The Language of Language

We have great power in choosing the words we use to communicate.  How we say what we say affects how we and others feel about what we are talking about.  Sometimes, this is obvious—if I tell you I bought you a used chair for your birthday, you probably won’t be thrilled.  If, however, I tell you I bought you an antique chair, your perspective might be quite different.

The words we use to describe Native languages have even more significance attached to them.  Today, let’s consider languages without living speakers.  Here are some words used to describe these languages.  Consider each one’s connotations:

  • Dormant
  • Extinct
  • Sleeping
  • Dead
  • Lost

Although these words can be used accurately to describe the same language, these words say very different things.  For example, the words “extinct” and “dead” generally describe a permanent condition.  When something is extinct or dead, we tend to think of it being gone eternally and irretrievably.  These words suggest that the language can never be revitalized, and that any hope or efforts to the contrary are futile.  They also suggest that the language ceases to live on in any way, although languages that have gone “extinct” since the 1900s usually have some form of documentation remaining (dictionaries, recordings, etc.)

The words “dormant,” “sleeping,” and “lost” have a different connotation.  These words suggest that the language’s current state is temporary, and, with effort, can be changed.  A dormant language can be revitalized, a sleeping language can be awoken, and a lost language can be found.

Take a look at these articles written about Native languages, and look closely at the language used to describe language.  Does it set the tone of the article?  How does it make you feel about each language and the language’s people?

Can you imagine being told (or have you been told) by someone that the language of your ancestors is “dead” or “extinct”?  Or that your culture’s language “died” with the last living speaker?  What might motivate a journalist decide to describe a language as “extinct” rather than “dormant”?  What kind of language do you use to describe your language, and why?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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