Linguists need preservation of languages to study human language

In a recent article here at ScienceNordic, we argued that this year’s UN initiative International Year of Indigenous Languages is urgently needed in light of the global decline of minority and indigenous languages.

In this article, we will delve into how and why we study these languages.

Besides the human rights aspect of language extinction explained in the previous article, linguists are generally also concerned with the very loss of languages themselves. This is because we study languages in a scientific fashion, just like animals, fungi, neutrons and tectonic plates are studied by other scientists.

Language is an everyday miracle

Language is in fact a remarkable phenomenon: by producing sequences of sounds with your mouth (or by using gestures in the case of sign languages), you can declare your love for someone, explain quantum theory or order a drone strike.

Language is an everyday miracle, as the Danish linguist Hans Arndt called it, and this miracle is exclusive to humans: while some animals like whales, chimps and bees exhibit a fairly complex form of communication, no bee will ever be able to signal to another bee that a movie they saw yesterday didn’t quite live up to their expectations.

Only humans do this, and — barring physiological disorders — all humans do this. Linguists study why we have language, how language works, what the limits of linguistic variation are and how language develops.

If linguists are to advance our collective knowledge of language as a uniquely human phenomenon, we need to learn about as many languages as possible. You can never get a good understanding of what language actually is if you only compare a handful of them.

If we based everything we know about language on, say, English, Danish, and German, we would miss so many insights about the structural flexibility and diversity of language as a global phenomenon.

Read more: Science Nordic

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