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Reprieve for Babel

 

Neil Birrell

 

The question of whether there ever was one language from which all others came has fascinated people from the occultists, with their quest for the Ur-Sprache, which preceded the collapse of Nimrod's ziggurat, up to today's researchers into generative grammar - much influenced by the widely accepted theories of Noam Chomsky. In different ways their quests all echo George Steiner's question when he asks:

"Why does homo sapiens, whose digestive tract has evolved and functions in precisely the same complicated ways the world over, whose biochemical fabric and genetic potential are, orthodox science assures us, essentially common, the delicate runnels of whose cortex are wholly akin in all peoples and at every stage of social evolution - why does this unified, though individually unique mammalian species not use one common language?"

The problem is indeed acute. On the islands of New Guinea, where some 50 languages of the Papuan family are spoken in an area about the size of Wales, a couple of villagers separated by a well eroded hill may, if they meet, find that they are speaking two mutually incomprehensible morphologically unrelated languages. The punishment of Babel is well felt here and indeed other linguistically rich regions like Africa or Mexico also attest to the Babel phenomenon.

Karl Young has pointed out to me that simply "The Valley of Mexico with Mexico City as cultural if not geographical centre, (by Valley is meant an area of drainage larger than some European and central American states) was home to literally hundreds of indigenous languages most of them not related in any way to the Mayan family and often not to each other."

Were we to use Karl Young's definition that languages be defined simply on the basis of whether people can understand each other we get a shifting picture. Two traders in a market can understand each other perhaps for a basic transaction and can, at this point, be said to speak the same idiom. Babel might return if they turned to, say, discussing Flaubert. But this in turn moves towards the view of humankind as a multi-lingual animal almost by the very nature of his sociability - another Chomskyan idea:

"...the idea that there is anything like a pure speaker of a language. That's certainly untrue. Every one of us is a multilingual speaker. Every one of us has grown up in some strange mixture of dialects. Our parents spoke one way and our friends spoke a different way, and they spoke a different way on the radio. The whole idea of one state of mind is already a high level of idealisation.... In the real world, everyone grows up in a complex multilingual situation.

This comes back to my first point: that the notion 'English' really has no clear meaning. What we call English is something that includes the way you speak and I speak and the way they speak in England and the way they speak in the Ozark Mountains. If there were different political boundaries we might call some of these different languages. The fact of the matter is that all of us are multilingual speakers in the sense that we have some complex of grammars in our heads."

This kaleidoscopic regress need not stop there. Each one of us evolves and creates his or her language afresh with age. Babel becomes infinite. Surely we can clamber back a little whilst still accepting the premiss of multi-lingualism. The linguist Edward Sapir suggests we might by pointing out that there are important differences between individual and dialectic variations, "The individual variations are swamped in or absorbed by certain major agreements". In this respect though it may perhaps be unwise to speak of languages - associated with cultural heritage and in most instances with nationalism - we could certainly talk of stable dialects where such 'major agreements' give a sense of unity to individual variations - a discussion in a market is communication; it is not art.

If we go along with this idea of stable dialects perhaps the figure of 5,000 will seem a fair one. Such a figure need not astonish although it may well be conservative. What is more likely to surprise is the almost total dominance of a very small percentage of these 5,000. By listing a mere 5 (English, Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Hindi) we can account for the home language - and here we start to use the term as we wish to use it - of nearly half the world's population. By doubling the number we can account for 60% and about 2% of the total number of languages account for 95% of the world's population.

Even here, amongst the leaders, the fortunes are very varied as they swim around in some kind of linguistic meme pool. And as the meme theorists (Dawkins etc.) suggest external factors change and allow for different fortunes. People are of course familiar with a view of history which sees colonialism as a driving force. We are used to speaking of the Greek, Roman and British empires even if the American one sticks more in the throat. The influences of their languages always leave an indelible mark on the areas they visit. We will return to this matter.

Another significant factor in language survival - although less so today - is colonialism's opposite: isolation. Basque might be seen as an example. It's fortunes now are waning. Even though it is one of only a handful of non Indo-European languages in Europe it also is giving way to the influence of the linguistic tides around it.

Parentage and the education system would seem to be of far more significance in more recent times and the latter is often linked closely with colonialism and state power. The education system is used in two essential ways here. Firstly, to establish linguistic standards thus helping to preserve the 'purity' of the language and, secondly, to establish an elite who in turn become the bastion of the language. Clearly this is one level of what we might call horizontal exclusion - an identifying factor of social class.

These factors however only account for how such stable dialects survive rather than the more dynamic notion of language spread. Here the determining factor is the willingness of users of other languages to use the language in question as an auxiliary.

 

Spread and Rebellion

For a language to spread it must have its initial base, the vitality of which will depend largely on what it is used for - commerce, culture, technology, media. These usages must be essentially cross-cultural. Using language for mono-cultural reasons - literature, folksongs - is another instance of the isolationist drive. For it is to the extent that a language be used in the former way that its influence can grow and spread. Indeed it can grow exponentially (population growth in certain areas of Latin America and Asia safely entrench the influence of, for example Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish) within the meme pool of the modern world.

The technological changes of the last 30 years, perhaps dating to the launch of Sputnik one, propelled the two super powers and their languages to the fore in world developments. We can get a feel for this secondary, auxiliary usage of the two languages by looking at the international world of scientific research. In 1980 - well in the middle of the cold war era - 72.6% of the articles published in Index Medicus were in English and Russian came in second place with 6.3%. German came third. The same year a figure of 64.7% of the articles in Chemical Extracts were in English. As Wardhaugh was able to comment, "it is difficult to understand how a scientist who cannot read English or who does not have immediate access to good translations from English can hope to keep up with current scientific activity".

Living now in the post cold war period and given the seemingly unchallenged global policy coming from the liberal democracies Anglo American is triumphant on the linguistic battlefield. One estimate now puts the number of English speakers at some 350,000,000 more than half of whom live in North America. It is an immense power base from which today powerful media events are emanating.

In addition to this figure there are probably an equal number of second language speakers and a third group, the area which is perhaps now seeing the fastest growth because of technological developments in the sphere of telecommunications, of those who use it in a casual, raw manner to understand the flow of information that is going past them.

For those who believe there might be something wrong with the American Dream this may come as alarming - equally alarming is the possibly greater likelihood that it will not be noticed. With international news services, subsidised books and cinema goes a particular world viewpoint as seen from a Western 'developed' perspective.

There is no sign of its spread decreasing. On the contrary no realistic competitor is in sight. French is being squeezed by the tide. As Wardhaugh points out, 'That tide may someday change and come to favour some other language than English but only in a very different world from the one that currently exists and one that those who presently speak the language would likely view as catastrophically different'.

Perhaps. But there will also be those who will realise the appeal of Babel. They will point to such estimates as that which tells us that about 80% of the existing North American languages are moribund. The figure for Alaska has been put at 90%. Here we are right at the core of linguistic power. But as we move out the picture is also bleak. 23% in Central and South America, 70% in Russia - whose influence has not decreased within her borders - 90% in Australia. Simply by going on a head count of the number of speakers (say 100,000) perhaps only 600 languages are safe within the climate of our times. We could, during the next century, see the extinction of as many as 90% of the world's languages.

Talk in these terms will of course bring to mind evolutionary themes and from there to ecological ones. All this is reminiscent of what is happening as technology sweeps through other kingdoms. The causes are sometimes similar with the habitats (this time cultural) being destroyed by what has been called the "cultural nerve gas" of the electronic media.

One can argue, strongly, that the technologies at humanities disposal should be made widespread yet we know that the planet can't take the strain of the uniformity of the petrol economy - a uniformity which needs to be challenged.

Anglo-American has a fashionable, coca cola appeal. At any given time 100,000,000 mainly young people are studying it. For them it represents a certain kind of economic and cultural freedom that they value. By putting the issue thus we are, however, not facing up to the danger we have already alluded to. To the degree that language is a nationalist and cultural cement the coming linguistic hegemony of Anglo American represents the next stage in empire: the voice of Anglo American is the voice of Bretton Woods and Western neo-liberalism. Language itself can be a highway laid down to allow power and wealth to seep up from the periphery and back to the imperial core. In an age of information this link is perhaps stronger than it has ever been before.

As the dominance of Anglo-American goes forward unchecked other languages die off. This should worry us all in the same way that the burning of a library would. As Krauss writes, "Any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism".

To lose the diversity of language within the world would be a tragedy. Some will inevitably disappear. But another viewpoint allows us to see how the modern forms of communication can help rather than hinder diversity. In the same way that English has spread from the core to the periphery so the Internet with its notion of networking and isolated groupings - mailing lists for example - may offer a reprieve for Babel. It was the fall of Babel that was represented as humanity's punishment for rebellion. Here the communicative side of language is the source of punishment. This in itself conceals the other side of language, buried in the diversity that grew out of Babel, which is it's ability to hide. The real fear of power is a fear that it cannot survey. CompuServe recently banned the use of Welsh on its server as it would not be able to monitor the traffic. Encryption whether it be into PGP, or Welsh is in itself a challenge to authority.

c.1999

 

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