Disappearing Languages

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week that confirmed my long held beliefs on language.  The gist of the article was essentially that people who speak different languages can, and often do, have inherently different ways of seeing the world.  Instead of language simply being a vehicle for communicating our thoughts, researchers now believe that language helps to shape our thoughts as well.

Thanks to Chomsky’s work in the 1960s, most people think that languages all share a standard vocabulary of meaning and thought.  This new research is suggesting otherwise, showing profound differences in the way that different speakers experience the world as shaped by their native language.  The article discusses the fact that 1/3 of the world’s spoken languages rely on absolute directions (north, south, east, west) instead of personal directions (left or right) to discuss space, which makes a huge difference in their cognitive understanding of space.  This difference in spatial awareness makes these people amazingly accomplished navigators who rarely get lost.

Further examples include an absence of blame for accidental events in Japanese and Spanish speakers, while English speakers tend to assign blame even in clearly accidental situations.  Russians, who differentiate between shades of blue with more precise terms, are able to see a greater number of variations to the color than others.  A small Amazon tribe that does not use terms for specific amounts (instead using few or many) was “not able to keep track of exact quantities.”

But here, to me, is what the article really shows us:

“If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. And if you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants.”

Language is ours alone, at least in the sense used in this article.  We have a unique ability to communicate with depth and passion, and each unique language does so differently, adding vibrancy and depth to our world culture, improving on what it means to be human.

So why are thousands of languages dead or dying, some lost forever and others well on their way?  Why are we moving ever closer to a worldwide language (likely English) when we stand to lose so much of who we are as cultural individuals in doing so?

This is a constant issue for me.  Where is the line between what is good for humanity as a whole (many people see massive benefits to the species in a single language) and what is good for a particular society or culture?  What do we stand to gain by blurring away unique cultural practices and diverse languages, and are these gains worth what we stand to lose?

In the end, it’s not a decision I can make… or likely even make a difference in.  I’ll stand by and watch the world go in whatever linguistic direction it will… but I mourn the passing of a world full of the music of languages, ringing with the weave and flow of words that make no sense to my mind but fall on my ears like exotic music.  I miss you already, Provencal, Welsh, Hebrew… long will you be remember, Coptic and Latin.

I am driven, often, to learn these dead and dying languages, to embrace them as some odd last bastion… but I don’t think it changes much.  Unless my children and their children and hundreds more are possessed of the same drive, these languages will remain lost.

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4 Responses to “Disappearing Languages”
  1. Erin says:

    I took a linguistics class in college, and we spent a lot of time on Chomsky, and his ideas of how language shapes the way we think. We also spent a lot of time discussing things about how different cultures display priorities based upon their vocabulary. (Exactly what you were talking about with the Russians and blue)

    It’s a fascinating subject, and the way linguistic differences reflect culture (as well as the way linguistic differences reflect gender) was my favorite part.

    The idea that we are all moving toward English scares me a little. I’m ok with everyone knowing English, so long as that doesn’t become the only language in the world.

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