Missions: Killing Cultures & Saving Languages

The irony is deep but not delicious: the world’s most important database for dead and dying languages — Ethnologue — began as a missionary project and continues to pursue (Christian) religious goals.  Despite the religious colonialism and imperialism inherent in missionary projects, academic linguists concede that Ethnologue is one positive that has emerged from the extensive cultural wreckage.

Over at Intelligent Life, Laura Spinney recounts the origins of Ethnologue, its history, and current status:

Many linguists are uncomfortable with Ethnologue’s missionary roots. Indeed, missionaries have long been blamed for linguicide for the way they impose “killer” languages such as English and Spanish on speakers of minority languages, says Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a linguist who is now retired from the University of Roskilde in Denmark….Though academic linguists are suspicious of SIL’s religious goals, many concede that the Ethnologue is the best tool of its kind.

It appears that academic and non-missionary linguists not only rely on Ethnologue — they also contribute to it, and therein lies what I consider to be an ethical problem:

Would SIL International ever consider ceding Ethnologue, so that it could become a linguistic enterprise without a religious agenda? This has been discussed, says Lewis, but mostly outside the organisation. The problem is, Ethnologue was built and is maintained with the help of a large number of volunteers and with money provided by Christian organisations. “As I look at the academic world, I don’t see any other institution that could support something of this magnitude over this period of time,” he says.

This puts non-missionizing linguists, which means just about all professional linguists, between a rock and a hard place.

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2 thoughts on “Missions: Killing Cultures & Saving Languages

  1. Amess

    The “non missionizing linguist” of which you speak is a myth. Culture spreads. Do you propose to isolate remote people groups from the rest of the world forever? Would you prefer that they pick up, say, Atheism or Islam instead of Christianity? (it is fine if you would, but best to express this at the outset). Would you use the term, “cultural wreckage” to describe the dramatic forced cultural change that has visited, say, Midwestern America for example? Or do only certain people groups get to be left alone? For some cultures, it seems it is “good” to drag them into cultural upheaval (the West in general, for example) and for other cultures, it seems that it is “evil” to drag them into cultural upheaval. Well, which is it? Is it “cultural wreckage” when someone is exposed to the Kardashians or Hollywood? Bottom line is this: everyone brings their culture and their expectations with them. It is exactly like Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Once you observe it, you change it forever.

  2. Cris Post author

    It’s best to respect cultural differences rather than attempt to impose cultural change, or alien beliefs, on others with active proselytizing. Herein lies the difference between missionaries and linguists/anthropologists. My only preference between Christianity, Islam, and Atheism is that none of those be brought in from outside, and none of those be expressed or taught because these are supposedly superior to indigenous traditions. For many centuries, missionaries have been agents of cultural destruction.

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