Mankind to Have Three Tongues by End of Century.
June 1, 2000 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Mankind to Have Three Tongues by End of Century. The writers make this sound like some kind of tragedy. I'm all for it, but, having one of the big tongues, I'm probably biased.
posted by Nyarlathotep (9 comments total)
Y'know, if you read tongues as 'the things in our mouths' rather than 'languages' the above description is really creepy.
posted by feckless at 9:19 AM on June 1, 2000

"Tongue-tongue is sad because he has but one small tongue with which to taste the whole world." -Dr. Mung-mung from The Tick
posted by plinth at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2000

Yeah, I read it as tongue, "the things in our mouth", and mankind "the wrestler, and I thought "Hmmm... two wrestling threads in a row?"
posted by premiumpolar at 10:04 AM on June 1, 2000

Maybe it's just the wordplay junkie in me coming out, but the inevitable language shakeup we're seeing begin strikes me as sad. Diversity is just more fun. I understand that this process is inevitable; languages exist to communicate, after all, and when their diversity impedes communication simplification becomes in order. I still like the idea that there are more languages out there than I can ever learn, more ways of talking about things, more words than I could ever find a use for.

posted by Mars Saxman at 10:19 AM on June 1, 2000

This topic and the comments on it provide a compelling argument why English should NOT be one of the surviving languages...
posted by wendell at 10:19 AM on June 1, 2000

Here hear Wendell!
posted by Markb at 10:36 AM on June 1, 2000

Of course, it is sad to see beautiful languages die. It is sad to see anything beautiful die. But a dead language is like a gazelle that has been killed by a lion--just part of nature.

Throughout history, languages have arisen, changed, died, morphed, etc. as the world population has grown, moved about, mingled and died in wars or plagues.

Whenever a language changes, dies, or comes into existence, it is always through a "natural" process of evolution. This is because language is primarily a tool. People use it if they need it and don't if they don't. If their tool is broken, they fix it. If they find a better tool, they pick it up and discard their old one.

Many people have tried to consciously tinker with old languages or create new ones, but these experiments are never successful. Language only works when nature runs its course.

Now, let's suppose that global communication eventually wipes out all languages except for English. There is no reason to think that at that point the evolution of language will come to a halt.

After all, many modern languages stem from a single ancestor language, which is often called Proto-Indo-European. If all languages except English die, English will become the new Proto-Indo-European and other new languages will develop from English.

You could argue that once we are all united under one language (or a few languages), the Internet and fast air travel will put a stop to language growth or change. But for that to happen, you'd also have to eliminate communities.

As all of you know, the Internet is NOT one great-unified culture. It is a huge number of tiny little cultures. Do the people at slashdot speak the same language as the people at

As long as people form communities, they will form their own languages.
posted by grumblebee at 11:11 AM on June 1, 2000

Excellent points, grumblebee. There are always going to be dialects and lingo, no matter what happens to the languages at large.

With that said, I think that English will dominate simply because it's the predominant language in America, and as Americans, we have a tendency to push everything that our society believes onto the rest of the world.

But, they still teach Latin in high schools....
posted by hijinx at 2:45 PM on June 1, 2000

Grumblebee is right, language change is an evolutionary process, but I can't agree that this is just one of those 'sad but true, let's move on' types of events - or, even worse, that it's a Good Thing (as Nyarlathotep suggests). What we're seeing is the cultural equivalent of the current wave of biological mass extinction, and it's every bit as tragic.

Language isn't just an 'add-on' to culture: language is an integral part of culture; the foundation of a culture. Take away the words for describing something, and you forget how that thing works, what it means, and just why it's so important anyway. When the Inuit forget all their words for snow, they will look at snow the way Westerners do, just as cold wet white stuff, and they'll forget how to live in it, and how to adapt to its every subtle variation. Similar things have already happened in all sorts of places where native languages have died out.

You may not be worried about that right now, but it's going to come back and bite us. Those thousands of tiny languages embody all sorts of knowledge about the places they developed in, and when the languages disappear so will that knowledge. Instead of choosing to live artificial Western-style lives, everyone will be forced to, because we won't know how to live any other way.

Do you consider it a tragedy that thousands of medicinal plants in the Amazon are becoming extinct before the wider world discovers their potential uses? Well, it's just as tragic that the cultures that have used them, and the words they use to describe them, are becoming extinct, because they are our guides towards such things. Without them, we're just know-nothings stumbling around in a big green jungle. We won't have the faintest idea what we're looking at. We will inhabit a world of ruins, surrounded by monuments and artefacts made by people we have no understanding of whatsoever. Yes, they still teach Latin in (a few) high schools, but ask the average tourist to read the inscription on a Roman ruin and see how far you get.

You may not care about all this if you assume that your language and culture will be one of the few survivors. But what if it isn't? What would that say about your life and the world you live in and love? Who would remember you?

Or, to express it differently: what if the language of the Web (not HTML, but the language we humans use to talk about the Web) disappeared tomorrow? Would you mourn it? Of course you would, because without it half the sites on the Web would be incomprehensible. Well, that's what half the population of the world is facing right now.
posted by rory at 5:39 PM on June 1, 2000

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