October 31, 2009


The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English (John McWhorter, Fall 2009, World Affairs)

[T]he going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.

That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word 'ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.

As someone who has taught himself languages as a hobby since childhood and is an academic linguist, I hardly rejoice when a language dies. Other languages can put concepts together in ways that make them more fascinatingly different from English than most of us are aware they can be. In the Berik language in New Guinea, for example, verbs have to mark the sex of the person you are affecting, the size of the object you are wielding, and whether it is light outside. (Kitobana means “gives three large objects to a male in the sunlight.”) Berik is doing fine for now, but is probably one of the languages we won’t see around in 2109.

Assuming that we can keep 6,000 languages alive is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots.

All that will remain are English, Spanish, Arabic and, for awhile, Mandarin.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 31, 2009 6:53 AM
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