Monday, March 20, 2006

Languages Like Passenger Pigeons


Adam Jacot de Boinod wrote on Sunday about the rapid decline in the number of the world’s languages, which are inevitably being replaced by dominant tongues like English, Spanish and Mandarin:

About 25 languages are being lost to humanity a year, and the pace is accelerating. Currently, there are 6,800 languages, and roughly one dies a fortnight. The world is shrinking, the rarity of isolation is contributing to the disappearance of languages, and the Internet, commerce and the media are causing English to increasingly dominate the international landscape.

We should all lament this loss, and many of us do. But not just for sentimental reasons. Each language is, at least in part, a unique map of the same shared territory of human life on Earth, and each language contains within its lexicon something to teach the rest of us.

This increased homogenization of world languages, as regrettable as it is inevitable, should please rationalists everywhere: It will simplify the job of intrastate and international communication, reduce occasions for misunderstanding and, most importantly, make it easier to have a one-size-fits-all marketing campaign that can be used by governments and corporations around the world.

Or will it? Firesign Theatre’s Peter Bergman recently told me that although English is becoming the world’s dominant language, recent converts to it are also appropriating words from their old language or even making new words up for everyday use. The result is a vast horde of words that no one from “English-speaking” countries ever hears, that nonetheless constitute generally understood English in some corner of the world.

These words will never make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, Bergman pointed out, and soon someone will have to create, say, an Oxford Asian English Dictionary to capture the richness and variety of all the English that will only be spoken in Asia. If other languages are dying, the importance of local dialects—of English—appears to be increasing, and learning them will become the job of U.S. diplomats in the 21st century.

Hopefully those dialects will make up for the loss of some of the richness of other languages:

There's so much arresting beauty in words that describe things for which we have no concise expression in English, such as wabi, Japanese for "a flawed detail that enhances the elegance of the whole work of art," or wamadat, Persian for "the intense heat of a sultry night." You find words for all stages of life, from paggiq, Inuit for "the flesh torn when a woman delivers a baby," to torschlusspanik, German for "the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older."

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