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October 29, 2009 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?
posted by Gyan (148 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
from article: While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers.

Is this true?
posted by koeselitz at 10:03 PM on October 29, 2009


While we're at it, let's y'know .. simplify this one language, to remove unhealthy concepts and make things easier. People spend too much time thinking about extraneous stuff like freedom and what not.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:04 PM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


1 speak would be double plus ungood.
posted by Netzapper at 10:06 PM on October 29, 2009 [21 favorites]


Well, I know that it would certainly make it a little more awkward when I want make snarky comments in Ter Sami to my one other friend who knows Ter Sami about all those obnoxious out-of-towners.
posted by banannafish at 10:08 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


C3PO was fluent in over 6 million forms of communication... but they still had Standard.
posted by d1rge at 10:11 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, as a general response:

I appreciate the idea that it will not be possible to keep every language alive, and I know that anyone who thinks they can actually prevent what John McWhorty here calls "language death" is probably barking up the wrong tree. But my experience with linguists – I am not one myself – is that most of those linguists who are working with dying languages are laboring not to keep the language alive but to preserve a knowledge of it, codified in books and essays, within the human lexicon. Maybe somewhere linguists are standing over schoolchildren insisting that they learn and speak the language of their forbears; maybe somewhere linguists are enforcing use of indigenous languages in order to make sure that they stay alive. But this isn't happening in any play I've ever heard of. All the linguists I know of, while they aren't happy when they watch the last speaker of a language die, aren't immediately jumping on that person's grandson or granddaughter and saying: you must learn this language! Rather linguists seem more interested in writing down the particulars of the language and studying its morphology – and I don't think John McWhorty is arguing against that. So if there's an actual school of linguistics which he's really arguing against, I've never heard of it.

Then again, there might be; again, I'm not linguist.
posted by koeselitz at 10:12 PM on October 29, 2009 [12 favorites]


Esperanto, everyone!

C'mon, it'll work this time!
posted by IAmBroom at 10:12 PM on October 29, 2009 [9 favorites]


Y'know, English is REALLY hard to learn. Why don't we use a language with actual grammar rules, simple structure, and an easy to understand syntax? Malay comes to mind. Or Esperanto?
posted by strixus at 10:12 PM on October 29, 2009


"When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
posted by hermitosis at 10:12 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Who argues that we must preserve each pod of whales because of the particular songs they happen to have developed?

I'd be OK with saving the whales' culture. The idea that whales have developed unique languages is amazingly awesome.

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.

What these two examples of cultural change have in common is that they involve forceful domination by a foreign culture. Both Native Americans and African Americans were deliberately and tragically separated from their shared language and social customs. These are not good examples of a people retaining their culture in the face of hegemony.

We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history.

Is that equitable or even possible? Why are we forced to consider the question of language spread, which carries a heavy connotation of cultural imperialism, independently from other instances of imperialism?

And there's no such thing as inherent evil, you essentialist, a-historical prescriptivist.
posted by dosterm at 10:13 PM on October 29, 2009 [11 favorites]


Personally, I think it would be nice if people just understood their language better. That's why I keep lobbying for teaching children Greek and Latin in schools.

</pipedream>
posted by koeselitz at 10:14 PM on October 29, 2009 [25 favorites]


koeselitz: I just watched the Maysles' documentary Salesman the other day, and there's a great scene in it where a salesman with a Boston accent is telling a hispanic housewife in Florida something along the lines of, "We can take orders." Of course, with his accent, it comes out "otters" and the lady is, understandably, very confused indeed.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:14 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


strixus: Y'know, English is REALLY hard to learn. Why don't we use a language with actual grammar rules, simple structure, and an easy to understand syntax? Malay comes to mind. Or Esperanto?

Or better yet, scrap English and Malay, take the easiest parts from each, and make a whole new language.

One of the premises of McWhorty's argument – that English as we know it will survive as a lingua franca – seems up for debate. In a hundred years, I have a feeling that nine out of ten 'English-speakers' on this planet will speak a dialect that few of us today would understand at all.
posted by koeselitz at 10:16 PM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Erm, koeselitz, the author's name is McWhorter.

Clever title for this post, BTW.

The author assumes a widespread sympathy for endangered languages but this is very far from universal. I've met French people who were openly contemptuous of Occitan or any suggestion that it should be preserved, and I think this is a rather common attitude in many countries.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:23 PM on October 29, 2009


In Herzog's semi-recent Encounters at the end of the world, William Jirsa speaks very interestingly on this very topic... cool post...sad realities.

"It is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where Tree huggers and Whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable... while no one embraces the last speakers of a language."
-Werner Herzog
posted by infinite intimation at 10:23 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


IAmBroom earns double-plus favorite for first mention of Esperanto in this thread
posted by philip-random at 10:26 PM on October 29, 2009


One of the premises of McWhorty's argument – that English as we know it will survive as a lingua franca – seems up for debate.

Considering 'English as we know it' has been around for all of, what, ten years? Yeah, it's slightly debatable.

How do you save a lang-u-age like English? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:29 PM on October 29, 2009


I didn't know there were more than 200 languages.
posted by CrazyJoel at 10:32 PM on October 29, 2009


Sys Rq: koeselitz: I just watched the Maysles' documentary Salesman the other day, and there's a great scene in it where a salesman with a Boston accent is telling a hispanic housewife in Florida something along the lines of, "We can take orders." Of course, with his accent, it comes out "otters" and the lady is, understandably, very confused indeed.

Yeah, I can see that. And I can understand how a guy in New York (at Columbia) might think this, being surrounded by 'indigenous' accents that are somewhat variant.

Meanwhile, out here in Colorado, where there's an influx of immigrant's that plenty large per capita, I've never really seen that happen.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence both ways; is there any way to empirically ground the statement "immigrants who are trying to learn english usually can't communicate with their doctors or the teachers of their children?"
posted by koeselitz at 10:32 PM on October 29, 2009


I always thought it was dumb for inanimate objects to have gender. Why would anyone think that a table is female?
posted by CrazyJoel at 10:35 PM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'd be interested in hearing some counterpoints to the essay instead of the insults and vague fear-mongering about a 1984 New World Order. The article seems to make some good points. Why exactly is language loss a tragedy in itself? He addresses the various arguments usually offered (cultural preservation, aesthetic value) and finds them lacking or without support.


Y'know, English is REALLY hard to learn. Why don't we use a language with actual grammar rules, simple structure, and an easy to understand syntax? Malay comes to mind. Or Esperanto?


The article addresses this, which makes me think that people in the thread talking about Esperanto didn't read it. He answers your objection on a theoretical and practical ground: he notes that English actually is simpler to learn for various reasons and more adaptable than any other major language that might realistically be a contender for a world language (unlike Malay), and that of those major languages English has such a head start that it's extremely unlikely any other language will overtake it in the near future.

One of the premises of McWhorty's argument – that English as we know it will survive as a lingua franca

I don't think that's his premise, that English *as we know it* will be the lingua franca. He never says that. He just says that English is so widespread and with such a head start that it will be almost impossible for another language to overtake it. He actually does offer several different scenarios about what the world language situation might look like in the future with English as the de facto world language, and his talk about language change indicates that he would not necessariyl disagree with you that the English the average person on the street is speaking in 2109 might not be what we use today.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:36 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq: Considering 'English as we know it' has been around for all of, what, ten years?

English as you know it has been around since you were born or first exposed to it. English as I know it has been around since I was born. The ways in which you speak English are ultimately unique to your region of the country / world, the vocabulary you were raised with, the time in which you live, etc. This is not unique to English as a language - languages change. All the time.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:36 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have a feeling that nine out of ten 'English-speakers' on this planet will speak a dialect that few of us today would understand at all

Mate, I'm already quite capable of doing that. Standard English is something I reserve for you foreigners, and when I want to sound well-educated, as do most people.

Those who have an interest in being as widely understood as possible, or speaking whatever the prestige dialect is, will continue to do so as they do now, even if that dialect or language is fairly different from the way it is at present.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:37 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think it's strange that this is a controversial point. The framing is a little unfortunate because the author isn't advocating for the use of one language, nor does he actually believe such a thing will ever come to pass (except maybe in the realms of diplomacy, business, etc.); he's just stating a trend and recommending that we assess it pragmatically instead of wringing our hands over an inevitable process. Recording rare languages is about the best we can do, because preservation efforts are at best infeasible and at worst paternalistic.

Why are we forced to consider the question of language spread, which carries a heavy connotation of cultural imperialism, independently from other instances of imperialism?

Because the possibility for the remediation of the effects of language spread is much more remote than for any other kind of imperialism, and if you accept his argument that a culture does not depend on the continued existence of any one language for its survival, then linguistic imperialism differs from other kinds in that it has no discernible negative effects on a culture that will certainly reshape their use of the new language to suit their needs.

And there's no such thing as inherent evil, you essentialist, a-historical prescriptivist.

With respect to the first part of this sentence, I think that's the point of the article. As for the second, you seem to have used terms precisely opposite to every position he takes. He argues that language is not an essential expression of a culture, and he makes frequent reference to the ways in which languages morph over time, the acceptance of which in my mind is the hallmark of a descriptivist. Why did you use the words you did?
posted by invitapriore at 10:39 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


There are six billion (not counting bi-linguals) spoken languages. Even if everyone magically learned the same language one day, within a couple of generations there would be pockets that were incomprehensible to each other. Look at Arabic: they can all read the same language, but the vowel shifts from the west end of the Arabic world to the east end are such that they can't understand each other.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:42 PM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


Not necessarily evil but I think it would be counter productive. Read the wikipedia entry on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Walk through your local non-English speaking communities and observe how many sole proprietorships there are; linguistic divides fuel entrepreneurialism.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 10:44 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000....
Add and theorize.

..(commercials)

No job for the Space Goat.
posted by Mblue at 10:51 PM on October 29, 2009


I thought it was an awful article. The premise was pretty bad in itself . . . would it be "inherently evil" if all species of salamanders but one were to disappear? "Inherent evil" isn't really the issue, is it? It's not even a particularly good question. There are lots of picky points to argue with here:

Not long ago, 33 of the FBI’s 12,000 employees spoke Arabic, as did 6 of the 1,000 employees at the American Embassy in Iraq. How can we significantly improve that situation is a good question.

Well for one, we could begin by actually offering courses in many of the languages for which speakers are needed. I live in a big city, speak lots of languages and suffer a lot of heartache because it's nearly impossible for me to keep some of them up - despite having one of the country's ten biggest universities (in terms of enrolment) down the road. I personally speak three national languages in which courses are never (or very rarely, and only one year's worth) offered at this school. That isn't right. We could also mandate that kids learn TWO additional languages in schools, which is pretty normal for most university-bound Europeans. As it turns out, only 1 in 4 Americans can hold a conversation in a foreign language. That isn't right, either.

It’s hard to learn Arabic, and not only because it’s hard to pick up any new language. Iraqi Arabic is actually one of several “dialects” of Arabic that is as different from the others as one Romance language is from another. Using Iraqi Arabic even in a country as close as Egypt would be like sitting down at a trattoria in Milan and ordering lunch in Portuguese.

This doesn't explain why it "hard to learn Arabic." Because its dialects are as different from each other as Romance languages? That's not much of a reason. People still learn French, Italian, and Spanish. No one's asking Arabic learners to understand every Arabic dialect.

Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless foreign-language self-teaching sets that are about as useful as the tonics and elixirs that passed as medicine a century ago and leave their students with anemic vocabularies and paltry grammar that are of little use in real conversation.

Yes, "shelves groan." It's wonderful personification, but this is a ridiculous statement, and I can't see much reason for it to exist within the article, except as a kind of low-grade propaganda serving to bias readers against the idea of learning languages themselves as akin to using snake oil to cure cancer. It's not easy to learn a language oneself, but it's done.

Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers.

I don't know about that last part. I arrived here when I was 19 or so without any knowledge of English. I took a college-level ESL for one semester. Yet here I am - do you think my English is so inadequate? Since learning English, I've also learned the really fiendishly difficult Hungarian language, and Romanian, which is one of the stranger Romance languages. I'm not perfect in either, but I've lived in Romania and Hungary (each) multiple times for months and can certainly handle any conversation that comes my way - this includes talking to doctors and people in emergency situations using special jargon - electricians, plumbers and so on. It isn't that hard. And I know many people like me. I'm not special and I'm not a linguist or someone with special knowledge which would have made it easier for me to learn a language. I suspect this line . . .

"most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States . . ."

. . . is another purposeful deceipt. I know Bosnians, Mexicans, Vietnamese (etc) who live in cities with big enough communities that they never really try to improve their English beyond a pretty basic level - they live among people who speak their same native language. (I can say the same for Americans in places like Bosnia, Hungary, Romania.) That's fine, though many of them eventually do learn the language pretty well. And those are the ones who aren't really trying! Anyone who does "actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States" isn't going to have a problem talking to teachers or doctors for long.

Sangermaine wrote:
He answers your objection on a theoretical and practical ground: he notes that English actually is simpler to learn for various reasons and more adaptable than any other major language that might realistically be a contender for a world language (unlike Malay), and that of those major languages English has such a head start that it's extremely unlikely any other language will overtake it in the near future.

English has a big headstart for sure, but I question how many times McWhorter's really had to learn a language, judging from his comments. I've studied Russian, Romanian and German - just to name languages from three different branches of the Indo-European family. They all have crazed verb conjugations and nouns classified by gender - factors McWhorter names as complicating the ability of a person to learn to speak them. But they were a *lot* easier to learn than English. And a *lot* easier to learn than Hungarian, which has no gender (not even separate words for "he" and "she," and no real word for "it!") and very consistent verbal conjugations. So what the fuck is he talking about? I think those are things that simply seem worrisome, at first, to English speakers . . . fretting over whether it's "le stylo" or "la stylo." But in reality, those are factors that tend to become quite natural quite rapidly. The hardest thing I've ever had to learn in any language is the weird analytical (in the linguistic sense) breakdown of things in English - "Won't you come in out of the rain?," "He gave in to her and got out" - things like that, or "Make up, make out, make it in, make at (being something, for instance), make that, make as if . . ." Freakishly tough - give me a Hungarian verbal conjugation book or a list of French words to memorize with their articles any day. Most non-native English speakers who've learned English and a few other languages different from their native one will generally tell you English is the toughest. It's primary advantage is really only its ubiquity.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:54 PM on October 29, 2009 [24 favorites]


Nu? A deigeh hob ich?

Feh.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:56 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.

Notice how the discomfort with the prospect in itself increases when you* imagine the world's language being, say, Mandarin.

* where "you" = idiots who'd like to see every language but English die
posted by Zed at 10:56 PM on October 29, 2009


I have to say, as a linguist, that I find it hard to see what McWhorter is getting at here. He starts with language death, takes an obligatory swipe at Sapir-Whorf, concedes that languages with an extensive literature and a symbolic tie to a national culture are unlikely to actually go away, and then nonetheless raises the specter of a monolingual world. Where is the rhetoric going? I don't see it.

Now, I've never been a big fan of strong Sapir-Whorf, the idea that your language determines what you can and can't think, but if we discard the woo-woo "your language is your culture is your soul!" business for a moment, it's pretty clear that a language does embed a huge amount of information about the circumstances it's used in and the place it came from. Romani has layers of borrowed vocabulary that show what historical documents do not, namely where the Roma came from, how they got where they are, and when they were at various points between. Vanishing languages of Siberian reindeer herders have separate, short words for reindeer of various ages and sexes because it's important to be able to describe what has happened to your herd, or what you'd like to do to it, without tedious long lists of adjectives. American English's two dozen terms for breasts hint at both the interest that they hold and the care with which the topic must be approached in American culture. Isolated Amazonian languages probably name species and taxa that Western (Euro-Anglo-American) culture would desperately love to know about. And every learnable language tells us something irreplaceable about the mental machinery that somehow gives practically every six-year-old child an intuition for what can and cannot be said, which accords abundantly with every other native speaker's intuition, even though a rough consensus on an explicit description of the same grammar may take decades of concentration and argument.

I have no qualms about the world sharing a language. In a century there will be people all over the world mixing up Spanish, English, and Mandarin in many fascinating combinations, and after another century there will be a consistent way of mixing them, and three or four centuries after that the world's snoots and schoolmarms will finally be forced to concede that it is a real language in its own right, and not just "English 太 loco". I don't think so-called pure English will instantly vanish when that happens, nor Russian nor Japanese; diglossia has happened often enough before. But by the same token, I do hope we can get as much as possible documented of as many other languages as possible, particularly the ones that aren't as economically useful (read: likely to remain appealing to successive generations), because each one of them is as beautiful and meaningful as one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. So if you happen to know any speakers of an endangered language, or have any research funds available ... you know what I'm gonna ask, so I'll leave it at that.

And if you figure out who or what McWhorter is arguing against, lemme know about that, too.
posted by eritain at 11:01 PM on October 29, 2009 [24 favorites]


This would be no problem if everyone had Star Trek's Universal Translator.

Failing that, when global warming turns the Earth into Waterworld we can all opt for Portugreek.
posted by bwg at 11:08 PM on October 29, 2009


Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?
of course not. let's all speak mongolian.

moronic question
posted by krautland at 11:48 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


His whole argument is pretty infelicitous. Like others have said above in one way or another, what exactly is he getting at?!

It also bugs me that he has set up this binary false construct of the 1-language-to-rule-them-all. The reality is that English is the third most spoken language in the world (behind Chinese (Mandarin) and Castilian Spanish, and ahead of Hindi and Arabic). Additionally, this is simply a measure of native speakers. You start getting into most widely used language, most common lingua franca, most widely used lingua franca, and this Top 5 + Friends start to move around in an ever-shifting geo-political mess of power structure.

The reality of one language is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. It is more probable that we will end up with a world where most humans are multilingual, with one or more of their native or learned languages being in the current Top 5, or possibly even a Top 3. I don't even understand why this one-language world is even suggested...

"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."

Really? Why? Cause now I'm pretty convinced that this article is just Academic Hypothetical Trolling Filter.*

Also, for the record, there are 6,909 spoken languages today. McWhorter left out a few.

*This comment is NOT directed at the OP. The post is good, the article is interesting, and there's certainly lots here to talk about.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:49 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


he notes that English actually is simpler to learn for various reasons

Yeah, and I don't buy his reasons. Not for a cent or a peso. I know multiple people who have learned English as a second, third, or fourth language. Several as children in bi-lingual households. And most of them hate speaking and using English for anything more than informal communication because it is SO easy to screw up simple meanings and rules. English is NOT easy, English is not simple, and while it may be a growing global language, it is, for the most part, due to economic and scocio-political reasons, not for ease of use or speed of learning.
posted by strixus at 11:54 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting article. I was surprised to agree with most of it. Though I think there are some points were he needs to question his own political assumptions.

"Few people not involved with nation building would be inclined to such a violent dedication to learning a new language"

But why are so few of the worlds indigenous people involved in nation building? This brings us to...

"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."

Most people in indigenous groups do not "seek membership" in modern societies, they are forced to join them ether directly by the state or indirectly through destruction or confiscation of their native environments. And when they do join these modern socities, they are at the bottom rungs of the social ladder with very little political power. Which answers the question of why so few indigenous people are involved in nation building.

So while I agree with McWhorter that the loss of a language in isolation is not necessarily a bad thing, this loss is usually a symptom of larger social injustices. So while the exctintion of Eyak might not be that much of a big deal when looked at in isolation, it only happened because westerner's have already been persecuting the native people of Alaska foe centuries.
posted by afu at 11:56 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have to say, as another linguist, I have no trouble seeing what McWhorter is getting at. He's saying, "We linguists benefit from language diversity--it's our object of study, after all! But is language diversity really good for the world? Maybe fewer languages, or one, would be better; what's more, maybe a world with dramatically fewer languages is inevitable." In fact, I wonder if this article was written for a linguistics audience, but ended up published somewhere else.

Oh, and if I may be forgiven for self-linking, I wrote a blog post a while (holy cow, five years!) ago on this subject.
posted by The Tensor at 12:01 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Zed, that was the biggest WTF in an article that seemed to break down into a series of WTFs if you looked at it long enough. Anyone preparing a course in logic and in need of illustrative examples of begging the question needn't look beyond this single article for all the specimens you could ask for, and that last one was a real humdinger. I don't pretend do know who the target readership of worldaffairsjournal.org is, but I had difficulty imagining a perspective from which the "you" in that sentence referred to some imagined universal.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:04 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ha! Exactly. WTFs all the way down.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:07 AM on October 30, 2009


Anywhere you find people that do not share the same first language who try to communicate the chances are they will try to speak to each other in English. It may sound broken to people who come from countries where English is the official language but it IS already the lingua franca of most of the rest of the world. Some countries mandate English as a second language, take India as an example where english has been afforded the status of 'subsidiary official language' and all parliamentary and legal precedings must be recorded in English as well as Sanskrit.

The majority of English speakers in the world speak English as a second language. When it is spoken, as opposed to written down it's easy to make oneself understood using only one tense. Even if the verbs are somewhat irregular it is not difficult to discern meaning if the conjugation is messed up. 'Foreign' languages don't have a monopoloy on difficult pronunciations though; I have heard it said that the 'th' sound in english is actually very hard for most non-native English speakers to pronounce.

As communication links in the global village get shorter I have little doubt that English will become spoken even more widely, just not the English that the moribund 'English-speaking world' speaks.
posted by JustAsItSounds at 12:20 AM on October 30, 2009


English is NOT easy, English is not simple, and while it may be a growing global language, it is, for the most part, due to economic and scocio-political reasons, not for ease of use or speed of learning.

Yes English is not easy or simple, but that is the same with all other natural languages. The question is if it is relatively more simple. Languages do have different learning difficulties . This is due to how closely related the language is to the native speaker, and to rather hard to define syntactical and phonological properties. In the list I linked note that for English speakers, Spanish is easier to learn than German, even though English is more closely related to the later, and Malay, basically completely unrelated to English is rated at about the same level as German.

So I don't think it is too far of a stretch to claim that English has some properties that make it easier to learn than many other languages. It is a Germanic language with Romance face lift which means it share many features and homophones with the majority of the languages of Western Europe. It has relatively simple syntax and phonology and a simple universally used script. It really is a pretty good choice for a lingua franca.

Of course the reason it is in the dominant position it is in today is because of historical forces not linguistic ones. You could make a similar argument that Malay or Spanish would be good lingua francas, but I don't think you could for Russian or Mandarin.
posted by afu at 12:24 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: in fact, Spanish speakers do not go about routinely imagining tables as cooing in feminine tones.
posted by bokane at 12:33 AM on October 30, 2009


I know multiple people who have learned English as a second, third, or fourth language. Several as children in bi-lingual households. And most of them hate speaking and using English for anything more than informal communication because it is SO easy to screw up simple meanings and rules. English is NOT easy, English is not simple, and while it may be a growing global language, it is, for the most part, due to economic and scocio-political reasons, not for ease of use or speed of learning.

in other words, English is the Windows of language.

and Esperanto is BeOS
posted by davejay at 12:36 AM on October 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


Apparently English started as a lingua franca between Danes and Saxons, so although it looks difficult in theory it could have some aspects that are easy to learn or make it suitable for this purpose.

Whatever looks 'easiest' in theory, if a language actually evolves as a lingua franca there might be surprises about what actually works out best for people.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:24 AM on October 30, 2009


Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?

Well that's a queer question.


But, no. It'd be freeaking cool. English would never be the same then.

Literally.


Different problem set, altogether . . . .


Hello, boogeymen . . .
posted by RoseyD at 1:25 AM on October 30, 2009


Why would anyone think that a table is female?
Listen, I'd come home very drunk and my blood was up, and anyway the marine varnish meant most of the stains just wiped off.
posted by Abiezer at 1:41 AM on October 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


I always thought it was dumb for inanimate objects to have gender. Why would anyone think that a table is female?

Here's an anecdote from the Livejournal group mock_the_stupid:

There was a girl I went to school with for many, many years who, while very sweet, lacked any iota of common sense. My favorite story involving her was in seventh grade when we were discussing the 'gender' of words/objects. Teacher begins explaining something like this: "A dog has a gender, therefore it is either a he or she, a chair does not and so it is an it." Something about this didn't click with Leslie. The teacher jokingly asked "Well, can you check the gender of a chair?" A few seconds of wheels slowly grinding in Leslie's head and then proceeds to lean over and check under the chair. Everyone either stared in disbelief or died laughing.
posted by martinrebas at 1:49 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Since moving to England I have given up on the notion that English is a single language.
posted by srboisvert at 2:14 AM on October 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Only lojban may survive.
posted by adipocere at 3:07 AM on October 30, 2009


Some countries mandate English as a second language, take India as an example where english has been afforded the status of 'subsidiary official language' and all parliamentary and legal proceedings must be recorded in English as well as Sanskrit.

Hindi, not Sanskrit. Members of the parliament can take part in debates in either language; if they choose to use another language, they must take permission from the Speaker. All laws, however, are ultimately written in English without any exceptions; indeed, the English version is considered the authoritative source if there's a dispute.

Also, unrelated point, but in the union territory of Puducherry, français restera langue officielle des Établissements aussi longtemps que les représentants élus de la population n'auront pas pris une décision différente. Indeed, no elected representatives of the people have ever bothered to change that in that part of the country (which, admittedly, isn't a lot of land).
posted by the cydonian at 3:22 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I listened to John McWhorter's Story of Human Language course a while back. He was an actual academic linguist and does have a certain amount of knowledge.

He's very skeptical of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language shapes culture. There are a few experimental results showing that in tests people are quicker to differentiate things if their language has different words for them. But he doesn't think there are deep differences about fundamental concepts.

His claim that the languages of isolated peoples tend to be more difficult to learn does have some basis. He says a tendency for languages left to themselves to become more complicated, since they're only learned by children who can pick things up quickly. However, languages tend to become simpler when different groups of adults encounter them, which seems to be how English lost its genders and its familiar/formal distinctions. So, large cross-cultural languages like English, Standard Mandarin and Swahili tend to be easier to learn than "small indigenous languages", but it's the latter that are actually endangered.

On a different topic, I also read English as a Global Language by David Crystal recently, and the idea that Standard Mandarin is a likely to supplant English over the next century or so seems a bit far-fetched. English is widely increasingly entrenched in international organizations like multinational companies, NGOs, and UN and EU bodies. It's widely used as a lingua franca across the world. Standard Mandarin has very little international presence. Also, China has many languages, one of which is Mandarin. Mandarin has many dialects, one of which is Standard Mandarin. It's not even certain that Standard Mandarin will ever be a universal language across China, let alone the world.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:28 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Arabic example is pretty disingenuous if, as I have heard, the real reasons for the official shortage are more like (a) it's hard to get a security clearance if you have lots of friends and/or family in Arabic-speaking nations, and (b) the Army has been known to fire Arabic translators/interpreters for being gay.
posted by No-sword at 3:29 AM on October 30, 2009


CrazyJoel: always thought it was dumb for inanimate objects to have gender. Why would anyone think that a table is female?
3
Everything has its day. When man gave all things a sex he thought, not that he was plaything, but that he had gained a profound insight: – it was only very late that he confessed to himself what an enormous error this was, and perhaps even now he has not confessed it completely. – In the same way man has ascribed to all that exists a connection with morality and laid an ethical significance on the world's back. One day this will have as much value, and no more, as the belief in the masculinity or femininity of the sun has today.


...

47
Words lie in our way! – Wherever primitive mankind set up a word, they believed they had made a discovery. How different the truth is! – they had touched on a problem, and by supposing they had solved it they had created a hindrance to its solution. – Now with every piece of knowledge one has to stumble over dead, petrified words, and one will sooner break a leg than a word.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on Moral Prejudices, Book 1

posted by koeselitz at 3:39 AM on October 30, 2009


I imagine that in the next 1-200 years, a lot of the difficulty of learning English might vanish, as it simplifies or becomes more regular. We can speak of "proper" English, but we know what someone means when they say, "Tom and Jerry fighted all night long."

A lot of the confusion also comes from euphemisms and idioms that may well disappear as they become less trendy or people speak more directly. No need to parse "they made out at the party and then went back to John's and hooked up" when you can say, "they kissed intensely at the party and then had sex at John's place."

A final difficulty is irregular English spelling that will likely disappear as time passes. At one point "lite" was considered dumb, but it's now practically "correct" for certain uses of "light," such as software or beer (whether lite beer is correct is another story). Using my example above, an English speaker from the future might write, "Tom and Jerry fited all nite long." We'll have pedants and xenophobes bitching about that constantly, but we all can parse it easily, and it's easy to teach to children as well.
posted by explosion at 4:07 AM on October 30, 2009


In my experience, English IS easy. True, it's full of inconsistencies, exceptions, and things like "make up, make out, make at, make as if" and so on. So perhaps it's hard to master. But a person can completely butcher the grammar, the word-order, and damn near everything, and still be understood. In other languages, like German or Russian, with more precise and complex grammar, you might miss an ending here or a conjugation there and completely change the meaning of your sentence. Also, English is great for describing complicated things with many simple words, rather than with just a few more complex words. And, much of it is compartmentalized in easy to understand chunks. You say, "he goes out" or "he goes in", and it's straightforward because you know what "goes", "out", and "in" mean on their own. In Russian, you would take the word for "go" and add a prefix to signify going in or going out. It's clear once you know the prefixes, but they don't actually mean anything on their own (well, actually in this case they do, but the meanings are unrelated).

The author's arguing that having 6,000 languages isn't inherently good, and that (at the other extreme, as an example, gorramit) having just one universal language wouldn't be inherently bad either. He's also arguing that having a universal language would NOT impose on people's cultures, and he's actually NOT arguing that one universal language is the way things must be or that they even can be that way at all. So I really don't see why people have been acting all defensive and aggressive about him naming English as the lingua franca. That's the way it is, sorry. Could change in future. So why worry about it?
posted by Badasscommy at 4:32 AM on October 30, 2009


I've always maintained that if people from different cultures could understand each other, I mean really understand each other, they'd all hate each other even worse than they do now.

From Douglas Adams:

... the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
posted by lordrunningclam at 4:32 AM on October 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


And if you figure out who or what McWhorter is arguing against, lemme know about that, too.

I'd saying he's arguing against the view that language death is a tragedy that we have to invest huge amounts of resources into stopping. So maybe it wouldn't be worth it for the EU to provide translation for Scottish Gaelic or the BBC to create Gaelic language programming, when every speaker of Gaelic is fluent in English.

His skepticism about the links between culture and language strike me as a little strange though. Even if language structure doesn't really dictate thinking patterns in a significant way, cultural traditions and products do lose something when understanding of the original language is lost. People read Tolstoy or Dante in the original, because it's a more complete aesthetic experience than getting them filtered through a translation. The way writers and storytellers make use of idiom and words peculiar to their language is part of the craft. When Scottish Gaelic passes away, most people in the Highlands and Islands will be that much further removed from the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, only able to access them through the best English translation available (which probably won't be amazing). That strikes me as regrettable loss of cultural connection, even if it is inevitable.
posted by nangua at 4:35 AM on October 30, 2009


Putting aside my biases as a student of linguistics, yes, I can conceive that it wouldn't be "inherently evil" to just have one language. But how much of language death is natural, and how much is caused by colonialism and genocide? Can we establish forced boarding schools for the purpose of eradicating Native American languages, and then years later just throw up our hands and walk away when those languages are dying out?
posted by Jeanne at 4:39 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


strixus: "he notes that English actually is simpler to learn for various reasons

Yeah, and I don't buy his reasons. Not for a cent or a peso. I know multiple people who have learned English as a second, third, or fourth language. Several as children in bi-lingual households. And most of them hate speaking and using English for anything more than informal communication because it is SO easy to screw up simple meanings and rules. English is NOT easy, English is not simple, and while it may be a growing global language, it is, for the most part, due to economic and scocio-political reasons, not for ease of use or speed of learning.
"

Learning a new language is always hard. The issue here is a relative one. Have these people also learned, say, Arabic? Or Russian? Or Japanese? Or Chinese? All of these languages are generally considered much harder than English.
posted by TypographicalError at 4:47 AM on October 30, 2009


Also, regarding Arabic, I think his point is that:

a) Arabic is tough to learn
b) The numbers of people who speak "Arabic" in the US govt are even less impressive since to be useful one has to know the dialect of an area

as an analogy, it would be like China's government saying, "look we've got 30 people who specialize in romance languages, so I'm sure we've got Romanian covered." Maybe, or maybe they've got ten scholars each on Spanish, French, and Italian.
posted by nangua at 4:53 AM on October 30, 2009


explosion: I imagine that in the next 1-200 years, a lot of the difficulty of learning English might vanish, as it simplifies or becomes more regular.

– But that's not really what language does, is it?

We were talking in the Google thread yesterday about Chingrish and its growing influence all over Asia. The thing is that the English spoken by most people in the future will probably be half Chinese. It's hard to see that as a 'simplification;' it's unfortunately not likely that English will become more sensible or 'regular' over time, either. Looking back, that certainly hasn't happened over the last 500 years – not to say that we speak less rationally now, but the development of the language has been on more along the lines of everyday use, and pretty much had nothing to do with making English 'easier to learn' or more rational. I don't think that'll change in the future.
posted by koeselitz at 4:56 AM on October 30, 2009


Maybe my cursory reading of the above missed this, but I am surprised that no one has brought up the issue of the problems inherent in having a single language when it comes to expression and thought. One of the things that I love about learning languages is finding words that just don't translate. To me, this represents a unique perspective on reality. While the language in it of itself does not represent this perspective it does communicate it. Since people don't generally have a lot of vested interest in figuring out what people who's language they are erasing think about, these perspectives will inevitably get lost.
posted by zennoshinjou at 4:58 AM on October 30, 2009


Sapir-Whorff aside, languages are not DNA. It's sad to lose them and the literature & knowledge that go with them, so I'm all for spending a reasonable amount of resources on salvage linguistics. But the idea that governments ought to always care about the languages that are spoken by people who also speak the state or principle language, strikes me as ... well, frankly, a luxury. Especially considering the shithole we're sinking into ecologically.

OTOH, where I see people working to keep their own languages from dying, I think that's great. Want to teach the kids Choctaw? Fantastic. Read me some poetry. If it helps you keep going as a community, keep contributing to the world we all have to share, then by all means I'm with you.
posted by lodurr at 5:32 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Have these people also learned, say, Arabic? Or Russian? Or Japanese? Or Chinese? All of these languages are generally considered much harder than English.

"Considered?" That's very much the view of English speakers who are comparing those languages to more commonly learned ones, such as Spanish, French and German. It's not universally true by any means. I've learned Russian, it was really easy - one hundred times more so than English. But of course, that's because my native language (Serbo-Croatian) shares loads of grammatical rules and familiar vocabulary with Russian. Finns consider Hungarian easier to learn than many other languages, because they're related enough to share some "feel" of grammar and the odd bit of word root. You, however, would probably consider Hungarian next to impossible - that's the common sentiment among many English speakers who've attempted to learn it. Despite the fact that Serbo-Croatian and English are (distant) cousins - and despite the fact that Hungarian isn't even an Indo-European language AND despite the fact that Hungarian is notorious for its difficulty, it's been much easier for me than English, relative to the time I've spent on it. Hungarians and Japanese appear to have a not-too-difficult time with each other's language, despite the lack of any acknowledged connection between the two. There's no real standard for determining objectively the difficulty in learning one language unfortunately, and most of the opinions out there are just that . . . opinions - often complete with unconscious bias.

Witness two passages I found:

1) However, the British Foreign Office has looked at the languages that diplomats and other embassy staff have to learn and has worked out which they find the most difficult to learn. The second hardest is Japanese, which probably comes as no surprise to many, but the language that they have found to be the most difficult to learn is Hungarian, which has 35 cases (forms of a nouns according to whether it is subject, object, genitive, etc). This does not mean that Hungarian is the hardest language to learn for everybody, but it causes British diplomatic staff, who are used to learning languages, the most difficulty. However, Tabassaran, a Caucasian language has 48 cases, so it would probably cause more difficulty if British diplomats had to learn it.

2) Actually the grammar of Japanese is not that tricky, it is certainly simpler than the grammar of most European languages. No articles, no grammatical gender, only two tenses I suppose, and verbs are not conjugated differently for first person, second person, singular and plural etc. There are a few things that are different from English that we have to get our heads around- adjectives have negative and past tense forms and the particles used between words take some getting used to. Word order is SOV instead of SVO.

The first one puts Hungarian as the toughest language (though this isn't my experience), and it seems (weirdly) to ascribe the difficulty on the basis of its alleged 35 "cases," which aren't really cases and are pretty simple to learn (there are certainly harder things to learn in Hungarian), and I don't even think there are 35 of them in any case. (No pun intended!) It lists Japanese as the second toughest.

The second link gives some reasons why Japanese grammar is *easier* than that of "most European languages." I haven't learned any Japanese, I can't speak to its accuracy / relevance.

The fact is that there's no good answer to the question - there are certainly some tricky languages out there. But in any case, English is widely regarded by non-native speakers as one of the harder ones out there, and while Russian and other languages McWhorter mentions may have some tricky parts, he's simply flat out WRONG in attempting to convince the reader that English has the advantage of being an easy language. Few people approaching it for the first time would agree - it's one of the tough ones.

Maybe my cursory reading of the above missed this, but I am surprised that no one has brought up the issue of the problems inherent in having a single language when it comes to expression and thought. One of the things that I love about learning languages is finding words that just don't translate. To me, this represents a unique perspective on reality. While the language in it of itself does not represent this perspective it does communicate it. Since people don't generally have a lot of vested interest in figuring out what people who's language they are erasing think about, these perspectives will inevitably get lost.

This is the general gist of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is pretty widely discounted by most linguistics, from what I can determine. McWhorter certainly is not a believer. On the other hand, though the concept could easily be taken to an absurd extreme, I don't have any problem believing there to be some truth to it. When I really get in the groove of speaking one language, say English, I have a totally different mindset / mood / personality than when I'm speaking a different language long enough to start thinking in it. In a few year's, Sapir-Whorf will probably be trendy again, I suspect!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:52 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Maybe my cursory reading of the above missed this, but I am surprised that no one has brought up the issue of the problems inherent in having a single language when it comes to expression and thought.

This is what the folks throwing around the words "Sapir-Whorf" are talking about. The so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" is the idea that, one way or another, the language you speak influences how you think about the world. It's pretty controversial among linguists — although I've noticed that it seems to be much less controversial among linguists who actually work one-on-one with speakers of minority languages. Make of that what you will.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:55 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Oh hey there Dee!)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:56 AM on October 30, 2009


I don't think its as straightforward as saying language influences thought so much as to say that there is a mutual relationship that can't be ignored. I find to be successful with a secondary language requires learning to think like the speaker as much as possible. I have had many instances where speakers of different primary languages speaking in a second mis-communicate because they use words in the context of the primary language.
posted by zennoshinjou at 5:59 AM on October 30, 2009


think like a speaker of the primary language that is..
posted by zennoshinjou at 6:01 AM on October 30, 2009


We were talking in the Google thread yesterday about Chingrish and its growing influence all over Asia. The thing is that the English spoken by most people in the future will probably be half Chinese.

So Firefly was right? I can't decide whether that's completely awesome or totally disturbing. And here I thought that Chingrish was just a trick to allow characters to swear on television.
posted by edbles at 6:02 AM on October 30, 2009


Don't kid yourself Jimmy. If [the English language] ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!
posted by blue_beetle at 6:03 AM on October 30, 2009


One of the other reasons why English might become the primary language in the future is because it's somehow the goddamn Borg of languages. Is there a foreign word that expresses a slightly different concept than the closest English equivalent? Congrats, it's now in English too!

Our language is complicated because we have so many synonyms derived from Greek, Latin, German, and words that were later re-borrowed from Spanish, French, or Italian. We don't cobble together phrases like "Mexican grilled cheese," we just accept "quesadilla." We enjoy "chorizo" and "focaccia" with ease. Granted, cuisine moves faster than other vocabularies, but "manga" and "anime" took hold pretty quickly as well.
posted by explosion at 6:26 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


edbles: So Firefly was right?

I never saw that, but I did sleep through Serenity; that was the one where a younger, more Amish Han Solo has to rescue some weird girl who keeps killing people, right?

I can't decide whether that's completely awesome or totally disturbing. And here I thought that Chingrish was just a trick to allow characters to swear on television.

Nope. Nor is it just a meme which collects funny misspelled signs from China. There are now probably about 500 million speakers of Chingrish in the world, between 50 and 100 million more than there are native speakers of 'standard' English; and the interesting thing is that that number will almost certainly grow, since there are other creole versions of English mashed together with local dialects throughout East Asia, Singlish probably being the most notable since it's the oldest. (I was having fun the other day looking through the Coxford Singlish Dictionary on the Singaporean humor web site TalkingCock.com. That site is great; c.f. "The Ah Beng Guide To Wine Tasting.") As Chinglish absorbs Singlish, Janglish, and whatever other creoles happen to be kicking around out there (is there a Korean variant, I wonder?) people are speculating that a new creole, which they call "Panglish," will form. Here's a serviceable article from Wired last year about Panglish called "How English Is Evolving Into a Language We May Not Even Understand."
posted by koeselitz at 6:27 AM on October 30, 2009


koeselitz: I just watched the Maysles' documentary Salesman the other day, and there's a great scene in it where a salesman with a Boston accent is telling a hispanic housewife in Florida something along the lines of, "We can take orders." Of course, with his accent, it comes out "otters" and the lady is, understandably, very confused indeed.

There was a great episode of This Old House where one of the guys spread a tarp and told the homeowner to dig a hole and put the dirt on the tarp. She was standing elsewhere and didn't understand him so she kept just putting the dirt in a pile by the whole. He saw her and screamed "No! No! The TAHP! THE TAHP!" and she replied "I AM putting it on top!"
posted by jefficator at 6:40 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


One of the other reasons why English might become the primary language in the future is because it's somehow the goddamn Borg of languages. Is there a foreign word that expresses a slightly different concept than the closest English equivalent? Congrats, it's now in English too!

Our language is complicated because we have so many synonyms derived from Greek, Latin, German, and words that were later re-borrowed from Spanish, French, or Italian. We don't cobble together phrases like "Mexican grilled cheese," we just accept "quesadilla." We enjoy "chorizo" and "focaccia" with ease. Granted, cuisine moves faster than other vocabularies, but "manga" and "anime" took hold pretty quickly as well.
posted by explosion at 9:26 AM on October 30 [+] [!]


Isn't this true for most other languages as well?

(Le hamburger!)
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:48 AM on October 30, 2009


koeselitz: My wife speak English and Farsi, but wouldn't be able to tell a doctor what's wrong with her in Farsi because she doesn't know the right words. Similarly, my Father in Law speaks English and Farsi, but probably has a hard time talking to doctors that aren't persian. You can learn English and get by 80% of the time, but there are situations in your life that rarely come up where you need to know how to say "my lymphnodes are swollen" and you just don't know what the fuck is up. His family doctor in Toronto is a Persian dude. I don't think this is really that shocking. To seriously learn a new language takes much more time and effort than an adult can really invest.
posted by chunking express at 6:48 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Two points:

1) English is nothing more than an extremely well-developed pidgin.

2) Having only one language would indeed be harmful insofar as it would make post-structuralism an opaque concept. I never understood what my German teacher meant when she said "It is not a chair. Chair is just the sound you make to refer to it, and other people understand you" until I studied philosophy in college.
posted by jefficator at 6:48 AM on October 30, 2009


(Le hamburger!)

It's funny because I think French is pretty militant about what words are allowed to enter the French vocabulary.
posted by chunking express at 6:49 AM on October 30, 2009


Isn't this true for most other languages as well?

(Le hamburger!)


German makes for an interesting comparison here. In English we say Television and Computer. In German they say Fernseher and Computer.

Television comes from the Greek roots meaning "To see from afar." Fernseher comes from the German roots for "To see from afar."

I suppose that German could have called the Computer der Rechner, even though that already means calculator. But the limited number of synonyms in German has always been a pain to me.

What is intriguing, though, is the idea that a language could have its own roots. What does that mean for the interaction of the ordinary speaker with his language? I know what television means because I had to learn Greek and Latin in high school. But does the average English speaker have access to this? Is German a more comprehensible language for a German speaker because German is a somewhat independent language family?
posted by jefficator at 6:54 AM on October 30, 2009


Also, tangentially related is this Dinosaur Comic on the words for 'mother' and 'father' in different languages.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:05 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Comrade_robot: (Le hamburger!)

chunking express: It's funny because I think French is pretty militant about what words are allowed to enter the French vocabulary.

Very. The Academie publishes an official dictionary annually, and the government mandates under the Toubon Law that proper French – no Anglicisms, et cetera – must be used in all public communications, all commercial environments, and all advertisements. A US company doing some operations in France got fined over €600,000 in 2006 for not having all internal communications and computer software available in French.

Do you want to know the supreme irony in all this? A hundred and fifty years ago, only about 20% of the population of France actually spoke the dialect now known as proper French. Due to a brief spate of late imperialism and an extraordinary degree of haughtiness and cultural presumption by one small region of France, however, there's only one dialect officially called "French" now; the government of France is still trying to crowd out Lenga d'òc and all the rest of the dozens upon dozens of very interesting languages which are or were up until recently spoken in France and replace them all with Langues d'oïl.
posted by koeselitz at 7:16 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Which brings up the interesting point: what about the times when replacing all the other languages with one language has pretty severe political implications and means marginalizing a certain sociopolitical group? If you tried to replace all the Basque signage in northern Spain and southern France I don't think it'd go down well.
posted by koeselitz at 7:18 AM on October 30, 2009


Relevant?
posted by jefficator at 7:21 AM on October 30, 2009


His whole argument assumes a radical anti-Sapir-Whorf perspective (which was, to be fair, not uncommon among linguists in the late 20th century). The idea that language differences are entirely arbitrary and meaningless, and have no cognitive consequences whatsoever.

But even his trivial example about Spanish "mesa" not meaning that Spaniards think of tables as feminine *isn't true*. I remember reading very recently about an experiment showing that if you get a bunch of native speakers of different languages, with English as a second language, together, and ask them to pick adjectives (in English) describing various nouns (in English), they're more likely to pick stereotypically feminine adjectives for a given object if their native language made that object feminine, and stereotypically masculine adjectives if their native language made that object masculine.

For example, a "key" was more likely to be described in terms of its beauty, brightness, the light jingling sound it might make, by native speakers of languages where "key" was feminine, and in terms of its hardness, metallic strength, and sharp notches by native speakers of languages where "key" was masculine.

These particular cognitive consequences of "arbitrary" language differences might seem completely unimportant, but they undermine completely the basic "language differences are arbitrary and meaningless" idea that underlies his argument.

There are many other experiments that have shown cognitive consequences to language differences; some have been linked on Metafilter before. It's less surprising than you might think that a professional linguist would reject them outright, because the discipline went through decades of reaction against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and Chomsky's theories, which ruled the day for decades, also took "language differences have no cognitive consequences, we are all speaking the same language except for minor details" as an absolute truth. So work on the possibility that languages *do* affect cognition tend to be performed not by linguists but by psychologists, who haven't had the possibility indoctrinated out of them.
posted by edheil at 7:23 AM on October 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


I am surprised that no one has brought up the issue of the problems inherent in having a single language when it comes to expression and thought.

I don't know enough to have an opinion one way or another, but I recall reading (from Anthony Zee? not sure...) an claim that physics and perhaps more generally modern science would not have developed as it has if the development had occurred primarily in China, because Chinese languages lack the precision that Romance languages have. And perhaps the converse is true, that a less precise language would be more useful for some religious or philosophical ideas, or at least for different perspectives.

The wikipedia page on Sapir-Whorf has a quote from Von Humboldt in 1820: "The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world."
posted by Killick at 7:32 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


That's why I speak Jive. Yet sadly, Rosetto Stone doesn't have Jive. We called and asked.
posted by stormpooper at 7:33 AM on October 30, 2009


I don't know enough to have an opinion one way or another, but I recall reading (from Anthony Zee? not sure...) an claim that physics and perhaps more generally modern science would not have developed as it has if the development had occurred primarily in China, because Chinese languages lack the precision that Romance languages have. And perhaps the converse is true, that a less precise language would be more useful for some religious or philosophical ideas, or at least for different perspectives.

I am personally extremely suspicious of any arguments which posit a 'rational, scientific West' as opposed to a 'sensual, intuitive Other'. Certainly there is a great deal of science being done in Chinese right now. Also problematic is the dividing line between 'science' and 'not science' -- China invented things like the compass and gunpowder. Is this 'science' or 'intuitive philosophy'?
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:54 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think that McWhorty makes some decent points that, contrary to reactions here, are not terrible. While I am an enthusiastic student of my own culture and its works, this preoccupation often makes me wonder what kinds of wondrous and weird stuff is going on in other cultures to which I lack easy linguistic access. Reducing language barriers would allow us all to participate in each others' cultures, which seems like an (overall) good thing.

On the other hand, for the same reason, I see the downside. Just like geographical isolation plays a role in biological speciation, I wonder if the same is true for linguistic isolation. Would diverse world cultures collapse into a central monoculture? It seems very likely. To put it simply, I see pros and cons to this.
posted by Edgewise at 7:56 AM on October 30, 2009


Sapir-Whorf, taken naively, seems pretty obvious. But I don't pretend to understand it at a technical level, so for all I know it could technically be completely wrong and still accurately describe the way people experience language-use. Kind of like Newtonian physics.

The myth of Sapir-Whorf is powerful and can be pernicious. The whole "eskimoes have 3,258 words for snow" crapola just won't die, but it's pretty profoundly mistaken -- in some ways, backwards. There was a post on Language Log a couple of years back that counted the English and Inuit morphemes for snow and concluded that there are quite a few more commonly-used English morphemes than there are in the principle Inuit dialect. This actually makes sense: If you need to understand something precisely because it pervades your environment and is one of the principle contingent factors in your survival, it behooves you to understand its fundamentals, and the fundamental truth of snow is that it's all variations of the same stuff. And apparently, Inuit (and other polar peoples) have a really clear understanding of that -- clearer in their way than that of people who don't deal with it.

So I think naive Sapir-Whorfism probably did the theory no good. Kind of like naive understandings of evolution in that regard.
posted by lodurr at 7:59 AM on October 30, 2009


My ex-husband speaks English as his third language, and I've often said that he speaks it better than I (a native speaker) do. He's Icelandic, and I would argue that many Icelanders have a near-native grasp of the language. From this, I would gather that English is relatively easy to learn... but I think the more salient detail is that their culture is saturated with it. Movies and TV are subtitled, not dubbed, so you *hear* English all the time. Constantly. And of course, it's taught in school. So there's that.

My current partner also speaks English non-natively, and though he has lived in the US for 10 years (which is much longer than my ex lived in a native English speaking country before we met), you can tell immediately that he's a non-native speaker and not just due to his accent. Ten years and there are still subtle vocabulary differences that pass him by and grammatical structures that totally elude him. (Such as: The ground and the floor are two different things, to take a nap does not mean to go to bed at night, you can call an artist "cute" but to call a piece of art "cute" is demeaning, etc.) He's from Portugal, where English is not commonly seen or heard at all - and so my feeling is that it really is hard to get a grip on it if you're not stewed in it.

(Also: I really like this pin that a friend of mine has - "English beats up other languages and then rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.")
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:01 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


What a wank filled article.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:02 AM on October 30, 2009


I've always viewed a language a bit like an operating system for the brain. Which since I'm monolingual in English means I'm just running Windows I guess.

One of these days I really need to dual boot.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:02 AM on October 30, 2009


Which since I'm monolingual in English means I'm just running Windows I guess.

If you just know English it's more like Windows 3.1 then...
posted by Burhanistan at 8:03 AM on October 30, 2009


Having a moment to read this article and not glean from the posting of others I have to say that I completely disagree with his nonchalance about the cultural impact of languages disappearing. As others have pointed out his position is informed by his belief about the functional nature of language but I have to say that I'm deeply skeptical of the idea that language has no cognitive impact. Language does not appear out of the æther; it is a tool for people of a shared experience to communicate said experience. This necessarily must reflect the context of a people and a place and how they interact with those things. His argument that the death of language equals the death of culture being akin to putting the cart before the horse misses the point entirely- its not a matter of a procedural relationship, its necessarily a complimentary relationship.
posted by zennoshinjou at 8:05 AM on October 30, 2009


And then there are someone who goes in the complete opposite direction:

Aasen's famous Dictionary of the Norwegian Dialects appeared in its original form in 1850, and from this publication dates all the wide cultivation of the popular language in Norwegian, since Aasen really did no less than construct, out of the different materials at his disposal, a popular language or definite folke-maal (people's language) for Norway. With certain modifications, the most important of which were introduced later by Aasen himself, but also through a latter policy aiming to merge this Norwegian language with Dano-Norwegian, this language has become Nynorsk ("New Norwegian"), the second of Norway's two official languages (the other being Bokmål, the Dano-Norwegian descendant of the Danish language used in Norway at Aasen's time).

Short story, guy invents a language from bits and pieces of dialects all over the country, and now, some 200 years later it is part of our compulsory education, it is the official language in about one third of the municipalities, and NRK, the national TV company is required by law to have at least 1/4th of their programming in Nynorsk.
posted by ymgve at 8:07 AM on October 30, 2009


grapefruitmoon, Icelandic culture is so saturated with English that you could easily get by there knowing no icelandic other than words for local foods and monetary denominations. Most of the icelanders I met in Reykjavik spoke excellent English with a mix of British and American idioms. (My casual recollection would be that there were a lot of British English vocabulary terms, like "vest" for a pullover sweater, but pop idioms were more American, but i'll happily stand corrected on that.)

But they also have rigorous language requirements for immigration. So they are effectively not just demanding that they be allowed to have their cake and eat it, they're taking what steps are needed to make that happen. Hard to argue with. If they can pull it off, I say, more power to 'em.
posted by lodurr at 8:14 AM on October 30, 2009


I am personally extremely suspicious of any arguments which posit a 'rational, scientific West' as opposed to a 'sensual, intuitive Other'.

I am as well, but I don't think you need to make that assumption to make something like what Killick said work. All you need to show is that one form of writing/language was more hospitable to manipulating and dealing with science. No one would disagree that switching from roman to arabic numerals and from standard to metric measurements helped the cause of science in the West just by making workaday calculation easier. I doubt there's an analogous case in Chinese vs. romance languages (last I checked China's doing just fine by science and everyone is still speaking Chinese), but I think you could make an argument like that without descending into orientalism.
posted by nangua at 8:16 AM on October 30, 2009


If you just know English it's more like Windows 3.1 then...

Given the wild variation and fundamental variability of English, I'd say Linux is a more apt comparison. (Or maybe Posix. Wait, no, that's Esperanto*...)

--
*I actually know at least two people who are fluent in Esperanto. One posts in Esperanto to his Facebook page at least four or five times a week.

posted by lodurr at 8:17 AM on October 30, 2009


(Such as: The ground and the floor are two different things, to take a nap does not mean to go to bed at night, you can call an artist "cute" but to call a piece of art "cute" is demeaning, etc.)

I would have guessed Latin America, since darn near Spanish speaker I've known has struggled with "floor vs. ground", "go to sleep vs. go to bed" and "cute" in English.

See also "watch" vs "look at".
posted by rokusan at 8:22 AM on October 30, 2009


See also "watch" vs "look at".

I thought "look at television" was a not-uncommon anglicism.

I also hear it used by some native speakers here in the US. (Western NYS FWIW, but can't swear they were from here.) Not often, but occasionally.

Could be an affectation adopted from a foreign speaker, I guess, which would be kind of interesting: English getting modified by furriners and cycled back into American English. Actually, I suppose that probalby happens all the time, but distracted brain can't think of good examples.
posted by lodurr at 8:29 AM on October 30, 2009


In a hundred years, I have a feeling that nine out of ten 'English-speakers' on this planet will speak a dialect that few of us today would understand at all.

Maybe, but that doesn't mean English won't remain a lingua franca. Due to widespread literacy and media in English, the language might change, but could do so the same way throughout the globe. If "blue" becomes "bloo", that's fine as long as it's "bloo" everywhere.
posted by spaltavian at 8:31 AM on October 30, 2009


or even just close enough to 'bloo.' or close enough to everywhere.

lingua francas are the very paradigm case of 'good enough is good enough.'

also, one thing we can say more or less for certain: people will deal with one another, and change language to make it happen. prescriptions we make might have an impact on that, but will not determine it.
posted by lodurr at 8:37 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


('lingas franca'? 'linguae franca'?)
posted by lodurr at 8:37 AM on October 30, 2009


But the idea that governments ought to always care about the languages that are spoken by people who also speak the state or principle language, strikes me as ... well, frankly, a luxury.

Well, I don't know what country you're from, but the 1st world is stunningly, stunningly rich. They can afford a few luxuries like preserving minority languages, which is the least we can do for those communities, many of which have wanted nothing more than to run their own affairs.

As to what is McWhorter's point? The point is to argue something "provocative" and maybe even a bit "contrarian", because that kind of stuff gets attention.
posted by deanc at 8:42 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Linguae francae"
posted by Electrius at 8:45 AM on October 30, 2009


It is more probable that we will end up with a world where most humans are multilingual, with one or more of their native or learned languages being in the current Top 5, or possibly even a Top 3.

Don't we already live in such a world?

Some countries mandate English as a second language, take India as an example where english has been afforded the status of 'subsidiary official language' and all parliamentary and legal proceedings must be recorded in English as well as Sanskrit.


Hindi. Sanskrit is not used in daily life.
A month after I first joined my current employer (where the majority of the staff are Indian) HR circulated an email to remind everyone that only English should be in used at work, no Hindi. I took my boss aside and told him that "hey, I appreciate it. But this isn't necessary, I knew what I signed up for when I took this job". Of course it had nothing to do with me, but some of the South Indian employees had complained. Actually my Goan boss turns out to barely speak Hindi himself.
posted by atrazine at 8:50 AM on October 30, 2009


Have these people also learned, say, Arabic? Or Russian? Or Japanese? Or Chinese? All of these languages are generally considered much harder than English.

No, you can't make statements like this with any degree of accuracy. A target language's difficulty depends on the native language of the learner, and the learner's acquaintance with related languages. A Korean can become fluent in Japanese in about 1 year of study, if he or she spends about 2 hours/day on it, and vice versa. By contrast, it takes Koreans and Japanese much longer to become fluent in English. This proves nothing about the difficulty of Korean, Japanese, or English.
posted by smorange at 9:15 AM on October 30, 2009


Why would anyone think that a table is female?

♫ She's got legs! ♪ And she knows how to use 'em... ♬
posted by zarq at 9:18 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, I don't know what country you're from, but the 1st world is stunningly, stunningly rich.

And yet it still has to make choices about how to spend that wealth. Please prioritize language relative to clean energy production, health care, sustainable agriculture, ameliorating the effects of global climate change, aiding the "3rd" world to deal with the fallout from our wars, and fixing our environmental damage, to name a few things off the top of my head.

And when oil gets so expensive that plastic becomes a luxury, water levels rise to the point where a few hundred million people are displaced, crops fail to the extent that millions die and some whack religionist or nationalist blows up part of a major city with a nuke, let me know how important it was to spend all that money being absolutely sure that those 23 kids in Peru were taught their native language in kindergarten.
posted by lodurr at 9:23 AM on October 30, 2009


Kind of ironic that this post appears on the very day that ICANN announces support for non-Latin character sets: ICANN Bringing the Languages of the World to the Global Internet

Incroyable, n'est-ce pas?
posted by Artful Codger at 9:26 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting discussion, much better than it would have been a few years ago (when it would have been filled with pointless comments like "What a wank filled article"); yay MetaFilter!

I basically agree with eritain: McWhorter is a perfectly good linguist, but it's hard to parse this article. In general, I don't think he does a great job of popularizing; I'm in the process of reviewing his Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, and while he makes some good points and provides some valuable information, it's way too wordy and repetitive and his attempt to be down with the young folk by using their hip jive slang is embarrassing. (His views of Sapir-Whorf are nuanced, though, and he is willing to accept the weak view implied by the experiments edheil talks about.) And then there's the scientism evidenced by this quote:

Viscerally, as a great fan of Russian for many years, I am as uncomfortable as anyone else with the prospect of Russian no longer being passed on to children. However, I am also aware that mine is not necessarily a logical discomfort.

Why must people who consider themselves scientists talk as if they were Vulcans? "That... is... not... logical..." People aren't logical, and logic isn't the proper tool for everything, specifically including feelings about language (which itself isn't logical). The death of languages is as inevitable as the death of people; I'm not sure why we have to take a position about it, but there's no need to apologize because your feelings aren't logical. It would suck if Russian or English died, even if it didn't diminish the Gross Planetary Product one bit.
posted by languagehat at 9:28 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


atrazine, i'd been given to understand that there are many mutually-unintelligible Hindi dialects in use throughout India, and that the practical lingua franca has been English for a long time. (Hence, the "largest population of english-speakers on earth" is in India. And hence the too-seldomly-made point that the English they speak is their own native English, thank us very little.)
posted by lodurr at 9:30 AM on October 30, 2009


lodur, my priority is saving up for a house. Just because that's a big priority of mine doesn't mean that I should stop buying coffee and good cheese every now and again. You know why? I can afford it.

France can afford to let its Lenga d'òc and Breton communities teach children in their own language. You don't see them grinding their entire country to a halt while the concentrate only on clean energy production, health care, sustainable agriculture, and ameliorating the effects of global climate change, do you? They do plenty of other stuff, too. You know why? They're rich.

Leave the stamping out of minority languages for the impoverished countries that simply can't afford to train teachers to run minority-language schools or come up with written languages and instead need to concentrate on creating a stable unified nation state that allows them to feed and protect their people. But for most of us, that's not a factor.

Besides, you know what can really help the 3rd world? Helping individual communities sustain themselves and allowing those communities to create their own teaching and schools for their children and have a certain level of autonomy.

A long time ago, we didn't realize how relatively easy bilingualism was to sustain for children. A combination of lack of resources and desperate need to create a "unitary" identity for unstable, newly formed countries drove those governments to insist on a single unitary language and the determined death of the minority ones. Not only do we know better now than we did then, but we have the resources that we didn't do in the past. There's no reason to pretend otherwise.
posted by deanc at 9:33 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I had difficulty imagining a perspective from which the "you" in that sentence referred to some imagined universal.

The only way I can see to read it is that he's trying to pretend that anyone claiming to not like the idea of linguistic monoculture really just reflexively hates the prospect of English winning out, and we'd consider it a wonderful, romantic idea if it were a mourned, extinct language instead. Because the only reason to not like the idea of linguistic monoculture is one's irrational hatred of America (English, of course, is the only possible candidate for sole surviving language.) Sort of like how anyone in America supporting the separation of church and state hates Christians, environmentalists hate humans, and Obama supporters hate freedom.
posted by Zed at 9:35 AM on October 30, 2009


I'm in the process of reviewing his Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, and while he makes some good points and provides some valuable information, it's way too wordy and repetitive and his attempt to be down with the young folk by using their hip jive slang is embarrassing.
Do you have a recommendation for a better book that covers the same subject matter?
posted by deanc at 9:35 AM on October 30, 2009


I'll admit that John McWhorter is someone that I rarely agree with on anything so I'm not inclined to give him much credit but I was still rather shocked to read this: "As people speaking indigenous languages migrate to cities, inevitably they learn globally dominant languages like English and use them in their interactions with one another."

The migrants to cities don't learn globally dominant languages, they learn locally dominant languages, which sometimes also happen to be languages with a global reach. Good examples of that are Kinshasa and Abidjan, sometimes referred to as the second and third largest Francophone cities in the world respectively (Paris being number one). While it is true that many in Abidjan grow up speaking French as their native tongue in Kinshasa French is almost exclusively a second tongue. Lingala is the language that has become the language that Kinshasan kids talk in. French is a global language, with large, stable, native speaking communities in the Americas and Africa but Lingala is a regional tongue. That French is the dominant language in Abidjan while Lingala is dominant language in Kinshasa is purely a matter of local conditions.
posted by Kattullus at 9:40 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bye to Bloggingheads. Bye to blogginheads.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:43 AM on October 30, 2009


Lodurr, I think it's more that there are multiple languages in India (rather than multiple dialects of Hindi), and that the non-Hindi speaking regions weren't too happy with the phasing out of English and its replacement with Hindi. The Wikipedia article seems reasonably good.
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:43 AM on October 30, 2009


deanc: Leave the stamping out of minority languages....

... which has what to do with what I said?

Which was, for the record: "But the idea that governments ought to always care about the languages that are spoken by people who also speak the state or principle language, strikes me as ... well, frankly, a luxury. Especially considering the shithole we're sinking into ecologically."

I'm just not finding the place in there where I advocated eliminating minority languages. In fact, I closed the following paragraph like this: "If it helps you keep going as a community, keep contributing to the world we all have to share, then by all means I'm with you."

So, just so we're clear on this: posted by lodurr at 9:46 AM on October 30, 2009


to call a piece of art "cute" is demeaning

That's not exactly settled law.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:49 AM on October 30, 2009


Kattulus: That French is the dominant language in Abidjan while Lingala is dominant language in Kinshasa is purely a matter of local conditions

By "dominant" do you mean "high-status"? I.e., are you saying that the most commonly-spoken language in Kinshasa is Lingala, but the socially dominant language is French? i.e. i.e., that in-migrants learn Lingala first, then French at some point?
posted by lodurr at 9:50 AM on October 30, 2009


I meant dominant in terms of what most people speak. French is undoubtedly higher-status in Kinshasa than Lingala.
posted by Kattullus at 9:54 AM on October 30, 2009


I don't think it's realistic or a good use of resources for us to send Language Preservation Corps into the "3rd" world. If preserving existing languages [see second quote above] helps in that mission, "I'm with you."

Fair enough, but it's one of those things that sounds pretty cheap and might be worthwhile. I generally don't fear that the imposing might of the Linguistics Industrial Complex is going to end up distracting us from more important priorities.
posted by deanc at 9:59 AM on October 30, 2009


VELL IF VE HAD HAD OUR VAY YOU'D ALL BE SPEAKING GERMAN
posted by yoHighness at 10:06 AM on October 30, 2009


This may not be altogether helpful, but I have found McWhorter to emphasize contrarianness at the expense of actually making sense. It’s hard to pin down, as is the case here; it seems to infuse everything he says. It seems to be built-in for him because he does the same thing in spontaneous spoken interviews (which I have heard several of) and in written essays well considered in advance.

I too have trouble understanding what he stands for. Blacks (he’s one) should speak Standard U.S. English, as he does? Or should they revel in their distinctive subdialects? That’s just one example.

McWhorter leaves me quite confused, I realize now.
posted by joeclark at 10:21 AM on October 30, 2009


Normally I enjoy John McWhorter's writing and on the radio a great deal.

This post was a link to a badly written, oddly-asserted and vaguely biased piece.

I think language follows power as much as anything else. People speak English for the most part because the money is where people speak English. If people had their entire lives dependent on knowing Mandarin, we'd be exchanging polite, "ni hao ma's" to each other on the subway every morning.

Having one language isn't necesarily "evil" - but I believe that the pluses of such a situation pale in the light of what would happen on the minus side.

Not to mention the invariable Tea Party version of Who's Speaking the Real, God-Chosen English? SIGN HERE TO SAVE ENGLISH FROM THE SOCIALISTS!

Language is just like knowledge equalling power. The more you can say, the better you can control an argument. The more you can control what people say and how they say it, the more arguments you win.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 10:37 AM on October 30, 2009


> Do you have a recommendation for a better book that covers the same subject matter?

No, because a lot of the subject matter is his attempt to popularize what he's written more technically elsewhere (about creoles and the history of English).
posted by languagehat at 10:48 AM on October 30, 2009


Redemptor, homo hominis improbus est.
posted by tzikeh at 11:05 AM on October 30, 2009


Okay, I'm a computational linguist and I fought the good fight for developing tools to preserve endangered languages during grad school. I contributed to E-MELD, I learned how to read a handful of languages and studied the grammar of a few dozen more. This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

The idea is that we want people to be able to keep their native languages if they want to. As koeselitz said, there is no one making anyone keep their language. However, there has been a movement to undo some of the damage wrought by government programs to eliminate smaller languages, methods including boarding schools, and the elimination of education in minority languages. The fate of languages should be left up to the people who speak them. If they want to teach classes and have children study indigenous literature and culture, then they should be able to do that. If everyone finds it easier speak one language a home and another at school or work, that's okay, too.

And if a language dies out, it will be okay; we'll have a tape backup. Or at least well have one if there are enough financial resources to catalog and archive all these languages. Recordings will never be equal to having a live speaker, but it is true that there has been more data collected than can be analyzed in my lifetime.

Still, more needs to be done to give speakers of endangered languages tools to use and keep their languages. So, while information is getting more and more centralized, the idea is not to lock out people who speak languages outside of the mainstream. Giving people the option to read the newspaper or get vaccination information in their own language is a valuable resource. One of the ways to achieve this goal is to do machine translation, although that is a tough problem because mainstream, data-driven methods don't have the adequate corpus sizes to get high-quality translations. In summary: please send money.

Okay about the article: I call bullshit on the idea that only 200 languages are written. Where did that number come from? Most languages spoken in any kind of capacity are written in one form or another. They might borrow their alphabets, spelling might not be consistent, and it might not be formalized in school but reading and writing is happening. It might not be used by everyone and not everyday, but to say that more than 90% of the languages of the world are only spoken is absolutely wrong. Mapudungun is only spoken by ~400,000 people and it's written regularly.

Oh, and what is he doing teaching people Pomo if he's not a native speaker? That's a recipe for disaster. The trick to teaching any language class as a non-native speaker linguist is to always have a native speaker present even if they know nothing about grammar or linguistics. They should be there to give the most accurate pronunciations, help clarify word senses, and will be much better at correcting mistakes. Sheesh.
posted by Alison at 11:06 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


To seriously learn a new language takes much more time and effort than an adult can really invest.

I must raise a minor disagreement here, chunking express: while difficult--or to be more accurate, time-consuming--it is not impossible for an adult to learn a new language fluently (a.k.a. "seriously learn").
posted by dubitable at 11:52 AM on October 30, 2009


The migrants to cities don't learn globally dominant languages, they learn locally dominant languages, which sometimes also happen to be languages with a global reach.

Kattullus, he seems to acknowledge this, although perhaps indirectly, when he brings up the example of Japan:

As long as there are Japanese people meeting and raising children in Japan, amidst a culture in which Japanese is enshrined as the language of not only speech but education, literature, and journalism, it is hard to conceive even of the first step toward the day when a child raised in Osaka would speak English and think of Japanese as a language his parents spoke when they “didn’t want me to understand.”
posted by dubitable at 11:59 AM on October 30, 2009


If we're going to do one world language, let's do it right. Esperanto has failed before, and it will fail again. What we need is a language that will succeed. And there's no way to say "success" like Qapla'!
posted by Flunkie at 12:01 PM on October 30, 2009


Why must people who consider themselves scientists talk as if they were Vulcans? "That... is... not... logical..." People aren't logical, and logic isn't the proper tool for everything, specifically including feelings about language (which itself isn't logical). The death of languages is as inevitable as the death of people; I'm not sure why we have to take a position about it, but there's no need to apologize because your feelings aren't logical. It would suck if Russian or English died, even if it didn't diminish the Gross Planetary Product one bit.

languagehat: if I'm understanding the article correctly (which I think I am, and I didn't really find it so confusing as so many people in the thread did, which sort of makes me unsure if I'm not missing something...), it seems like this is more or less what he's saying. His opinion about Russian (leaving aside the Vulcan-speak) seems to me to be meant as: "look, I have a soft spot for languages just like anyone else, but they are not sacred, and my opinion about Russian being really cool isn't itself a good enough reason to try and save it if it starts to go the way of the dodo."

Overall, it seems like his point(s are) is quite clear in this article: let's not romanticize language, let's acknowledge that it is functional and languages die as a matter of course, and others, spoken by majorities, take their place. Because he believes that culture is not inherently a component of language, or perhaps another way to put it is that because he believes that the loss of a language does not mean losing an irreplaceable aspect of a culture, then we shouldn't spend so much time and energy on maintaining speakers of obscure and dying languages.

I suppose the article does have a misleading title though, because it is not really about English in a sense--it just so happens that, according to him, English is best placed right now and seems to be good enough to become the lingua franca. So I guess there are two major components of the article but the former seems to me to be the more important one, with the latter being merely the follow through ("A being the case, then B seems likely...").

Right? Am I missing something?
posted by dubitable at 12:10 PM on October 30, 2009


I too have trouble understanding what he stands for. Blacks (he’s one) should speak Standard U.S. English, as he does? Or should they revel in their distinctive subdialects?

As far as this piece, he seems to have brought that up just to illustrate the point of how language is not a requisite for maintaining a strong sense of culture--that language adapts to culture, not vice-versa (...without getting too subtle about it; I realize more sophisticated arguments can be made here).
posted by dubitable at 12:15 PM on October 30, 2009


dubitable: Kattullus, he seems to acknowledge this, although perhaps indirectly, when he brings up the example of Japan

In Japan there are no other main languages, unlike in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are many. Because Lingala is the dominant vernacular already in Kinshasa these migrants start acquiring the language and their kids grow up knowing it.

My point was that global languages don't drive out local vernaculars but local vernaculars supplant other local vernaculars.
posted by Kattullus at 12:27 PM on October 30, 2009


... and it makes for some interesting power dynamics (hence my request for clarification): Lingala is more prevalent, but French is dominant. Similar situations throughout the world, with Haitian and French being one that comes quickly to mind. Or Ukranian and Russian in the Soviet era. Subtleties in the ways that language follows power.
posted by lodurr at 12:53 PM on October 30, 2009


Burhanistan: If you just know English it's more like Windows 3.1 then...

People who go out of their way to declare English inferior because it's spoken by Americans are just as annoying as people who defend English as the sanctified language of Shakespeare. Rather than being the greatest language or the worst, it's far more likely English is just average.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:22 PM on October 30, 2009


Burhanistan: If you just know English it's more like Windows 3.1 then...

People who go out of their way to declare English inferior because it's spoken by Americans are just as annoying as people who defend English as the sanctified language of Shakespeare.


That's nice. But in context, my point, however poorly and jokingly expressed, was that just knowing English without any second language is something that makes you a bit obsolete. I don't see how I "went out of my way" there, but whatever.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:26 PM on October 30, 2009


While reading the article I was pleased that, being a linguist, McWhorter anticipated reasonable arguments and tried to address everything. It felt very rushed, which I suppose is what you get when you take on a polemical subject with only 3000 words, but the attempts were there.

Still—I couldn't help but feel that he was short-changing the subject somehow. The "basic question" of which he speaks at the end cries out for moderation: "Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?" Well, but who said it was inherently evil to begin with? I don't find it inherently evil that there is one hominid species either—though looking on the diversity which once existed (and perhaps romantically forgetting just how cruel Homo sapiens sapiens can be to its own kind) I do wish there was more to humanity. Or to expand that a bit, more than just one inhabited planet.

The loss of language does often mean that an otherwise marginalized group has traded up to take part in something less parochial; and I am a city dweller and a cosmopolitan-minded fellow myself; but that doesn't mean I can't be a bit wistful thinking of the enormous amounts of human capital thrown away with the death of a language. Noting how hard languages are to pick up, how could any person look so cavalierly on obsolescence of the colossal human efforts it took to shape that language? To refine it, use it, tell stories in it, versify, love it?

And to have but one language would entail its own doldrums. I am an Anglophone by upbringing, but I bring Latin, Spanish, French, and just a little German and Japanese in wherever I can. One's language is enriched by others. Some things sound infinitely better expressed in French or Spanish than in English. Only Latin can lend gravitas to caseus est vetus mucidusque. I take great pleasure speaking my fractured Spanish at times. The loss of languages is a loss of pleasure to people. It may not be a tremendous loss, but it's there and undeniable.
posted by adoarns at 3:10 PM on October 30, 2009


I think there's a bell curve as far as understanding (via a common language/transparency/etc) by international peace and/or prosperity go.

If you face another entity you know little to nothing about, instinctive fear kicks in. Suspicion, and probably war, ensues.

If you face an entity incapable of keeping a secret or lying (like House's depiction of a person with a damaged prefrontal cortex), we'd know all of their opinions and suspicions about us, thus causing us to rationally dislike them, probably eventually leading to war on the societal scale.

In the middle, we find the apex. As for where exactly that is, nobody knows. By my estimate, the Cold War was probably a case of too little understanding (in retrospect, we ran away with our suspicions), and the post-Internet era probably puts us in a time of too much understanding (you can now assassinate anyone's character if you put enough time and effort in). The thing is that we're probably closer to the peak, now, though, as the Internet has not caused mass paranoia on the scale that the Cold War did for both sides of the Iron Curtain.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:28 PM on October 30, 2009


grapefruitmoon: My ex-husband speaks English as his third language, and I've often said that he speaks it better than I (a native speaker) do. He's Icelandic, and I would argue that many Icelanders have a near-native grasp of the language. From this, I would gather that English is relatively easy to learn... but I think the more salient detail is that their culture is saturated with it. Movies and TV are subtitled, not dubbed, so you *hear* English all the time. Constantly. And of course, it's taught in school. So there's that.

This brings to mind what I like to call 'the Homogenic Conundrum.' If Iceland is a nation full of people who are quite familiar with English – and though I've never been there my interactions with Icelanders lead me to believe that it is – then why haven't any of them explained it to Björk yet?
posted by koeselitz at 3:55 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


atrazine, i'd been given to understand that there are many mutually-unintelligible Hindi dialects in use throughout India, and that the practical lingua franca has been English for a long time. (Hence, the "largest population of english-speakers on earth" is in India. And hence the too-seldomly-made point that the English they speak is their own native English, thank us very little.)

Sort of. North Indian languages are generally but not always related to each other. These are languages like Maharastran, Bengali, Hindi, etc. They're derived from Sanskrit (actually more complicated than that, they're derived from the local "vulgate" dialects of old Sanskrit.), these languages are the "Indo" in Indo-European.

South Indian languages1 are not related to North Indian languages at all. Telugu, Malyalam, etc. form their own distinctive language group, Hindi is closer to English than it is to Telugu.

So of course, it would be politically impossible to impose the speaking of Hindi on the South, English is perfect for this purpose because it's a lingua franca which has uniting rather than dividing historical roots in India. (Everyone can put their internal squabbles aside and share a jolly old gripe about the Brits.)

I often joke with my Indian friends that we Europeans should adopt Hindi as our official language. French, German or English would be impossible because no Frenchman would tolerate either of the other two as the One True Language or vice versa. So we should go with an outside language, equally difficult for all Europeans to learn

(1) North Indian languages are written using the Devanagari script, South Indian scripts are much more rounded than the angular North Indian ones. The reason for this is that in the South they used to write on sheets of dried palm leaves which will crack if you put too much pressure on them in straight lines, and thus form follows function.

Languages are fun!
posted by atrazine at 4:29 PM on October 30, 2009


People read Tolstoy or Dante in the original, because it's a more complete aesthetic experience than getting them filtered through a translation.

The original language is what the author wrote. A translation is the translator's opinion of what they meant. It may be a valid opinion,but it's still an opinion, rather than the original words, with all the freight that any person's words carry with them. If you read it in the original, you get your own opinion of the meaning behind the words, rather than an opinion of the translator's opinion.

I suspect that learning a language in order to read literature in its original is a bit of a futile effort (though not useless for other reasons), since you can never absorb all that freight except through a lifetime of exposure. Of course, even when reading in your own native language, you never get the entire intent of any author, since any word or phrase has associations that no one except the person who utters it feels. Hearing the author read adds a bit more, though sometimes that bit more is not to his credit. I heard William Kinsella read a couple of stories, and can no longer bear to go more than a paragraph into anything he has written because I hear his voice, and the emphases make it unbearably smug and judgmental.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:27 PM on October 30, 2009


it's far more likely English is just average.

No, it's a huge language (~50,000 words) with a lot of flexibility. You're allowed to do things in English that would be unthinkable in many other languages, like using a verb as a noun or a noun as a verb, or patching a suffix onto a word where it really doesn't (by rule) belong in order to change it into an entirely different part of speech. Poets love it.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 6:07 PM on October 30, 2009


I suspect that learning a language in order to read literature in its original is a bit of a futile effort
Not futile, really, but a damn sight worth of dedication, if my own paltry efforts are worth anything. Though when you know a lot of Spanish and Latin French isn't bad, and when you have studied some Old English and speak the modern version German isn't horrible. Even attempting to delve outside the Indo-European family for literature's sake, though, is out of the question until I become financially independent.
posted by adoarns at 8:00 PM on October 30, 2009


just knowing English without any second language is something that makes you a bit obsolete .

Someday perhaps, but not in today's world. English is virtually a global second language. "Ugly American" criticism aside, it will be far easier for me to go to Germany and get a hotel and dinner with only English than for a German to go to Britain or America and do the same with only German. There are many negatives associated with only speaking English, but "obsolete" is not one of them.
posted by spaltavian at 8:48 AM on October 31, 2009


> You're allowed to do things in English that would be unthinkable in many other languages, like using a verb as a noun or a noun as a verb, or patching a suffix onto a word where it really doesn't (by rule) belong in order to change it into an entirely different part of speech. Poets love it.

Nonsense (except for the part about poets loving it, but of course poets always love their language). Many (probably most) languages habitually make verbs into nouns and vice versa; every language that has affixes plays with them; etc. etc. It's a mug's game to try to defend the proposition that any particular language is particularly "rich" or "difficult" or "ancient" or whateverthefuck.
posted by languagehat at 10:01 AM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's a mug's game to try to defend the proposition that any particular language is particularly "rich" or "difficult" or "ancient" or whateverthefuck.

Since my personal model is that every person has their own personal language which they have created themselves, which, as part of its creation, overlaps sufficiently with the languages of the other in his vicinity to be allow functional communication, any language is only as rich etc. as the person who created it. But we can group those personal languages into families like English, French, Hindi etc. for functional and descriptive purposes. Taking those families as prescriptive rather than descriptive leads to ridiculosities like L'Académie française pretending to control a language.

I admit that my estimation of English(es) as particularly flexible is second-hand from my intro to linguistics class, since I don't have sufficient command of any other language to compare (my Japanese is good enough to get around as a tourist, but not to read a newspaper, my French is good enough to almost read a newspaper, but not to get around as a tourist). However, when a lot of information is coded into various affixes, you have to be careful about how you use them (especially if every case is covered in some manner), but when that information is contained in word order, as in English, you can be a lot looser.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:01 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm curious what is the clarifying difference between a dialect and language, or are they both one and the same but a different name?

I lived in Okinawa (Japan) for 3 years and while Japanese is the now native language, Okinawa had its own language "Uchinaaguchi (U-chi-na-a-gu-chi)" (in mainland Okinawain) until it became part of the Japanese empire. My above question arises as Okinawain actually had 5 separate languages / dialects so someone from Miyako may not be able to communicate with someone from Taketomi, given the differences between the spoken language.

A sad note to this is during WW2 it was actually illegal to speak Okinawain and in extreme cases people were shot, so a language genocide is a lot sadder than the language death that now occurs in Okinawa.
posted by Merlin The Happy Pig at 2:21 PM on November 1, 2009


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