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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?