Andrey (azangru) wrote,

Another kind of diversity...

It has always been puzzling for me how linguists — those few that I heard or read expressing their opinions on the subject — considered preserving endangered languages to be desirable, and language death tragic. One of the most memorable such encounters was when I watched David Crystal’s lectures on the language. He had a lecture called “Language Death”, which is essentially a summary of his book by the same name. Chapter 2, “Why should we care”, starts beautifully:

Why Should We Care?

Many people think we shouldn't. There is a widely held and popular – but nonetheless misconceived – belief that any reduction in the number of languages is a benefit for mankind, and not a tragedy at all. Several strands of thought feed this belief. One reflects the ancient tradition, expressed in several mythologies but most famously in the Biblical story of Babel, that the proliferation of languages in the world was a penalty imposed on humanity, the reversal of which would restore some of its original perfectibility. In an ideal world, according to this view, there would be just one language, which would guarantee mutual understanding, enlightenment, and peace. Any circumstances which reduce the number of languages in the world, thereby enabling us to move closer to this goal, must therefore be welcomed.

There are two intractable difficulties with this view. The first is the naivety of the conception that sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity. The examples to the contrary are so numerous that it would be impracticable to list them. Suffice it to say that all the major monolingual countries of the world have had their civil wars, and that as one reflects on the war-zones of the world in the last decades of the twentieth century, it is striking just how many of them are in countries which are predominantly monolingual – Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Burundi (the latter two standing out in Africa in their lack of multilingualism).  It is, in short, a total myth that the sharing of a single language brings peace, whichever language it might be. It is difficult to see how the eventual arrival of English, Esperanto, or any other language as a global lingua franca could eliminate the pride that leads to ambition and conflict – any more than it did in the supposed unilingual pre-Babelian era.

I usually love Crystal, but what struck me as odd in his treatment of this subject was the strawman that he chose for an opponent. The suggestion that sharing a single language might prevent conflicts is laughably weak; but that in no way devalues the advantages of sharing a single language. Other arguments, more relevant for our daily life, are to me much stronger — namely the ease of communication (for entertainment, sharing of knowledge, trade, traveling, etc.), and liberation from translations.

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