Friday, November 27, 2009

On language.

I don't consider myself a shy nor clammish person, but I feel totally at odds with people at my workplace, not least because they speak almost exclusively in Hindi. Sometimes I go an entire work day without opening my mouth, save for ordering food at the cafeteria. A colleague's birthday was last week, and I, the lone foreigner, was dragged to the office party. I shoved my hands in my pockets, not knowing how to express myself or when to interject amidst all the Hindi. The only English they spoke was to ask me whether I wanted a soft drink. I'm sure they meant no ill, but I was absolutely isolated.

My discomfort kick-started some musings about language that I've had in the back of my mind since I arrived.

One estimate says that in the next century, the world's current 6000 languages will have dwindled down to just 600. How do languages die? Indigenous peoples, historically living on the edges of modern society, will migrate towards urban centers, where they will mingle with speakers of dominant languages like English. Their children will speak the language to their parents, but not in the public realm. A generation or two later, the indigenous language will be forgotten. Trying to preserve all these tongues against the forces of globalization is like trying to keep ice from melting in the summer.

I've loved languages for as long as I can remember. To me, they are at once aesthetically pleasing, academically interesting, and steeped in the culture and psyche of its speakers. It is hard for me to think objectively about the death of a language, but there are two sides of the coin.

Obviously, language extinction is no cause for joy, but what are the legitimate benefits to having an internationally dominant tongue, for the price of a thousand others? Are our anxieties about culture dying along with language as dire as we instinctively feel?

The second question can be restated: Which came first, culture or language? If you assume that if a language dies then culture is lost with it, then you're assuming that culture depends on language, which implies that language came first. But what about the distinctive culture of blacks in America? And Aussies and New Zealanders and the British? It seems that the culture of these English-speaking groups can still be clearly distinguished from each other, despite the common language. Can the same be said for separate tribal groups who come to share a tongue?

We can think about language like we think about evolution; they diverge on a geographical basis. A lanugage that originates in a central location will mutate and develop in different ways if its original speakers are physically separated. And if the peoples are separated, they will adapt to their respective environments and social situations in different ways. Hence, culture. Now, suppose we once again artificially reinstate a uniform language among these divergent groups. Do the cultures bleed together once again just because their languages are now the same?

Hindi has no immediate threat of extinction, as my office experiences clearly show, but there is evidence of fading. Since English is the official language of India, it is quite easy to live here without any knowledge of Hindi. Everything is written in English. Except for the poorest residents, everyone speaks it, and fluency closely correlates with education level (or, I suppose, years in the tourism industry). Bollywood movies, television, and radio programs often use an amusing "Hindenglish" blend, and countless English words have become integrated into Hindi itself.

Many Indians are now unable to read or write Hindi, and it's not just the younger generation. The father of one of my Indian friends is totally illiterate, being a successful businessman who uses primarily English in his work, and I know he's not alone in that demographic. One colleague told me recently that having grown up speaking Bengali, her English is now better than her Hindi, despite having lived in India all her life.

The most apparent benefit of more English in India is, ironically, cultural exchange. I can talk to more people, read more books, more easily travel, watch more movies, and generally feel more aware of what this country is about. And let's not forget that the reason why I've been able to befriend the other foreign interns here is because they've all shed their home languages in favor of English, but precisely because of this, we can more effectively learn about our differences.

The thought of the world's languages merging into one uniform tongue should, and does, make us feel uncomfortable, but perhaps not because of the potential loss of culture, but because of aesthetic and intellectual reasons.

Give me thoughts, readers. What are some points that I'm overlooking?


JC said...

It's much easier to converse in English than Math.

Aj said...

What up fz

Stu said...

I see nothing wrong with the melting of all languages into one (or at least fewer). I think your point that culture will still be retained is true, and you're right that a common language will ease the exchange of ideas and culture.

But even if all languages merge into one tongue, countries and cultures will retain idiosyncrasies derived from culture or their now "extinct" language.

Even though Americans, Brits, Aussies and Indians speak "English" and can understand each other, they're really all dialects that have their quirks and in this the richness of language will never die.

cecil said...

i have huge issues with the languages dying. language is a beautiful thing; one of the ingredients in that recipe being diversity.

two of my housemates have degrees in linguistics, and one is working on his phd. very interesting dinner conversations.

Crofty said...

This is a fascinating debate - in the UK we have this argument about smaller languages like Welsh, some say the preservation of them is anti-modern.

Love your blog - your experiences would be great for our new site: I'd be really flattered if you'd have a look at what we are doing and consider cross-posting there.

I've got my own Blogger blog cross posted there and am also an administrator for the site, so I'd welcome your feedback.

Great work!

Jacob said...

I think culture, tradition, and ritual are all bullshit. I think they lack intimacy.

A lady that lives in the apartments upstairs from the bakery I work at was a Latin teacher. I've asked her sometimes about words I think about and a few times she's talked with me about it, and about her dog, but she eventually told me to just look at the dictionary and on the internet. What I really wanted was conversation with a stranger and greater knowledge and all that shit.


In highschool latin students' response to criticism by other language students was that Latin is the root of all language and blah blah blah. In the past year, I've asked people I met who studied latin about different words and they have no idea. Language in the academic sense has no consequence. The real point I was making is that kids taking latin in high school is bullshit.

Also, I asked about the terri part of terrible, terrify, terrific, and so on. The latin teacher told me that maybe it's as in terra, like the planet, and that just to be alive on this planet is dangerous and scary. So I talked to someone else about it, and thought that I would haunt the night as a supervillain, or maybe a group of villains. We'd be known as "terra-ists."

She said they already have those.

Faye said...

Aj, beautiful article. I especially loved the example of the aboriginal tribe. I always had an inkling about the capacity of language to affect our cognitive processes, but I wasn't aware that this has been tested empirically.

I do find that I exhibit slightly different demeanors when I'm speaking Chinese than English. And just last week, I was talking to a Japanese girl who says that she's more subdued when speaking in her language because there's a distinct lack of interjections in .

This reminds me of the fairly recent studies showing that not only do emotions dictate our facial expressions, the effect runs the other way as well. Subjects who were forced to smile felt more positive than subjects who were forced to frown. Or something like that.