Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

Goodbye. Au Revoir. Do Svidanya.

Languages die. Get used to it

Here in three breathless paragraphs, though not entirely off the top of my head, is how I think language happens. Barring genetic or prenatal mishaps, we are born with brains in which more or less contiguous areas are designed to make speech. Among other innate faculties, we are given a mental tool kit by which to order speech intelligibly. Our brains will do the job for us as naturally as they enable us to breathe, or eventually to sit, stand and walk. We will start to speak, regardless of whether a tape deck is playing irregular verbs under our infant cots or how many times our mothers say “Baby go ga-ga goo-goo.” By instinct we will acquire and absorb the specifics of language with astonishing ease and spectacular speed.

Language is given to us, but we learn languages. We acquire the one or more languages of our caregivers; the speech of kinship and family; the distinctive dialects of tribe and locality. We react, and verbally respond, to our landscape and climate. Some of us learn to read and write. We learn the argot of games and the playground; the jargon of school, law, the workplace and commercial transactions; the discourses of friendship and sex. We develop our idiolects—our personal vocabularies—and distinguish the idiolects of others, whether they be of garbage collector or astrophysicist, Jack Kerouac or William Shakespeare. We ingest the languages of others at the same time as we augment or enlarge them with our own. With the head start innately given us we acquire the particulars of communication.

But prior to each act of speaking, reading or writing, something else is going on. The brain—or more broadly the mind—is forming patterns, making connections. This preconscious, preverbal activity enables us to have rapid-fire debates—no groping for words required. It allows us to turn a purely visual image or musical phrase into a poem or a mathematical equation. An overpowering feeling of the numinous may make us utter ecstatic or worshipful words. We do not need words to register the beauty and wonder of a galloping horse, or a cat swatting at a fly, though words may be an outcome. For everyone everywhere, language plays catch-up. It also plays catch-up in denoting what’s outside us. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out that the sounds and marks we make are arbitrary and conventional. They are the lassos we toss at referents. The signs we make become endowed with private and public connotations, but the celestial body that shines above our heads at night is the same whether we call it “the moon” or “la lune.”


Some precision is possible concerning language itself. But when we consider the many languages that people speak around the world, our terms go wobbly. For all our talk of language birth, growth and death, languages do not behave or evolve in the same way that organisms in the biosphere do. For one thing, the passenger pigeon took a lot more time to become a passenger pigeon than Pictish did to become Pictish. Languages are not entities: they depend on their speakers. Family trees and biological taxonomies are imperfect models for the sprawl of languages. Even how many languages we count can depend on how we define them. When is a linguistic variety not a language but a creole, a dialect, a “high” or “low” form? Does it have privileged status if it’s written as well as oral? After the breakup of Yugoslavia, are Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian still Serbo-Croat?

Our own language is changing even as I write, you read, and they speak. As a lexicographer, I encounter mutability on a daily basis, blinking at firefly slang and neologisms, shuffling across the shifting sands of polysemy, sinking into the murk of time-blurred etymologies, blundering through the foggy borderlands of American, British and Canadian English. Any good survey of English, such as Bill Bryson’s sprightly The Mother Tongue, shows us that language is always in motion, and that our particular language is the product of invasions and usurpations. In succession Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Danes and Norman French stomped ashore on a few islands off the northwest coast of Europe—English is the problem child of mainly Latin and Germanic parents. Through exploration and expansion, its speakers got into the import-export business. English was flung across the map by soldiers, sailors, colonists, traders, slavers and soul-savers. In turn English borrowed numerous words, sometimes complete with accents, from other languages. The idea of “a pure language,” like its running mate “a pure race,” is pernicious nonsense. All languages are more or less mongrels: English is a Heinz 57.


A juggernaut (via Hindi from Sanskrit Jagannatha, “lord of the world”), English is now spoken as a first, second or auxiliary language by 2.5 billion people, far more than any other, and it dominates business, science, technology, mass culture and communications. It is often depicted as the prime silencer of other tongues. Yet the loss of languages is an age-old story. Loss may stem directly from the massacre, enslavement or decimation by disease of a language’s native speakers. A language may turn into derivative tongues, as Latin did over the centuries. The rise of nation-states may promote national languages to the detriment of minority ones, which are often curbed or banned by governments and schools. Most often, a language will give way to one that offers greater intangible or material rewards, whether money, power or status. If a pool of speakers sufficiently dries up—if children can no longer chatter, if a conversation between adults is no longer possible—a language dies.

Andrew Dalby’s Language in Danger (Columbia University Press) and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here (Random House) make us poignantly aware of the languages we’ve lost and will yet lose. Abley is impressionistic, personal, journalistic. A good reporter, he has travelled near (the Kahnawake reserve across the river from downtown Montreal) and far (the Northern Territory of Australia) and brought back affecting stories of language collapse and, more rarely, resuscitation. He applauds attempts to preserve or revive Manx on the Isle of Man, Mohawk in Canada, Provençal in France and Yuchi in Oklahoma. He commends the Welsh and Faeroese for gaining a partial victory for their languages, though he says that, when drafting official-language laws for Gaelic, the Irish “forgot the passion”—rather an odd thing to accuse the Irish of.

A resident of France, Dalby lacks Abley’s literary skills and keen eye for detail, but he is careful and clear, devoting considerable space to the historical and social context of language change. He is also refreshingly knowledgeable about Canadian language politics and policies. Dalby and Abley have much common ground. Both find the linguistic dispersal related in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel to have been a healthy development. Both are glum about the future of spoken Yiddish. Both are alarmed about how fast languages are vanishing. Dalby predicts that national languages like Mandarin and Hindi will continue to spread rapidly within their respective borders, as will English on a global scale. He claims that, at the present rate of extinction, half of what he estimates as the world’s five thousand languages will be lost during this century.

Why should we care? To care about language loss is itself a modern phenomenon—the Romans certainly didn’t shed any tears—but Dalby and Abley give us a number of reasons. Language embodies much potentially beneficial knowledge of the natural world; some hugely important drugs—aspirin, quinine and codeine among them—have their medical origins in the practices of indigenous peoples. A language carries forward spiritual traditions and oral literature, an enriching object of study for outsiders and of incalculable worth to the people themselves. As a cultural artifact, a language deserves study for its own complex sake. Dalby says that we need varied languages because “it is the interaction with other languages that keeps our own language flexible and creative.” Abley says he travelled “to test [his] hunch that the looming extinction of so many languages marks a decisive moment in human history—a turning away from vocal diversity in favour of what optimists see as a global soul and others as a soulless monoculture.”

These are good and sufficient reasons to save languages. But Abley goes further, quoting the Scottish poet W. S. Graham’s question “What is the language using us for?” and answering, “To articulate a vision of the world, a vision that shapes us even as we shape it. To express what is common to all of us, along with what is different for many of us. Only by noticing the differences can we fully grasp the
commonalities. Otherwise we are restricted to the path of thinking and imagining that a single language lays down.” This is Abley’s attempt to revive the bullet-riddled corpse of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Edward Sapir, an anthropologist and linguist, and his colleague Benjamin Lee Whorf theorized that a language influences the thought and behaviour of its speakers. In 1929 Sapir wrote, “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different cultures live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” Whorf later wrote, “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” Steven Pinker—Montreal’s gift to MIT and Harvard, explainer of Chomskyan linguistics, evolutionary biology and cognitive science—speaks of “the perennial appeal of the hypothesis to undergraduate sensibilities.” For Dalby, “it is surely true that a particular language presents a particular world view (Linguistic Relativity), and it may or may not be true that speakers of a language are steered or impelled by that language to think in a particular way (Linguistic Determinism).”

Abley appears to be a linguistic determinist, with a knack for getting everything neatly backwards, as evidenced by his take on Chomskyan linguistics. Noam Chomsky, as important to linguistics as Darwin is to biology, has theorized that an inborn universal grammar is common to all speakers and generates the specific elements of their languages, no matter how different those languages may appear. Chomsky’s ideas have led Pinker and others to talk of “language organs” and “grammar genes.” Abley believes that Chomsky’s linguistic theories are a “way of kissing languages goodbye” because they accept “the intrinsic equality among the world’s languages. We might call it complacency.” Abley seems to be saying that if we believe all languages share Chomsky’s “abstract universals,” we take the disappearance of any one language as a matter of little concern. Charges of complacency seem an odd fit for Chomsky, though, given that, as a public figure, he’s been a tireless defender of underdog peoples, notably the East Timorese. Nor do such charges suit Pinker, who has argued for the rule-bound integrity of the American dialect called Black English Vernacular and devotes several pages of his book The Language Instinct to lamenting language loss. Unlike Abley, Dalby has no problem with Chomsky, noting that “the inborn language universals provide only a basis, a framework, for human language.”

Abley’s zeal for conflating languages and world views sometimes leads him into dizzy extrapolations, especially in the chapter “Constructing the World” (“construct,” that C-word of postmodernist bafflegab). Perusing the Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary, he’s bemused to find that the Turkish word for “tree” also means “wood” or “timber.” He concludes that “surely the fate of trees can be profoundly affected by whether we think of them—in the mind’s eye, in the same breath, always—as timber. (Consider the difference between the phrases ‘I like cows’ and ‘I like beef.’) English enforces a distinction between the living organism of a tree and the useful material that organism provides. Turkish does not.” Is Abley saying that Turks can’t distinguish between an organism and its useful product? That kindly Turks don’t cut down trees? As it happens, English often employs the same word for a species of tree and the uses the tree is put to. “Pine” does nicely for the stuff that grows on your back lot, the stuff you burn and the stuff your IKEA table is made of.

The belief that languages have specific intellectual virtues belongs to the history of fallacies. Many, including Abley, suppose that a propensity for forming compounds makes German uniquely suited to philosophy. (If Germans spoke Inuktitut, we would doubtless be rattling on about how the latter’s polysynthetic properties make it ideal for philosophical terms. Imagine—Inuktitut has forty different words for Zeitgeist!) But the peculiarities of a language emerge on a grid of time and space: Germans, German, and German philosophy are all present and accounted for because of a confluence of historical and social factors. Abley observes that “the incredible diversity of human languages is surely just as remarkable as the hidden similarities of their grammar.” Neither is in the least remarkable. Migrations, dislocations, conquests, geographical isolation, intercultural contacts—all are instruments of linguistic change. As Dalby notes, languages grow apart when they don’t intermix. But since the Abkhaz, the Kurds and the Zulus possess the same kind of brains, they process the basics of language in exactly the same way.

Among the social forces that preserve languages, religion has often been vital. Ruth Wisse, an ex-Montrealer who is one of Abley’s informants on Yiddish, notes that for Jews “what has mattered, since the beginning of time, is their religious civilization.” As Dalby points out, Hebrew, Latin, New Testament Greek, Old Church Slavonic, Ethiopic (Ge’ez) and Sanskrit have lived on, at least in one corner of life, through rite and holy scriptures. Abley only grudgingly acknowledges the protective impact of Christianity, though. He cites the work of the Protestant missionary organization SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics) in saving rare South American languages, such as Hixkaryana, but bizarrely adds that it “is in the business of saving languages so that they will all disappear.” Historically, one can link Christian evangelism with British, European and American expansion, and the Christian clergy does bear some responsibility for the suppression of native languages in residential schools. But, through its Bible trans-lations and engagement with local peoples, Christianity’s influence on preserving tongues has been overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes Christians devised writing systems for oral languages, as the Methodist missionary Reverend James Evans did with Cree syllabics. Often Christians have saved not just languages, but entire peoples. That Guaraní is still spoken in Paraguay is likely due to the fact that eighteenth-century Jesuits herded natives, easy prey for marauding Brazilian slavers, inside fortified missions. The Jesuits may have saved the Guaranís’ souls. They certainly saved their skins.

Latter-day Whorfians and current Chomskyans agree that no language is better than any other, but reality is more complicated. Though in recent decades, as Dalby points out, there’s been a trend in Western countries to protect minority languages, linguistic nationalism is a curse of the modern world. Linguistic nationalists have taken their cue from J. G. Fichte, the eighteenth-century German philosopher who said, “Wherever a distinct language exists, a distinct nation exists also.” Ruth Wisse wisely cautions that “language is never the sum total of a people.” If we say that one language and the resulting “world view” is radically different from another, it is no great step to calling it superior or inferior. The door to outright racism is flung open.

In any discussion of disappearing languages and cultures, there’s often an element of liberal self-loathing, the mea culpa cringe. Muddy sentimentality also surfaces, as in these lines from Margaret Atwood’s “Marsh Languages,” one of Spoken Here’s epigraphs: “The dark soft languages are being silenced: / Mothertongue Mothertongue Mothertongue / falling one by one back into the moon.” Such mawkishness—and really bad poetry—is just a restated version of an old Romantic theme, except that instead of saying Noble Savage we substitute the concept Noble Language. The warm, wet, liberal Western mind becomes surprisingly conservative at this point. We want to preserve noble languages in all their unchanging nobility.

Kriol and Broken, two Australian creoles that Abley writes about, are marvellous examples of language change. As is the rise of various Englishes in Asia and Africa. As is joual in Quebec. The linguistic variety that Dalby and Abley celebrate is eminently worth sustaining, whether manifested as the new or the old. It’s heartening to know that, as Dalby informs us, every adult in India speaks at least two languages. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian was shunted aside in many parts of the former empire in favour of local languages. Abley thinks that Russian eventually may be on the way out and blames this decline on English, identifying “the infiltration of foreign phrases as well as isolated words” and “the use of English terms . . . for which home-grown equivalents exist” as the first steps in the process. He believes that “power does not lie just in bank accounts and gun barrels. Power lies in the words that govern behavior.” Yet the power language Abley is writing in is a product of precisely this kind of infiltration. If languages did not change, and people did not trade part or all of one language for another, Abley’s book would be in Welsh, and I would be getting my tongue around Scottish Gaelic—or maybe Old Norse.

Samuel Johnson, an instinctive conservative, resisted language change at the same time as he recognized its inevitability. In the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, quoted in Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, he wrote, “If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible . . . it remains that we retard what we cannot repel; that we palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated; tongues, like Governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution; let us make some struggle for our language.” What Johnson said about English in 1755 can be applied today to imperilled languages. To accept language change is not to condone a language’s eradication.

For people who have lost their native language there will be one comfort at least. In their new tongue they will still be able to think and express themselves through language itself—that universal marvel. They will be able to request, command, congratulate, curse, threaten and pray. They will be able to issue manifestos. They will be able to tell jokes and sing songs, to lie and tell the truth, to ask questions and give answers. Especially they will be able to mourn.