Making Emotional Sense of Language Death Through the Literary Arts

By Sylvie Gagnon.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Dorian (1998) explained the importance of language ideologies and attitudes of the general public to language change and demise. The transformation of these attitudes which are ingrained in the public’s psyche is crucial for the maintenance of lesser spoken languages. Crystal (2000) also insists on the vital role of public opinion in the acceptance of language variety and suggests that works of art may raise public awareness about language maintenance through the emotions it can create. Three renown writers, Pinter (British), Atwood (Canadian) and Malouf (Australian) have explored the significance of language death in works of art. Pinter’s play, “Mountain Language” (1988) Atwood’s poem, “Marsh languages” (1995) and Malouf’s short story, “The only speaker of his tongue” (1985) have adopted different angles to look at language demise. Pinter explores its political aspects, whereas Malouf slips into the mind of the last speaker of a dying language. Atwood’s poem, on its part, describes the last moments of the linguistic system itself. The analysis of their works seeks to detail how artistic representations of language death have the ability to touch the emotions of the readership. The tragic evocation of the end of a language as the beginning of silence, the potentially violent nature of languages’ disappearance, the insignificance of the world resulting from language loss, as well as the sense of solitude and incommunicability created in the examined literary texts facilitate an emotional connection with the readership. The maintenance of languages in danger of extinction cannot be achieved without public education, as does the protection of endangered animal species. By creating empathy with language decline, works of art will impact positively on public awareness about language ecology.

Keywords: Literary Arts, Language Death, Meaning and Representation, Language and Arts

The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp.61-68. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 511.609KB).

Dr. Sylvie Gagnon

Programme Director, School of Languages and Cultures, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Dr Sylvie Gagnon is programme director of the French section in the School of languages and cultures in Christchurch, New Zealand. She is interested in the literary arts as a writer and a researcher. She is currently working on a novel about language death and is studying the representation of minority languages in a corpus of the French literary arts.


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