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Wednesday, June 4, 2014
The life and death of language
Of all the things that matter to humans, language might be the most important – considerably more so that politics, race, or even money. Language is probably the most inherent part of human culture: it separates us from the animals but it also distinguishes us from each other and helps us form particular communities in particular places. Anyone who has ever found themselves in a foreign country desperately trying to find the one person nearby who can speak English to explain something for us will understand that in times like those we realize how ‘different’ and ‘outside’ we feel when we can’t speak to other humans. Language is also the way in which we convey our emotions and our feelings, positive and negative; and the way in which we express the particular beliefs and knowledge of our cultures.
This is why it is so sad to hear about the number of languages that are dying out in our modern, globalized world. It is estimated that there is currently between 6,000 and 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and that up to 90% of them could be extinct by the year 2100. Many of these languages are only spoken by groups of 10,000 people or less, and as the older speakers pass away and younger members of the group are forced more and more to use one of the major languages of the world in order to communicate and participate in the global economy, detailed knowledge of these smaller languages is disappearing.
We may think this is unimportant – if only 10,000 people speak a language on a planet of 7 billion, perhaps it is not so crucial? Maybe it’s better to have fewer languages, so we can more easily understand each other. Think of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel – apparently all humans used to speak the same language, until God worried that we were trying to build a tower to heaven and decided to give everyone different languages to confuse us and make us into enemies. If we take this approach, getting closer to having a single world language again would make us more likely to cooperate and understand each other as fellow humans.
But I take a different approach. Each language, even the ones only spoken by a handful of people, expresses something culturally and emotionally unique. Each one demonstrates how different groups look at the world in slightly different ways – think about the famous claim that the Inuit of northern Canada have forty different words for various kinds of snow (and the rather less famous fact that the British have almost as many words for the different kinds of rain…). Preserving them and understanding them helps us to conceive of the different ways in which we can see the world, and helps to broaden our mind.
Even small changes in language can express the cultural diversity of human society, which is slowly eroding in the modern age. Think about the big deal currently being made about the difference between Russian and Ukrainian, with Russian speakers trying to secede from Ukraine after their language was briefly outlawed in official contexts. To an outsider, these two languages are almost identical – to someone who is part of Russian or Ukrainian culture, the differences are massive and important, because they say something about the groups and communities they belong to.
In today’s world we are all becoming part of the same cut-throat capitalist world order, with monotone cultures and experiences. In many ways this has benefited us and allowed us to live more comfortable lives. But it would be good to retain at least a little of the traditional life that has served us so well as a species for thousands of years, and it would be equally good to help smaller, poorer communities to keep something that allows them to stand out and feel pride in their own identity. Language is that tradition, and that carrier of identity, and more effort should be put into preserving our different ways of speaking, writing, and understanding the world, before it is too late.
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