I recently attended an interview with the great filmmaker and writer Werner Herzog over at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. It was a wide-ranging discussion full of insights and laughs, with Werner being his usual charming and quirky self. But he said one thing that I disagree with, something that I’ve heard several times before. He lamented the extinction of human language. He went so far as to say that the loss of human languages was as grave a threat as the loss of animal species.
Werner is not wrong about this happening. Some of the numbers from The Language Conservency:
Right now, 9 languages a year, or one every 40 days, cease to be spoken. By 2080, the rate will rise to 16 languages per year. By the middle of the next century, we will be losing our linguistic heritage at the rate of 26 languages each year—one every two weeks. If we do not tackle the problem of language loss, more than half of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.
Yes, it is happening. And I think this is a very good thing.
Change is scary. So much so that when change happens, we tend to get scared right away without asking ourselves whether or not the change is an improvement or a catastrophe. We tend to assume catastrophe. We are wired this way.
It makes sense. To be here at all means the world was amenable to our existence. Change might threaten this. But may I suggest a thought experiment when we notice something is changing: play the film in reverse.
Let’s imagine some weird sci-fi scenario where every day we woke up and some portion of the human population could not speak with some other portion. New languages were appearing at a rate of 9 a year. Growing to 16 per year. Folks who could formerly speak to one another were now needing to do a lot of work to translate their thoughts. Languages and cultures were becoming more distinct and fractured. Human culture became less global and more tribal, shrinking and shrinking as the number of new languages continued to explode!
This dystopian nightmare is how deities were said to have punished humans in our religious myths. It’s the Tower of Babel, a story in which we lose our collective power because we can no longer communicate, coordinate, pool our thoughts and wisdom. The loss of language is a reversal of this punishment. It’s a coming together, a union of the human spirit and soul, a growth of communication and understanding. The opposite would be far worse.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preserve and record human languages for prosperity if possible. They are unique and interesting, and it’s a worthwhile hobby to spend some energy on. But the gnashing of teeth is a bit overdone.
A big change that poses a major problem for us is global warming, but here again it’s worth employing our thought experiment. By many estimations, we should be going into another ice age right about now. Industrialization may have staved that off, and in fact may have made future ice ages unlikely to ever occur. It’s easy to imagine the effects on civilization if the change in temperature that we are concerned about was heading in the opposite direction. Glaciers would encroach and then topple cities, gouging out the very land on which they rest. The habitable zone would shrink, compressing mankind toward the equator. We would be racing to expel greenhouse gasses to stop the cooling and save all the ecosystems destroyed by the gathering ice and shrinking seas.
We aren’t going through that, thankfully. The change that’s happening is far from ideal, but it might not be as bad as the inverse. Trees and plants have more food in the atmosphere, rather than less. Ice is receding rather than marching inexorably toward our homes and cities and fragile ecosystems. We will likely find that we can limit the rate of warming and find a stasis, and that future warmings and coolings will be solvable problems.
Or we might discover in some distant, hopeful future, that change in and of itself is not the worst thing imaginable. We are just wired to think this is so, and to mutter about it incomprehensibly amongst ourselves.