Linguicide: the death of language

A language dies every two weeks. It's a crime, says John Sutherland. And he knows who's guilty

Sunday 10 March 2002 01:00 GMT

Languages are possibly the most complicated structures the human mind has ever invented but, tragically, our species' most impressive creations are dying. According to the British linguist David Crystal, an indigenous language currently disappears every two weeks. By the end of the century, it is projected, 5,500 of the current 6,000 languages now spoken will join Latin and Greek as "dead languages". Those, of course, were once two of the world's top languages. Sic transit, as they used to say. What we are witnessing is linguicide. A language massacre.

There are no zoos, museums or cemeteries for dead languages. It's technically possible to record them for posterity, in some skeletal form, before the last speakers go to their final reward. One can create sound archives, compile dictionaries, store video footage and catalogue written material. You will lose everything that represents the life of a language: the idiolects (individual styles and quirks of speech), the subgroup dialects, the literary and expressive richness of a living tongue, its infinite capacity to reflect distinct modes of thought.

There's nothing more corpse-like than a dead language. They never come back to life. And, the brute fact is that no government is going to put taxpayers' money into any such project. Save the whale, yes. But save, say, Manx (the last native speaker on the Isle of Man died in 1974) – forget it.

There's no mystery about the root cause of the linguistic holocaust that we're living through. Take a holiday anywhere in the world. Your airline pilot will, as you listen to the safety instructions (in English), be communicating with ground control in English. Signs in the airport, whatever country you're in, will be duplicated in one of the world's top 20 languages – most likely English. You'll see Coca-Cola logos. MTV will be playing on the screens. Muzak will be crooning out Anglo-American lyrics as you walk through the concourse to baggage reclaim. At the hotel, the desk clerk will speak your language, as will, probably, the bellhop. (His tip depends on being polyglot.) Go into any internet café and the keyboard code that will get you best results is what you are reading now: English – the lingua franca of our times.

The spread of English is the product of naked linguistic superpower. If anyone anywhere wants to get ahead nowadays, an ability to speak English is obligatory. We take it for granted. When the premier designate of Afghanistan visited Britain a few weeks ago, the newspapers were entranced by his exotic dress – that colourful tablecloth-like shawl draped on his shoulders. No one commented on the fact that the dapper Mr Kharzai spoke better English than most of the journalists who interviewed him.

Would he have had the prospect of high office, in the Bush-Blair New World Order, had he been a monoglot Pashtun speaker? I doubt it. Power comes, as it always did in the 20th century, from the barrel of a gun. But in the 21st century it also comes, more pacifically, from the Oxford English Dictionary.

How did this happen? How did a dialect, spoken by a backward, semi-literate tribe in the south-eastern corner of a small island in the North Sea spread, like some malign pandemic virus, across the globe? Should we feel guilty that our way of speaking is obliterating so many other tongues? Is it not a more sinister kind of colonialism than that which we practised a hundred years ago? Once we just took their raw materials. Now we invade their minds, by changing the primary tool by which they think: "their" language.

The ethics of language superpower is tricky for "native English speakers", like most readers of this newspaper. We may get dubious bronze medals in the Winter Olympics; we may have lost an empire and not found a role. But, by God, we are the proud possessors of the big language: the top language in the linguistic premier league. It feels great to be great again.

Or are we? Is "English" a misnomer? Would it not be more accurate to rename what we speak "American"? Are we, if we're honest, linguistic colonisers or merely among the more privileged of the colonised? Closest, that is, to the real power, but not the wielders of it.

We are, of course, proud of all those pop groups from the Stones to Coldplay who have launched conquering "British Invasions" of the US pop world. But why, one may ask, do these cultural heroes all adopt American accents and idiom in their singing? Who ever serenaded a honky-tonk woman in Neasden? What top-level American pop groups "sing British"?

It's not invasion, but follow-my-leader. American is, currently, the dominant English dialect. Even Tony Blair says, "I'm a straightforward kind of guy," – just like Tony S (Soprano, that is).

A favourite axiom among linguists is "a language is a dialect with an army behind it". Follow the big armies (Roman, Norman, American, Chinese, Russian) and you'll find the "world languages". The most potent army, in 2002, flies the stars and stripes. If Tony had the Seventh Fleet and 500 B-52s, Dubya would be talking just like the man in Downing Street. Dream on, President Blair.

Another factor speeding the worldwide spread of American-English is the "dialect levelling" induced by modern mass media. Some 40 per cent of British prime-time TV is American originated; cinema screens and MTV-style music channels are even more tilted towards the transatlantic product. The resultant levelling can be measured in the younger population's preferred "discourse fillers": "ya know", "kinda", "sorta", "check it out". You'll hear them as frequently in London as in New York.

Be it a weapon of war or a cultural signifier, language is to Homo sapiens what water is to fish. Take it away and we're neither human nor sapient, as a new book, The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, attests. In this, McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, claims that language – sophisticated communication – is singularly and uniquely human. "Neither bees, chimps, parrots nor dogs," he writes, "could produce or perceive a sentence such as 'Did you know that there are squid 50 feet and longer in the deep sea?'"

Sophisticated concept formation is what makes language. Not only is language peculiarly human, no one can be fully human without it: "given the obvious advantages that language confers on the species, it is extremely unlikely that any human groups have ever cut out talking". McWhorter seems not to have heard of Trappists, but he does note that "the Puliyanese of South India barely talk at all after age 40; Danes tend to be on the quiet side; Caribbeans less so." But all naked apes talk. It's a species universal.

There is a running quarrel as to whether our ability to master the incredibly complex machineries of language (not to say our own peculiar dialect) is to be explained by our wiring (an innate propensity) or socio-cultural conditioning.

Do humans have what Steven Pinker calls "the language instinct", in his book of the same title, or do we pick up our language rules, practices and skills as we learn chess or how to programme the VCR?

These two opposed theories have led to decades of quarrel between the TG (transformational grammar) school – in favour of the wiring theory and inspired, originally, by Noam Chomsky – and the descriptionists. The acid test: how is it that we can generate sentences we have never heard before? For example: "the dead fish has a hairstyle just like Posh Becks". Of all the trillions of speech acts that have happened over the past 10 years, no one – I am confident – has said that before. It "means" something (something stupid, admittedly). How do I "generate" what I have never before encountered?

The genetic-predisposition argument is supported by two observable facts. Infants go through a phase in which they pick up language with amazing facility and speed. They could not learn to drive a car at three years old. But they can learn any language. On the other hand, most 17-year-olds who have passed their test with ease pick up languages only with great effort (as any A-level teacher will tell you). We have, it seems, a "language imprinting phase" in our childhoods. Call it instinct.

However, your children will speak differently from you, and their children from them. Our 6,000 (but shrinking) human languages all descend, despite infinite metamorphoses, from a common proto-linguistic African root, and are continuing to mutate, ad infinitum. Dialects die and change. That's how they live. But language itself never wears out. Nor will it, as long as we are human.

Chances are, however, that for a few generations most humans will be speaking English. But don't despair and don't exult. The Romans fondly believed it would be Latin.

'The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language' by John H McWhorter, Heinemann, £16.99, published March 14th

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in