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Sustaining Myth: How Languages Get and Lose their Mojo

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Throughout the history of modern linguistics runs the theme of ‘language myths’, folk beliefs about a language that linguists can see through thanks to our unique scientific expertise. The myths range from narratives about the language’s origin, to views about its cohesiveness and what constitutes good and bad usage, to the role of writing and of texts (broadly construed) and what they are linked to the souls of the language’s users. Far from being primitive falsehoods only worth dispelling, the myths often form part of a central ‘sustaining myth’ that connects directly to what gives a language ‘vitality’. Understanding the myth is an important aspect of the study of an endangered language. Analogously to the weakening and loss of religions, languages become endangered either when their practitioners are conquered and colonised by another people and their culture, or when a rival practice is perceived as offering a more vital sustaining myth. A broad range of language situations will be examined, and two ultimate questions addressed: How much (if any) insight can be gained from considering languages as, not just grammars and lexicons, but belief systems? To what extent can a religion or a language recover its vitality—its ‘mojo’—once its myth has ceased to sustain it?

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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