Is the ‘endangered languages’ movement threatening linguistics?

On 15th October, Paul Newman (Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Indiana University) delivered a lecture at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London, which was titled ‘The Law of Unintended Consequences: How the Endangered Languages Movement Undermines Field Linguistics as a Scientific Enterprise’. 

The talk (70 minutes) can be accessed online by clicking on the link below, and comments on the talk are available here.

The Law of Unintended Consequences: How the Endangered Languages Movement Undermines Field Linguistics as a Scientific Enterprise

In brief, Professor Newman argues that linguistics, which has been ideologically motivated to preserve threatened languages, has tended to uncritically accept three fallacious propositions that have become ‘increasingly entrenched‘:

  • it is better to study minor undocumented languages than ones that are spoken more widely;
  • it is better to study languages holistically, as opposed to focusing on specific linguistic phenomena;
  • it is better to collect large quantities of raw data (“documentary linguistics”) at the expense of analysis and theory testing.

These assumptions, and the practices emanating from them, are described as running “counter to the tenets of linguistics as a science”, and suggestions are put forward for a more sound way of studying endangered languages.

I found the talk to be very thought-provoking, and I would like to invite readers of this blog to critically engage with it on their own. You are all very welcome to record any thoughts or reactions to the contents of the talk in the comments section below this post. 

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