Monday, February 20, 2017

Vanishing languages

Some vanished languages: Etruscan (in Antiquity), Gothic (in the Middle Ages) and Wappo (recently)

February 21, so the day after this blog has been published, will be International Mother Language Day. The day has been first announced by UNESCO in 1999. Its purpose is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In 2007 the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2008 International Year of Languages and invited “Member States, the United Nations system and all other relevant stakeholders to develop, support and intensify activities aimed at fostering respect for and the promotion and protection of all languages, in particular endangered languages, linguistic diversity and multilingualism” (resolution A/RES/61/266).
That it’s really necessary to take measures to preserve and protect languages became clear to me from an article I recently read in a newspaper. How many languages are there in the world? Well, I think that most people will say something like fifty, or hundred, or maybe 500. Actually there are about 7,000 languages. And how many languages do you think will be there at the end of this century? Not more than half of them, but the most pessimistic estimates say that only 10% will remain. So if I would have asked you in 2117 how many languages there are in the world, and not in 2017, you might have been right. This means that every two weeks a language vanishes.
There are several reasons why this happens. The ethnic group that speaks the language disappears. People prefer to speak another language that has become dominant or they prefer not to teach their children the native language any longer, because speaking the dominant language gives better job opportunities. People are forced to speak another language. And there are certainly other reasons as well why languages die.
If a language were simply a means of communication and not more than that, probably the loss of a language would not be really dramatic. However, it is more than just an instrument. Especially two things are important. Say, you are somewhere abroad on holiday and no one there speaks your language. Then you hear someone who does. I don’t think that you’ll immediately walk to that person and shake hands, but certainly you’ll feel related to him or her in some way. In other words, a language gives you identity, and probably the more so if your language is not one of the world languages which is used as a lingua franca. Your native language is one of the factors that makes who you are and often it happens that someone who has spoken a big part of his or her life a second language, all at once begins to speak the native language again at a sudden dramatic moment like an accident, even if it is only for a short time.
As for the other reason why a language is more than a mere instrument: I think that many people will know that Inuit languages have more words for expressing types of snow than any other language. Or, another example, Dutch, my mother tongue, has more words for describing types of watercourses and canals and uses more nuances in that field than, say, English. These are just two instances that indicate that there is a narrow relationship between a culture and the language used by the bearers of that culture. And not only is it so that word distinctions are often different for different languages. Also grammatical differences may have cultural relevance. This doesn’t mean that there is a one-to-one relationship between language and culture, but that there is a kind of relation is unmistakable.
The relationship between language and culture is especially significant for smaller languages and cultures, I think. And when a certain language has vanished, also the corresponding culture will have vanished, or anyway a relevant part of it. This is important for the bearers of the vanishing cultures but also for everybody else in the world. Since many vanishing languages are only spoken and have no written sources, their disappearance will be for once and for all. Then the world has become a bit poorer. That’s what we see in this globalizing world, where increasingly only a few languages are used. As Cecilia Odé, a Dutch linguist, says it: “If the process of globalization goes on, everything around us will more and more look the same, including languages and cultures. Already long ago everybody has become aware of the importance of biodiversity. Why would the preservation of language diversity be less important?”
I would say it so: Each language is important because it presents a specific view on the world. In this way, it helps show how things can be seen different than we thought from our own language and world view. Therefore languages help our mutual understanding but also our creativity.

References
- http://www.unesco.org/new/en/international-mother-language-day/

Monday, February 13, 2017

Alternative facts

Vaduz, Liechtenstein

If you don’t take account of the facts; if you deny or ignore them, sooner or later reality will overtake your false views. Therefore methodologists have developed rules for investigators to get the right answers to their questions. These rules do not only concern how to collect data, but also how to ask good questions, for if your question is wrong, you’ll not get the data you need and maybe you’ll get no data at all.
Basically these rules are also useful in daily life, outside science. It would be good to be conscious of them and to apply them there, too. Nevertheless this doesn’t happen often. People may not know that such rules exist, and even if they know them intuitively or explicitly, they may not have the time to apply them. People often have to act under pressure! Or maybe you are unable to collect the data you look for, so you must act with the help of what you do know, on the basis of your intuition, consultation of other people and your prejudices. Acting on basis of your prejudices sounds negative and maybe repugnant, because prejudices are frequently used for discriminating people, for pushing them down because of the colour of their skin, their sex or their religion, but strictly speaking a prejudice is a pre-judice, so a preceding judgment, which we use when we don’t have yet the relevant facts for a well-considered judgment, as the German philosopher Gadamer has made clear to us. Often we lack the facts and we cannot collect them for some reason and nevertheless we must act. Therefore Gadamer talked of a prejudice against prejudice. But it’s true that the negative sense of “prejudice” has also good grounds.
Since we have to act and perhaps have to act quickly, the only thing we can do then is to employ the limited data and evidence we have and to follow our intuitions. Then we try to make a consistent story from the information at our disposal. That the story is good is often more important for us than that it is complete. Even more, the cynical thing is that knowing little makes it easier to make a good, coherent story, so Kahneman. And that’s what we often see: People prefer simple stories to complex ones. Also a simple story based on partial information can be useful for reasonable action.
With a simple, incomplete story the risk is higher that reality will overtake us. Therefore it’s important to stay open to new facts. It’s sensible to adjust what we erroneously thought true – our story – to new information. But alas, it frquently happens also the other way round: Not the story is fit to the facts but the facts are re-interpreted, and maybe even adapted, in the light of the story and adapted to what is considered true on the basis of prejudices or unjustified beliefs. Cognitive dissonance reduction is a case in point. It’s a psychological process in which displeasing facts are argued away. In another related psychological process, called confirmation bias, people are only open to and look for facts that confirm their views.
Such psychological mechanisms often work unconsciously. However, it also happens that the facts are consciously adapted to the truth for manipulative reasons. This can be done for gain, in order to mould people to one’s will for commercial or political reasons, and so on. This can be done by telling half-truths or half-lies. Or facts are shoved aside or even ignored. And what if others bring to light that you are doing so and confront you with the facts as they are? Oh, it’s not necessary then to acknowledge that you made a mistake and to make your excuses. Isn’t it so that everything that happens is open to different interpretations? Just ignore the facts they throw in your face and say that you have alternative facts, whatever it may mean. It’s always possible that your followers will believe you. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

References
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books, London, 2012
- Journal of Alternative Facts: http://retractionwatch.com/2017/01/31/welcome-journal-alternative-facts-theyre-greatest-winning/

Monday, February 06, 2017

Living within the truth


Truth is a simple and complicated concept at the same time. Everybody knows what it means, but everybody also knows how difficult it can be to determine whether a statement is truly true, as I asserted last week. Once I wrote an article in which I distinguished three different concepts of truth. They are for short 1) Truth as agreement of a statement with reality. It’s the concept of truth used in science; the one I discussed last week. 2) Truth as a way to express that one or more actions we perform are in agreement with the aims we have set. It was, for instance, the concept of truth used in communist circles. 3) Truth as a metaphysical idea that refers to what is superhuman, “not of this world”, so truth in its theological sense. I made this distinction between these three concepts of truth long ago and I doubt whether I can still endorse it. Nevertheless, it is valuable in some sense, for it makes clear that there is more than truth as defined in science and analytical philosophy (what academic philosophers tend to forget) and that our actions can (and some will say must) be guided by three principles: 1) Take account of the facts; don’t deny or ignore them. Reality will always overtake your false views. 2) Be consistent in your actions and act logically, otherwise you’ll not reach your goals. 3) Have a view of life, have ethical principles and be conscious of them (it doesn’t need to be interpreted theologically). These three principles are useful in morally difficult situations and they help prevent that you’ll perform actions that you’ll later regret.
This came to my mind – also because of what I had written last week, of course – when I thought about what is happening in the world at the moment. It made me also think of an essay by Václav Havel in which he tells us how we can live according to our own principles even under a repressive regime: His essay “The Power of the Powerless”. In Dutch it is titled (translated) “Try to live within the truth”, which explains why I had to think of it.
Havel considers there the case of the manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop, who has placed the slogan “Workers of the World, unite!” in his windows, among the onions and the carrots. Why did he do that? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the thought to unite the workers of the world? Not at all. The man hasn’t even thought about what the slogan means. He has simply put it there, because he lives in a repressive communist country and because he doesn’t want to have problems with the authorities. He simply wants to have a quiet life, avoid politics, earn his money and keep his job. He wants to live in harmony with society, as Havel calls it. By doing so the manager of the fruit-and-vegetable shop follows the ideology of the ruling communist party. If he would really think about it, he would know that this ideology contains an unrealistic view on society; that he doesn’t subscribe to the goals of this ideology; and that in the name of this ideology much is done what he thinks bad. Then, so Havel, this manager lives within a lie.
However, let’s suppose that one day the manager becomes fed up with all he has to do in order to lead a quiet life. All those nonsense measures he has to take, as he sees it now. Already since long he doesn’t believe anymore in the official ideology and he develops his own thoughts. He wants to show what he thinks and he wants to support people who think like him. He removes the slogan from his windows and begins to say what he thinks. He regains his freedom. But it will not be without consequences. The manager will be dismissed. Probably his children cannot go to the university. Etc. Then the man tries to live within the truth, so Havel.

Truth is seen as the agreement of a statement with the facts in the view of academic philosophers. But is it the whole truth, so to speak? For instance, can we say that there is truth in life? I think that Havel makes clear that there is. Truth is also following your values and stick to what you stand for. Havel shows with a simple case how it works. And living within the truth is not restricted to people living under repression. Also in democratic countries it is often necessary to take an explicit stand. Burning a candle in the window on occasion of an action of solidarity, as is often done, is such a simple stand. And there are often events that make that you feel that you have to say: Now it’s enough. Now I cannot accept it any longer. Sometimes it becomes important to row against the current. Then there are always ways to protest and to follow your principles, as Havel has shown. To live within the truth as he called it. Havel himself was a clear example and it even made that he was elected president of his country, Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s essay can be find on http://vaclavhavel.cz/showtrans.php?cat=clanky&val=72_aj_clanky.html&typ=HTML