Languages – What Extinction Can Mean

John McWhorter, the linguist, is always a bit of a maverick. And he is also quite often right. In “Dying Languages”, he argues:

In the end, the proliferation of languages is an accident: a single original language morphed into 6,000 when different groups of people emerged. I hope that dying languages can be recorded and described. I hope that many persist as hobbies, taught in schools and given space in the press, as Irish, Welsh, and Hawaiian have.

However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world’s people will speak one language — is one I would welcome. Surely easier communication, while no cure-all, would be a good thing worldwide. There’s a reason the Tower of Babel story is one of havoc rather than creation.

(Thanks to A&L, as usual.)

The richness of a language with much history and a broad vocabulary leads to precision, its choices are broader, its nuances finer. My students ask me to define words (or more often look blankly at me, can’t answer a question and slowly admit they have no idea what a word I used means) that many of us knew in junior high. They make mistakes we would never have made – confusing “it’s” and “it is” is understandable and the distinction may well be gone with this generation, but confusing weather and whether is surely the problem of someone who has learned vocabulary by ear and not by eye – which is almost always an indication of a smaller, less useful stock in our minds.

When I complain that their vocabularies are smaller than they should be, they say, ah, but we say what we want to say. Without precision or care or much thought, I respond. I should know, I’ve just read your papers. Several surveys indicate that most have fewer words at their command than would the same kind of student a generation earlier. When I complained about this, one of my husband’s colleagues responded: why would we need a large vocabulary? He had read somewhere that even the most abstract of ideas can be expressed in even the most spartan of languages. (Cultural relativism & postmodernism have their effect on the way English teachers think.) But much is lost with simplified vocabularies – here is a real & important diversity. Of course, if you have certain assumptions about the emptiness of meaning, then conversation and writing, too, need have no precision nor need words communicate clearly to others.

In a sense, the language Orwell devised in 1984 can communicate ideas – but not in a way that brings the complicated history of a word to bear on an idea, giving echoes and resonance. Losing vocabulary loses choices – choices that make for an exactness not just in communication but in thinking as well. English’s strength is its resilient, open acceptance of words.

A friend whose native tongue is Slovak teaches English as a second language; she observed that the learning curve in her native language (with its complex cases) is steep. Since I, unlike probably everybody on this blog and my whole family, have never even begun to master another language (the language tests for Ph.D.s were a joke when I went through thirty years ago – I doubt they’ve gotten tougher). Still, I accept her belief that English is easier to learn but hard to master. I figure that most of us never master it – all our lives we are learning new words and new ways to put them together. I’m sure the same is true of Slovak, but the greedy way in which words are drafted to fill in English means we are learning a body of knowledge that moves and enlarges just as we vainly hope to encircle it. Our mind’s ability to remember and keep words close will falter long before we have mastered the language. But aiming at mastery, stretching our understanding, helps us become more conscious of what we mean.

I don’t use a dictionary as often and carefully as I should – partially because I’m lazy & always plunge forward, never reading directions. But also I want to feel a word, work it out from where I see it. That may not be wise, but it give me a comfort level. Still, dictionaries are the history of our culture; they give us ancestry & a sense of the way our culture weaves together customs and ideas from other languages. David Hackett Fischer introduces Liberty and Freedom with a lengthy history of these two words and how understanding their nuances helps us understand America. We are lucky to have such a language and abandoning its riches, as my students and my husband’s colleague are so willing to do, is like rejecting an inheritance of unbelievable wealth for no better reason than we might have to spend some time learning about our inherited investments.

The richness of our language comes from the breadth of ways of looking at the world of the words we have embraced; it enlarges our horizons – freedom and liberty were derived from different roots and different cultures; being able to use both has shaded and enriched our understanding of this complicated concept. Therefore, we may well want to keep languages from growing extinct and should encourage the recovery of tongues already lost. For without those languages our own would have fewer words to draw on; not only will our writing & speaking be less rich and interesting, we will find our ideas left vague and imprecise for lack of the words in which to clothe them. New ideas can, of course, find new words–but a speaker with fewer choices is not forced to make cleaner and clear-headed discriminations, therefore, thinking is blurred. While enlarging our vocabulary may be useful, my students keep making up words when perfectly good ones already exist – they need the word but don’t have one that will do (not knowing, for instance, the noun form (prejudice, for instance) of a verb they like (prejudiced). (I’m pretty tired of prejudism, I can tell you.) Our new ideas are often old ones in disguise – old vocabularies help us understand where we have come from.

Language helps us think out what we have to say, then we say it. Communication is best if the words chosen communicate clearly. As McWhorter observes, babel is hardly an ideal. When we throw our voices out into space, surely we would prefer the broadest possible readership as well as the broadest possible set of commentators. We want to learn, to argue, to see their point. We want to know what has been thought. We are left with the ambivalence matters of diversity & pluralism almost always inspire: the good of difference & the good of sameness, the good of expression and the good of communication, the good of the parts and the good of the encompassing whole. But certainly McWhorter is right – if we all spoke the same language we would be nearer that great ideal of communication. And surely it is also true, the broader that language is, the better off we all are.

By the way, here’s a post by Lex from 2003 that is shot through with appropriate irritation with Sontag and appropriate humility before the old guys. (His affection for Mencken is not something I share, but certainly both Mencken and Lex are right here.)

2 thoughts on “Languages – What Extinction Can Mean”

  1. I don’t much like Mencken, actually, in his usual mode of jeering, smug, purported urban sophisticate. But his writing about the English language was based on serious and deep, if amateur, research.

    English has been an open source project for a millenium. Good English is what its best practitioners can convince others that it is, with clarity and simplicity always being the keynotes. We have never had anything like the academie francaise, let alone a mandarinate. We had Dr. Johnson, and Noah Webster, and Fowler, and the guys who put the OED together. Self-appointed, and willing to plunge into the marketplace of ideas to struggle for acceptance.

    And our openness has served us well in many ways. We have adopted massive numbers of words from foreign sources, giving Anglophones an enormous toolkit to work with. As Mencken notes, you can get by at the level of “me sell, forty dollar” and it is very easy to learn at this bottom-rung level of basic communication. Or you can rise to the highest possible levels of literary subtlety and sophistication, and you can make your own list of literary heroes here. In India, which is the future heartland of the next golden age of English literature, there is English all up and down the scale. As you say, “easy to learn but hard to master.” But to just get by, you don’t need to master it. And if you do master it, you will be richly rewarded. I think the glories of our language are not being abandoned, since they were always only appreciated by a small minority, but are being appreciated by a more widely dispersed community. Or so I hope.

  2. Perhaps to reinforce your sense of India as the future of English-speaking lit, my husband, a native Texan, just got a note from the Indian editor of a Cambridge series; the note was about my husband’s entry on one of the great Victorian sages. This is at once a sign of the gift of English thinking to these two ex-colonies – and of how the ex-colonies keep alive the ideas of the English.

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