January 11, 2005

AMERENGLISH--IT'S THE METRIC LANGUAGE:

For whom the chopper lands: For the aborigines of the Sentinel Islands, the last stone-age people to resist contact with the world, an Indian Coast Guard helicopter landing on their shores seemed a direr threat than the tsunami: it appeared as an exterminating angel. The Sentinelese, for the time being, have kept the chopper at bay. Others are not so fortunate. (Spengler. 1/10/05, Asia Times)

"Send not to know for whom the chopper lands: it lands for thee," a modern John Donne might have written. Who is less rational, the aboriginals of the Andaman Sea or today's Europeans? The former are fighting to keep their culture, while the latter are liquidating theirs, first of all by failing to reproduce (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003). Our actions seem more rational than those of the Sentinelese because we live at a greater distance from the existential boundary. The Sentinelese live in wariness of the next anthropologist to step out of the bush. Remote by contrast seems the day in which other people will inhabit the hills and valleys of our land, and our language will be preserved only in libraries, in Franz Rosenzweig's memorable phrase.

Thousands of ethnicities face extinction. "The world's languages are disappearing at the rate of one a fortnight," the London Economist began a December 29 necrology for the world's 6,800 languages. That is a cautious estimate; other sources put the rate of disappearance at two per week. "Already well over 400 of the total of 6,800 languages are close to extinction, with only a few elderly speakers left. The list makes melancholy reading ... Worse, probably 3,000 or so others are also endangered." These for the most part are the tongues of South American native tribes, lesser African peoples or Pacific aboriginals. There is a morbid fascination in perusing the complete list at www.enthnologue.com.

"Pessimists reckon that in 100 years' time 90% of the world's languages will be gone, and that a couple of centuries from now the world may be left with only 200 tongues," observed The Economist, in a plaidoyer for funding to preserve the grammar and vocabulary of doomed idioms. [...]

Some civilizations simply will give up and wave in the chopper.


Pessimists?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2005 11:08 PM
Comments

The languages of failed, surpassed cultures disappear for the same reasons and by the same processes at do their other technologies. Steel works better than stone, so homo sapiens switches to steel--it works the same way with words. Homo non sapiens sits there chipping flakes from his arrow points while trying to hang on to his old ways of talking and thinking.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 12, 2005 5:36 AM

The languages of failed, surpassed cultures disappear for the same reasons and by the same processes at do their other technologies. Steel works better than stone, so homo sapiens switches to steel--it works the same way with words. Homo non sapiens sits there chipping flakes from his arrow points while trying to hang on to his old ways of talking and thinking.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 12, 2005 5:37 AM

A mulitiplicity of languages, like a multiplicity of currencies or forms of commercial and property law, is more of a hindrance than a help.

Posted by: Bart at January 12, 2005 6:54 AM

Tower of Babel. You make perfect sense, but we aren't in the realm of sense here. Best to let unaided evolution handle this one and pretend to be wistful when Bugabugaboo finally disappears. Just about every conscious effort to hasten linguistic and cultural demise brings on a reaction, often a strong or even dangerous one. Aboriginals prefer social pathology to giving up their mythical heritage. No sane person in Scotland worried about their awful language while it was spoken, but now that no one does, it is a totem of regional dissention. There can't be a more inaccessible, cacophonous, useless language than Finnish, but they would die to a man to save it. And look at the ressurection of Hebrew in Israel--real rational, that.

Besides, the argument that cultural differences are inefficient or divisive is a bit of a leap of faith. You can argue the opposite. If everyone spoke English, we'd probably have wars over spelling.

Posted by: Peter B at January 12, 2005 8:58 AM

Peter,

The choice of Hebrew arose out of the need for Jews around the world to have a common language. Yiddish and Ladino were too closely identified with specific regions of the world, and 'ethnic' factions to be useful. English, which is today the effective lingua franca of Israel, was not in the kind of ascendancy it is today.

Educated people in Europe 3 centuries ago all communicated in Latin, today they do so in English.

Posted by: Bart at January 12, 2005 10:44 AM

Rudy Wiebe once made the point that language encompasses your spiritual (and I guess physical) understanding. You just cannot explain some concepts to some people in their own language. The concepts do not exist.

English has "anglicized" everything it ever contacted. There is very little you cannot express in English. (Though it doesn't have 15 words for shit like the Low German of my grandmother!)

Posted by: Randall Voth at January 12, 2005 11:14 AM

Rudy Wiebe once made the point that language encompasses your spiritual (and I guess physical) understanding. You just cannot explain some concepts to some people in their own language. The concepts do not exist.

English has "anglicized" everything it ever contacted. There is very little you cannot express in English. (Though it doesn't have 15 words for shit like the Low German of my grandmother!)

Posted by: Randall Voth at January 12, 2005 11:15 AM

Bart:

So they chose a language none of them spoke and no one else in the world did? Don't get me wrong, I think it is a wonderful story, but rational and efficient? English may not have been as ascendent as now, but it surely was more so than Hebrew.

Latin was indeed the lingua franca of educated Europeans. It died out and the others didn't.

Posted by: Peter B at January 12, 2005 4:57 PM

Everybody could read Hebrew and everyone could sound out the letters as Hebrew and Ladino are both written in Hebrew characters. Literacy is and has been a requirement of Jewish prayer for about 2500 years.

Posted by: Bart at January 13, 2005 7:28 AM
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