What happens when a language dies?

Check out this repost article by Alex Rose in Obit Magazine.


Lost in Translation

 By: Alex Rose

“The single most notable characteristic of English,” writes Bill Bryson, “is its deceptive complexity.”

As native speakers, we might not feel this rings true. But consider for a moment just a few of its incalculable peculiarities and minutiae. The fact that the phrase “I could care less” means the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” That words like sanction, cleave and betray can indicate both a thing and its opposite. That its grammar is a mash-up of incompatible conventions, spawning a trove of syntactical anomalies such as the adjective-noun reversals in “attorney general” and “heir apparent.” That its spelling seemingly has as many exceptions to the rules as there are rules.

Indeed, English is a veritable cabinet of wonders, a palimpsest of criss-crossing lexical histories, no less than a modern linguistic juggernaut. So how is it that in the age of globalization, where information is everywhere being condensed into ever-slimmer, more efficient packages, accommodating shorter and shorter attention spans, such a strange, rootless, lumbering, Frankenstein of a language could manage to “go viral”?

The British writer Robert McCrum believes he has the answer. In Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, McCrum offers a detailed portrait of this phenomenon and a historically informed explanation as to how it arose. English, we learn, is the most widespread language in the world, not only at the present time, but in all of history. It  contains by far the most extensive vocabulary of any language ever spoken, with more than 600,000 words listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, plus at least as many scientific and technical terms. Over 400 million people currently speak English as a first language, while 300 million others speak it as a second — in fact, there are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States. It has proven the most miscegenated language of all time, having been cobbled together from dialects as disparate as fifth century Germanic tribal tongues, Old Norse from the Vikings, early French from the Normans, then retrofit with elements of Latin and Greek, all the while dropping great swaths of its vocabulary and grammar and patching the gaps with little flourishes of Dutch, Arabic, Spanish, or whatever it happens to come into contact with.

But everything changed in the 20th century. With the rise of consumer culture, a global information network and an international marketplace, a universal language was needed, and it wasn’t going to be Esperanto. In a few short decades, English became the lingua franca of international trade, as well of science, medicine, air travel, and over 80 percent of the World Wide Web, taking along with it the values and perspectives of late capitalism. “Anglo-American culture and its language,” writes McCrum, “have become as much a part of global consciousness as MS-DOS or the combustion engine.”

Compelling though it may be, the bulk of McCrum’s argument rests upon a conviction that English qua English offers a unique way of viewing and classifying the world, a theory I imagine most linguists would dismiss as unscientific. “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words,” he writes, “and just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought.” Does he really mean to suggest that no intellectual life had existed in Europe before the Church of England?

The real problem, though, is that for all his enthusiasm for the English language and its myriad idiosyncrasies, McCrum sees no downside to its unprecedented spread. The correlation between the rate at which the world’s languages are vanishing — on average, one every 10 days — and the rate at which English is infiltrating the globe, is lost on him. In this way, McCrum can come off less like a popular historian than a missionary, touting the influence of English as proof of its superiority, while failing to acknowledge what is lost as a result.

It is no doubt true that English (or at least the culture English represents) offers a host of benefits to many far-flung communities — access to international trade, exposure to vaccines and antibiotics, plus the comforts and conveniences of modern technology — yet it almost necessarily comes at the expense of local traditions. As a result, 40 percent of the world’s 6,000-odd languages are currently endangered.

The subject of language death is as fascinating as it is fraught with controversy. For one thing, there is the complex matter of why an indigenous community might choose to abandon its mother tongue for English (or Spanish or French or Portuguese, as the case may be). We can’t presume to know the reasons behind such a decision, or whether it represents a legitimate decision at all. Perhaps the group is merely responding to outside pressure, or driven to assimilation by necessity.

Then there’s the deeper question of what constitutes a choice in the first place. The general consensus among linguists is that language is a “self-organizing” system, one in which human will and intention play little to no role. (“Change in a language is inevitable,” asserts Lyle Campbell in Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, “and this makes complaints against language change both futile and silly.”) In this sense, language death could be seen as just an extreme form of language change — a natural process that has been going on for thousands of years. Is Globish, then, simply the latest stage in the evolution of language? If so, what right have linguistic anthropologists to interfere?

Yet other factors must be considered. A strong case for preservation has been provided by K. David Harrison in his illuminating book, When Languages Die. Essentially, his argument hinges on three main concerns.

One is that language shows us how the mind works, and the loss of linguistic diversity means permanently shutting the door on a vast wealth of potential scientific knowledge. The linguist Noam Chomsky put it best when he wrote, “by studying the properties of natural languages, their structure, organization, and use, we may hope to learn something about human nature; something significant, if it is true that human cognitive capacity is the truly distinctive and most remarkable characteristic of the species.”

Take Urarina, a language spoken in a remote Amazonian jungle in Peru. Before its discovery, linguists had never encountered a dialect with an object-verb-subject word order. Had its speakers died out before it was documented, linguists might have come to the mistaken conclusion that the human brain was simply not wired to learn such an odd structure naturally. The same could be said for the extremely bizarre language of Pirahã, which is said to possess no relative clauses, no words for individual numbers and the smallest repertoire of phonemes of any language in the world (though Hawaiian comes close). Dialects such as these provide scientists with a virtual map of the limits and possibilities of human cognition; the opportunity to learn what we can before it’s too late is rapidly slipping away. Consider the Bororo people of old Brazil, who tell time by gesturing to different parts of the body, each of which correspond to a different position of the sun in the sky. Would we have imagined such a thing possible if we hadn’t been there to witness it?

Second, knowledge is often embedded in language itself. When a culture abandons its native tongue for a monolithic, multi-national language like Spanish, English or French, centuries worth of biological and environmental observations are suddenly and permanently erased. The Kayapo people, for instance, have developed 85 different words for “bee,” each specifying minute differences in flight patterns, mating rituals, habitat, nest structures, and quality of wax. Were their language to die, their rich, apian knowledge would die with it. Similarly, the word for “yak” in Tuvan can indicate any number of a yak’s qualities, including color, size, sex, age, and fertility, simply through the inflection of vowels. A dialect of the North-East Ambae island people called Lolovoli is grammatically embedded with information about their geography, such the relative size, elevation, distance and preferred means of transport to and from the island’s various sites, much of which is communicated through suffixes alone. If we look carefully at the way information is built into a language, we learn not only about the speakers and their unique view of the world, we also learn about the world itself.

Finally, a language is a storehouse of a culture’s mythic and historical lineage. The stories passed from one generation to the next through oral tradition are irretrievably lost the moment the last speaker of that language dies. One need look no further than the Greek myths to get a sense of the legacy a tradition can leave behind. Consider what Western civilization would look like if deprived of the Olympian deities (Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Dionysus, Poseidon, Ares, Hermes, Aphrodite) as well as the mortals (Narcissus, Endymion, Pygmalion, Perseus, Electra, Ulysses) whose legends have inspired countless retellings over the centuries. Is it not humbling to imagine how many of the world’s tales will never make it to the next generation?

The obvious counter-argument is that these examples are all fairly abstract. It’s difficult to place a value on theoretical knowledge in the first place, no less so when the beneficiaries of that knowledge are academic linguists rather than the indigenous populations they’re studying. This is why preservationists are routinely met with so much criticism: Who are we to encourage communities to preserve their heritage if it means preventing them from gaining access to the amenities of the industrialized world? It’s not as if there’s a cost-to-benefit spreadsheet we can draw up to assess what is lost versus what is gained when it comes to human values like knowledge, tradition and beauty.

Unfortunately, these very values are what’s at stake.

So it is that languages are as different from one another as the communities that speak them, or for that matter, the individuals themselves. Some dialects are spare and economic while others are prodigious and overstuffed. Some are nomadic, plucking bits of corrupted vocabulary from a thousand fields; some are sedentary, tilling the same weather-beaten roots one harvest after another. Linguists would do well to recognize that it is no more silly to be concerned about the loss of this diversity than it is to be concerned about any endangered cultural tradition, whether the art of letter writing, Nepalese folk dancing, or West African drumming.

That said, those who fear the homogenization of the world’s languages might find solace in the fact that communities determine customs, not the other way around. Suppose the worst is true, that all of our currently endangered dialects will indeed die out, that what makes them unique will be lost in translation and that globalization will whitewash the world’s dazzling potpourri of traditions within the next few decades. We can at least rest assured that wherever there are communities there is culture, and there will be forms of expression with enough strangeness and novelty to distinguish one group from another. Already, “Globish” has spawned an eclectic variety of linguistic zygotes, such as “Englasian,” a blend of mostly English vocabulary and Chinese and Hindi syntax, “Jafaikan,” an urban patois spoken by Jamaican teens in downtown London, and “Konglish,” an English/Korean creole, to name just a few. Idiosyncrasy, after all, will find a way.

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