The Death of Language

This BBC article published today got me thinking: what exactly is lost when a language dies out? Is the death of a rarely-spoken language always a completely bad thing?

They’re not merely academic questions for me; half of my family is Pennsylvania Dutch, and my grandfather can speak the language fluently. A century ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see bilingual street signs throughout central Pennsylvania in both English and Deitsch, the proper name of this region’s twisted offshoot of German (the word “Dutch” in Pennsylvania Dutch is a misnomer coined by English speakers who misheard the word “Deitsch,” which is derived from the German “Deutsch”). 200 years ago, such bilingual signs were even common throughout Philadelphia.

In the past, both languages could be heard spoken regularly in public places throughout eastern and central PA by people from all walks of life. Today, Deitch is generally only spoken in the home by members of the “Plain” religious sects, like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, as well as a dwindling handful of secular old-timers like my grandfather.

So what happened? For one thing, improvements in transportation and communication technology wore away at regional isolation. As more people became more exposed to a wider world in which people did not speak Deitsch, English increasingly became the dominant language because it was spoken throughout the country. World events had something to do with it as well — after World War I, the number of people speaking the language began to dwindle. Then, my grandfather’s generation was largely the last of the non-Plain people to grow up speaking the Pennsylvania Dutch language at home, as well as the last born before the Nazi takeover of Germany and World War II; those things occurring together are not coincidental. Ironically, my great-grandfather, also a fluent Deitsch speaker and a World War I veteran, was chosen to serve as part of the allied forces in the occupation of the Rhineland following the First World War specifically because he could sort-of understand and sort-of make himself understood by the local populace there.

My Dad’s family has lived in this part of Pennsylvania for about 300 years, and they clung to the Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch sprooch (language) for about 250 of those years. There’s a lesson in that for all the anti-immigrant/English-only hysterics out there: English was NEVER this country’s sole language, and speaking English is NOT what makes you a “real” American.

All the same, my father and I grew up speaking only English at home. I’ve often wondered if we’ve lost an additional perspective on the world for not having grown up bilingual, but I’ve also often wondered if I wouldn’t have had access to the opportunities I’ve been given in life if I’d grown up speaking something other than English at home. I also seriously doubt that my father would have eventually married the daughter of an immigrant from Manchester, England who lived in both countries growing up if he’d been born into an earlier, more insular, time period.

There are now attempts to revive the language, led by academics at places like Kutztown University, like what has been done elsewhere in the world with Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Hebrew. Part of me hopes fervently this succeeds. After all, I chose to take German over Spanish in high school and continue studying it into college for the same reasons some professors and younger people are trying to spark a Deitsch renaissance today: it’s part of my background, and I would hate to see it die out.

On the other hand, another part of me wonders what the practical point of all this is. What purpose does speaking Deitsch fluently serve? German (or Deutsch) is a useful international business language, but Deitsch isn’t Deutsch. If you tried to speak it in a boardroom in Frankfurt, you’d be barely intelligible to everyone else in the room, and, worse yet, you’d probably sound like something several notches below that of hick.

Is spending a significant chunk of one’s education preventing cultural memory from dying out more important than spending that time learning other skills? Increasingly, more people in places like Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and now perhaps even here are saying yes. I’m not sure what the answer is.

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2 Responses to “The Death of Language”

  1. ktdickinson Says:

    Consider yourself lucky to grow up even in a pseudo-bilingual household. It’s really too bad your grandfather’s language is being pushed out of the way by English. Speaking more than one language definitely improves cognition (there have been numerous studies by linguists to this effect), and besides can draw out your creativity. I read a wonderful book recently called When Languages Die (K. David Harrison, 2005) that I encourage you to check out if you’re interested in language death. It’s not too technical, but it talks about hundreds of languages and the way they encode information—if we lose them, which we certainly will, we lose a lot of valuable information. There’s a language in South America that has encoded ten thousand types of medicinal plants (if memory serves me), and it’s dying quickly. Who knows which of those remedies could be the cure for cancer?

  2. Hyrum Says:

    I think the answer is yes. I’m not sure why but I am learning my grate grandparents language. For me its important to have that connection with where my ancestors came from. I hope more Deitch people(not sure if that how to identify people who speak the language) embrace their language and culture. I’ve also heard that children raised speaking two languages learn better.

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