One world… one language?

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2009

The Rosetta StoneWhile we’re discussing matters of global cultural diversity, here’s an interesting essay on language extinction by a linguistics professor called John McWhorter [via MetaFilter; Rosetta Stone image fromWikimedia Commons].

Now, it’s pretty widely known that lesser-spoken languages are disappearing from the planet at a swift pace, thanks in no small part to the aftershocks of colonialism (whether imperial or commercial) and the increasing ubiquity of electronic media. And I expect many people, just like myself, would tend to assume that keeping those languages alive and spoken would be for the greater cultural good… but McWhorter begs to differ, and makes a convincing case for allowing English to complete its seemingly inevitable rise to the status of global lingua franca.

It’s a long piece, and I recommend you read it all… but here are a few highlights for the less patient:

[…] the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English.

[…]

Obviously, the discomfort with English “taking over” is due to associations with imperialism, first on the part of the English and then, of course, the American behemoth. We cannot erase from our minds the unsavory aspects of history. Nor should we erase from our minds the fact that countless languages—such as most of the indigenous languages of North America and Australia—have become extinct not because of something as abstract and gradual as globalization, but because of violence, annexation, and cultural extermination. But we cannot change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other language to replace the growing universality of English. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this particular horse is out of the barn.

Even if the world’s currencies are someday tied to the renmimbi, English’s head start as the lingua franca of popular culture, scholarship, and international discourse would ensure its linguistic dominance. To change this situation would require a great many centuries, certainly too long a span to figure meaningfully in our assessment of the place of English in world communications in our present moment.

[…]

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.

The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history. Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.

Lots of food for thought there. I find myself wanting some sort of compromise between McWhorter’s suggestion and the stance of the preservationists, in that I think it would be good to support the speaking and learning of minor langauages by their originating ethnic group where practical, but that attempting to reinstate marginal languages as the official tongue of business and government in places where they have long been out of primacy is wasteful, despite being motivated by good intentions.

Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at the situation in Wales, for example, where all official communications and public discourse must be presented in both English and Welsh, but where the percentage of Welsh speakers continues its decline year by year. Isn’t that a bit like keeping a patient on life-support long after quality of life has declined to negligable levels? Would the money not be better spent on documenting and preserving the language as a historical entity than forcing its use by people who neither want or need it?

Putting the boot on the other foot, though, we’ll likely have a technological fix for the difficulty of speaking across the language gap very soona voice-to-voice translation program for a certain two name-brand telephone handsets was made available to the US government earlier in the year, so it surely won’t be long before you can load up a commercially available version before heading off to distant lands. And if the difficulty of person-to-person communication is overcome, what reason do we have for not preserving the spoken languages that remain?

The logic of a single global language is probably what ensured its ubiquity in science fiction… but logic and emotion are uneasy bedfellows, especially in matters of global culture. What do you think – should be we be striving to keep languages alive, or letting them die with dignity?