Fri, Feb 02, 2001 - Page 12 News List

We must fight to save Taiwan's languages

By Paul Li 李壬葵

According to the Tao Te Ching (道德經) by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (老子), the founder of Taoism: "Heaven and earth are impartial. They regard all beings without distinction" (天地不仁, 以萬物為芻狗).

Thus, under the law of the jungle, the weak usually stand as easy prey to the strong when they don't have adequate protection.

After hundreds of millions of years of evolution, there are billions of animals and plants in the world. Human beings, however, have been expanding at an astonishing pace ever since the Industrial Revolution took place in the West during the second half of the 18th century. As men have invaded each and every corner of the world, occupying the habitats that originally belonged to other species, the environment is now facing an unprecedented threat. As a consequence, many precious species are becoming extinct today. According to statistics, hundreds of species become extinct on this planet every single day. People who know about the food chain all realize that once there is a break in the food chain, many species will be seriously affected. If the environment keeps deteriorating, the survival of mankind will definitely be threatened.

The extinction of languages occurs even faster than the extinction of certain species, as languages are becoming extinct at twice the rate of endangered mammals and four times the rate of endangered birds. One language disappears approximately every two weeks on average. There are still 5,000 to 6,000 languages in the world. At a rough estimate, half of the languages will disappear within 50 years; as many as 90 percent will become extinct within this century. If the situation continues, the world will ultimately be dominated only by a few key languages, including Mandarin and English.

According to a report by Michael Kraus, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, as many as 20 to 40 percent of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken on earth may soon become moribund. Since less than 10 percent of the languages are widely spoken and enjoy official status, only 5 to 10 percent of the world's total, about 300 to 600 languages, remain relatively secure for now. If we wake up to this situation and try to take action immediately, perhaps half of the languages in use today could last for another century.

A "healthy language" must be practiced by new users constantly. Unless the language can be passed from generation to generation, it is destined to die out. From this perspective, all aboriginal languages in Taiwan are on the verge of extinction. For example, the three extant languages of the Plain's Aborigines, the Pingpu tribes (平埔族), will most likely all become extinct within the next two decades. Most of the languages of Taiwan's nine principal aboriginal tribes will also become extinct in the next 50 years. In fact, about half of Taiwan's aboriginal languages are dead already. Some have disappeared without a trace.

A language is the best reflection of a culture. The leading linguist Noam Chomsky once said, "Language is the window to the mind." Indeed, many aboriginal languages and dialects are priceless. They all possess certain language characteristics and riches that the dominant languages might lack. These languages and dialects, which have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, are the shared intellectual properties of mankind. It will be a significant loss for all human beings if we just sit back and watch these languages die. Thus, there is no greater loss than that of our "cultural property."

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