The Wilson Quarterly

In 2008, the last native speaker of Eyak died in southern Alaska. Her death, and that of her mother tongue, was the subject of international news media attention. Observers mourned the loss of another indigenous language, one of thousands that are expected to meet the same fate in the next 100 ­years.

Get over it, says Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. The passing of these languages is not as meaningful as some think, and strenuous efforts to keep them alive are unlikely to ­succeed.

A small but vocal number of people have romantic notions about the unique “cultural worldview” an individual lan­guage represents. But language differences have more to do with geography than culture. The fact that the Latin au­gus­tus became agosto in Spain and août in France is merely one of the many “chance linguistic driftings” with no cultural signif­icance that separate languages. And elements of a culture often remain intact long after the death of an indigenous lan­guage. “Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer mean­ingfully ‘Indian’ simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue,” McWhorter points ­out.

There is undeniably an aesthetic loss when a language dies, but it is meaningful to relatively few people. Technology allows us to record and preserve the clicks, whistles, and trills of obscure languages that delight linguists (and frustrate students). Ultimately, language death is “a symptom of people coming together,” with all the good things that entails: econ­omic opportunity, shared space, and the exchange of ideas. Indigenous languages survive only in isolation, “complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology.” When given the opportunity, these lan­guages’ users often voluntarily abandon their own ways in pursuit of a better ­life.

A hundred years from now the world could have as few as 600 living languages, with English serving as the “global tongue.” As someone who has learned more than a few languages himself, McWhorter says the world could do much worse than English. Unlike, say, Czech, English has no sounds that a ­non-­native can’t closely approximate; nor does it require three genders, as Russian does, or the memorization of immense numbers of characters, as other languages do. To read a simple story in a Chinese newspaper, a reader needs a working knowledge of 2,000 ­characters—­yet another reason why a Chinese imperium is not a pretty thought.

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The Source: "The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English" by John McWhorter, in World Affairs Journal, Fall 2009. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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