorf hypothesis)

If languages were inherently valuable, this would imply that no cost is too great for preserving them, and that a community which speaks its indigenous language but is miserable in all other aspects of life would be better off than a community which does not speak its indigenous language but had every one of its other needs met, a veritable paradise on earth.

If languages are valuable for some purpose – economic ends or scientific inquiry – then we’re talking about subjective theories of value. One could, I suppose, interpret these as saying that the existence of indigenous languages add economic / scientific value to the world independent of anyone using them for those ends, but then we would have to say that a language has economic value even when nobody benefits from it, or that its mere existence and use – not its study – somehow adds scientific value to the world. The only way to understand these statements is to say that languages are valued by individuals for the specific end of economic advancement or scientific progress.

Stating that a language is valuable as a form of x merely shifts the question of value from language to x. If language is valuable because it is a cultural heritage, then what is it that makes cultural heritage valuable? Again, the answer will be that it is subjectively valued by the individuals in that community. The same argument applies for language as a store of knowledge; knowledge is valued subjectively. (Also, many people question the extent to which the grammar and lexicon of a language contribute any sort of non-linguistic knowledge to the world; the argument is that language merely encodes knowledge that speakers already have.)

With all that said, I do think that the preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages is a good thing, and not just because of my personal valuation of them, but because of the numerous positive instrumental effects that keeping them in the community have. While I think many people grossly overestimate the positive impact that preserving a language has, clearly significant positive benefits do exist, and for many communities the benefits consistently outweigh the costs. Many commentators on the benefits of revitalization tend to confuse cause and effect, however. They state that preserving a language will improve the socioeconomic condition of its speakers, but it’s usually the other way around – improvements in the socioeconomic conditions of a community allow for language preservation and revitalization to take place, which then in turn offer benefits for the community, creating a positive feedback loop. I discuss this in another post, which you can read over here. Regardless, it is the subjective value of indigenous languages that I have always found convincing, and what keeps me in this line of work.

This is the only sound theoretical argument we can (or should) make for language revitalization. The reason for language revitalization – the intellectual, theoretical defense of it – is precisely that so many people find it valuable, and moreover that many people will, like the author of the blog post, come to find it valuable themselves as they begin to appreciate the benefits it brings to the community. You might call this a form of sympathetic or altruistic value – where a person takes pleasure in seeing the desires of others fulfilled.

In sum, languages are valuable because people value them and for no other reason. It is important to realize, however, that this in no way diminishes the importance of language revitalization. It is precisely because people value their languages that makes what language activists do such good (and valuable!) work. We should stop trying to defend the idea that languages are somehow inherently valuable, which just makes us look intellectually foolish, and instead appreciate the manifold reasons why people do value their languages. If we really want to understand and prevent language death, we need to abandon the idea that people ought to value indigenous languages, and start asking why people value them in the first place. Answering this will go a long way towards recommending successful language policies which help confer value on indigenous languages.