There is something sad about the death of a language. Many people are interested in preserving the ‘ethnosphere.’ The NYT has a story about the decline of Manchu, the language of the Qing Dynasty. The article fits into the general narrative of such stories. It focuses on the last few speakers of the small language and how they will be sad when they die and take with them the language. And like many such pieces it blames the dominant language for the small language’s demise. In a parenthetical note, the story makes this explicit:
While most experts agree that Manchu is doomed, Xibo, a closely related language, is likely to survive a little longer. Xibo is spoken by about 30,000 descendants of members of an ethnic group allied to the Manchus who in the 1700s were sent to the newly conquered western region of Xinjiang. But it, too, is under relentless pressure from Chinese. (emphasis added)
The only evidence for this ‘pressure’ is the following:
Ms. Meng’s 30-year-old grandson, Shi Junguang, has studied hard to improve his Manchu and teaches speaking and writing to the 76 pupils, aged 7 to 12, at the village school.
This is the only primary school in China that offers classes in Manchu, officials from the local ethnic affairs office said. These lessons, shared with one other teacher, take only a small proportion of classroom time, but are popular with students, say school staff members and other village residents.
It seems that the demand for the class exceeds its supply. That is, the government seems to be limiting the amount of instruction in Manchu below what the people would like to take. Does this count as pressure? The article makes clear that the increased interaction with outsiders – through radio and television and roads – that is the primary source of decline in use of the language:
Even now, about three-quarters of Sanjiazi’s 1,054 residents are ethnic Manchus but the use of Chinese has spread sharply in recent decades as roads and modern communications have increasingly exposed them to the outside world.
Individuals seem to be moving with their feet, or with their tongues, to Mandarin. It is very thorny to tease out what is government pressure versus individual choice. There certainly has been pressure by Beijing to restrict usage of local languages* for broadcast and schooling. But Manchu seems to be dying on its own. It would be foolish to require the grandchildren of these last few Manchu speakers to give up Mandarin. A professor of mine had an excellent suggestion for those who advocate such preservation tactics: make the anthropologists teach their own children these dying languages. New languages arrive and old languages die. Obviously to make speaking a language illegal in an attempt to kill it through legislation (such as in Franco’s Spain) is wrong and should be condemned. Just as obviously, spending lots of resources to try to encourage the use of the language when individuals are moving away from it is wasteful (although I do believe that there is some value to preserving languages in books). Where to draw the line between repression and subsidization – especially in terms of schooling, government documents, etc. – is difficult. I highly recommend reading Prof. David Laitin‘s work on the politics of language (the source of many of ‘my own’ ideas about these issues).
It might seem sad for a language to die, but if life is about having choices and the speakers of a language choose to let it die, then we must respect that choice.
* The government tends to refer to them as ‘dialects’ rather than ‘languages,’ but the linguistic differences are severe, at least to my ear. Here‘s a fun comparison of Shanghainese and Mandarin.