Don't be an ostrich in the sands of language

From a speech by Tim Connell, the professor of languages at City University, London, to the Institute of Linguists

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JRR Tolkein added to the linguistic canon by creating languages of his own. Elvish, for example, is actually based on Welsh, which Tolkien knew from childhood for a rather curious reason. His bedroom (actually in a suburb of Birmingham) overlooked a railway cutting and he could read the names of Welsh collieries on passing coal trucks, names like "Nantyglo", "Senghenydd" or "Blaen-Rhondda", and one very long train that had "Llanfairpwllheri" on the engine and "Llantysiliogogogoch" on the guard's van. Not quite as poetic perhaps as "Elbereth" or "Gilthoniel", but they drew Tolkien towards philology at a very early age, and he was a distinguished lexicographer before becoming a professor at 32.

JRR Tolkein added to the linguistic canon by creating languages of his own. Elvish, for example, is actually based on Welsh, which Tolkien knew from childhood for a rather curious reason. His bedroom (actually in a suburb of Birmingham) overlooked a railway cutting and he could read the names of Welsh collieries on passing coal trucks, names like "Nantyglo", "Senghenydd" or "Blaen-Rhondda", and one very long train that had "Llanfairpwllheri" on the engine and "Llantysiliogogogoch" on the guard's van. Not quite as poetic perhaps as "Elbereth" or "Gilthoniel", but they drew Tolkien towards philology at a very early age, and he was a distinguished lexicographer before becoming a professor at 32.

But then origins and roots are naturally of interest to linguists. I saw a TV programme recently in which Sir David Attenborough demonstrated with his customary elegance how the hyrax was related through a common ancestor to the elephant. At first sight this seems implausible, as the ground hyrax is a small furry creature the size of a guinea pig. The ground hyrax lives on the ground, while the tree hyrax, logically enough, lives up trees, something not normally associated with the elephant. But African legend recounts that the two know that they are related.

So you can just imagine the conversation at breakfast: the mother hyrax telling her young to eat up their porridge because one day they might just grow up to be elephants, and elephant mothers telling their offspring at dinnertime to eat all their greens, "else you'll grow up to be like your Uncle Hyrax, won't you?" Every family has its Uncle Hyrax.

I believe that people can be divided between the hyrax and the elephant in their attitude towards languages. This was well illustrated recently by the cab driver who said to me: "Ooh, I wish I knew how to talk foreign." Then there was the celebrated enquiry we had once at the start of the academic year: "Now, I want to be bilingual by Christmas. What do you suggest I do?" Well, the elephant response would be to take care to have lived abroad for 10 years, or to have gone to a bilingual school or to have spoken two (and preferably) three languages at home. The hyrax response would be to brush up on that rusty GCSE, sign up for a few courses - and go and see a travel agent.

Despite alarmist headlines about the death of languages, I would say that linguists as a breed are far from becoming extinct. Though if we do not take steps, they could become an endangered species in certain habitats. There are areas of current growth, like the number of students enrolling on courses in university language centres, or the 12,000 or so who now spend a year on European exchanges.

Then there is the number of young people who speak something other than English. This heritage language might be through their families, an early opportunity to travel, an international style of schooling or even a holiday home on the Costa del Sol. Twenty-five per cent of London schoolchildren now speak a language other than English at home. More than 300 languages are to be found in London schools. The list includes the languages which are seen to be most viable in commercial terms. That in turn provides London with new horizons and new challenges, as I see when ashen-faced undergraduates return from job interviews having been asked, "How many languages can you offer?"

There is, even so, another breed of animal that inhabits the fringe of the linguistic jungle which is vulnerable to predators, and that is the ostrich. You can try sticking your head in the sand, but however much some people might wish, language proficiency, language skills, the language world, are not there to be ignored.

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