Professor of Linguistics Talks about the Lives of Languages

At BYU’s 2019 Education Week conference, professor of Linguistics David Eddington shared his insights about the nature of births, deaths, and evolution of languages.

PROVO, Utah (August 2019)¾It may sound strange, but languages are, in a sense, alive. They are born, they evolve, and they can die. This concept is what guided Professor David Eddington’s lecture at BYU’s 2019 Education Week conference.

In his lecture, Eddington focused the discussion around three questions about language. The first was: what is lost when a language dies? The answer:

“Language is something that encapsulates culture, so when a language dies, part of a culture dies,” Eddington said.

Putting it into perspective for those who speak a dominant language like English, he added:

“Don’t you wish you spoke the languages of your great-grandparents? How would you feel if your children said ‘I don’t want to speak English anymore. I know that’s what you speak, but I don’t want to.’”

He emphasized how particular elements of culture are tied to particular languages and cannot be translated without losing their luster, take English nursery rhymes for example.

Eddington shared a poignant example of an ethnic minority group’s loss of language and, subsequently, modern generations’ disconnect from their ancestors’ culture. Eddington showed the class a TED talk video in which a man from the Spokane Nation spoke about his experience of learning the Spokane language in his adulthood to preserve the Spokane culture, a language with only six fluent speakers left.

Because language is intrinsically connected to culture, it is not uncommon for ethnic minorities to experience a disconnection from the cultures of their parents or grandparents as their language progressively dissolves with each generation. Eddington recounted the rate at which languages die each year– 1.4%. He added that some linguists predict 90% of the world’s languages will die out within the next 100 years. These unsettling statistics led Eddington to pose a second question, “What kills language?”

“Whatever kills speakers: war, disease, natural disasters… genocide.”

Sometimes a language can also be lost when speakers choose to stop teaching their children their native language. This can occur when people must learn the dominant language in their environment in order to find work or in order to assimilate and avoid discrimination. Oftentimes, by the third generation of these people’s families, children are only speakers of the area’s dominant language, rather than the language of their parents and grandparents.

Eddington described the birth of language as following a similar pattern to the death of languages – it is often a function of convenience or necessity for the language speaker. “How are languages invented?” he asked the class. While some languages have been deliberately invented by scholars and intellectuals such as J.R. R. Tolkien, many other languages are invented for practical use.

The professor explained how people “make up a trade language that people use when they come together when they need to do a task like trade, and then they go home, and they speak their regular native languages. That’s what a pidgin language is. The word ‘pidgin’ comes from ‘business.’”

While some languages are completely original in their conception, other languages are derivative. Some languages, like English, begin as their own, and as they evolve, they adopt words from other languages. pidgins and creoles use words from one language, then ascribe new meaning to the words to create a new language entirely different from the original. Interestingly, Eddington taught that “once someone picks up a pidgin language as a native language, it’s no longer a pidgin language. It’s a creole language… now it’s used as a regular language for everything.”

Attendees at the conference were excited to engage with Eddington throughout the lecture, sharing how they could see the facts he shared evidenced in their own lives. Neither they nor the professor shied away from acknowledging both the tragic and the more inconsequential points of discussion about language.

—Natalie Shorr (Sociology ‘22)