The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

In depicting the emergence of the world’s languages as a curse of gibberish, the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel makes us moderns smile. Yet, considering the headache that 6,000 languages can induce in real life, the story makes a certain sense.

Not long ago, 33 of the FBI’s 12,000 employees spoke Arabic, as did 6 of the 1,000 employees at the American Embassy in Iraq. How can we significantly improve that situation is a good question. It’s hard to learn Arabic, and not only because it’s hard to pick up any new language. Iraqi Arabic is actually one of several “dialects” of Arabic that is as different from the others as one Romance language is from another. Using Iraqi Arabic even in a country as close as Egypt would be like sitting down at a trattoria in Milan and ordering lunch in Portuguese.

Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless foreign-language self-teaching sets that are about as useful as the tonics and elixirs that passed as medicine a century ago and leave their students with anemic vocabularies and paltry grammar that are of little use in real conversation.

Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers.

Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.

That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word 'ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.

As someone who has taught himself languages as a hobby since childhood and is an academic linguist, I hardly rejoice when a language dies. Other languages can put concepts together in ways that make them more fascinatingly different from English than most of us are aware they can be. In the Berik language in New Guinea, for example, verbs have to mark the sex of the person you are affecting, the size of the object you are wielding, and whether it is light outside. (Kitobana means “gives three large objects to a male in the sunlight.”) Berik is doing fine for now, but is probably one of the languages we won’t see around in 2109.

Assuming that we can keep 6,000 languages alive is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots. Here’s why. As people speaking indigenous languages migrate to cities, inevitably they learn globally dominant languages like English and use them in their interactions with one another. The immigrants’ children may use their parents’ indigenous languages at home. But they never know those languages as part of their public life, and will therefore be more comfortable with the official language of the world they grow up in. For the most part, they will speak this language to their own children. These children will not know the indigenous languages of their grandparents, and thus pretty soon they will not be spoken. This is language death.

Many scholars hope that we can turn back the tide with programs to revive indigenous languages, but the sad fact is that this will almost never be very effective. Learning small indigenous languages tends to be a tough business for people raised in European languages: they tend to be more like Berik than like French.

I saw what this meant when I was assigned to teach some Native Americans their ancestral language. Filled with sounds it’s hard to make unless you were born to them, it seemed almost designed to frustrate someone who grew up with English.

In the Central Pomo language of California, if one person sits, the word is—get ready—'cˇháw. The mark at the beginning signifies a catch in the throat, and what the raised little h requires shall not detain us here, but rest assured that it’s a distinct challenge to render if you grew up speaking English. But if more than one person sits, it’s a different word, naphów. If it’s liquid that is sitting, as in a container, then the word is cˇóm. The whole language is like this.

Yes, there is the success story of Hebrew, but that unlikely revival came about because of a happenstantial confluence of religion, the birth of a nation, and the obsession of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who settled in Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew to all Jews. This extended to reducing his wife to tears when he caught her singing a lullaby to their child in her native Russian.

Few people not involved with nation building would be inclined to such a violent dedication to learning a new language, as is proven by the merely genuflective level of Hebrew that American Jews today typically master in Hebrew school. It also helped Hebrew’s successful comeback that it had a long tradition of written materials. Only about 200 languages are truly written: most are only spoken.

What makes the potential death of a language all the more emotionally charged is the belief that if a language dies, a cultural worldview will die with it. But this idea is fragile. Certainly language is a key aspect of what distinguishes one group from another. However, a language itself does not correspond to the particulars of a culture but to a faceless process that creates new languages as the result of geographical separation. For example, most Americans pronounce disgusting as “diss-kussting” with a k sound. (Try it—you probably do too.) However, some people say “dizz-gusting”—it’s easier to pronounce the g after a softer sound like z. Imagine a language with the word pronounced as it is spelled (and as it was in Latin): “diss-gusting.” The group speaking the language splits into two groups that go their separate ways. Come back five hundred years later, and one group is pronouncing the word “diss-kussting,” while the other is pronouncing it “dizz-gusting.” After even more time, the word would start shortening, just as we pronounce “let us” as “let’s.” After a thousand years, in one place it would be something like “skussting,” while in the other it might be “zgustin.” After another thousand, perhaps “skusty” and “zguss.” By this time, these are no longer even the same language.

This is exactly why there are different languages—what began in Latin as augustus became agosto in Spanish and, in French, août, pronounced as just the single vowel sound. Estonian is what happened when speakers of an earlier language migrated away from other ones; in one place, Estonian happened, in the other, Finnish did. And so while Finnish for horse is hevonen, in Estonian it’s hobune.

Notice that this is not about culture, any more than saying “diss-kusting” rather than “diz-gusting” reflects anything about one’s soul. In fact, all human groups could, somehow, exhibit the exact same culture—and yet their languages would be as different as they are now, because the differences are the result of geographical separation, leading to chance linguistic driftings of the kind that turn augustus into agosto and août. In this we would be like whales, whose species behave similarly everywhere, but have distinct “songs” as the result of happenstance. Who argues that we must preserve each pod of whales because of the particular songs they happen to have developed? The diversity of human languages is subject to the same evaluation: each one is the result of a roll of the dice.

One school of thought proposes that there is more than mere chance in how a language’s words emerge, and that if we look closely we see culture peeping through. For example, in its obituary for Eyak, the Economist proposed that the fact that kultahl meant both leaf and feather signified a cultural appreciation of the unique spiritual relationship of trees and birds. But in English we use hover to refer both to the act of waiting, suspended, in the air and the act of staying close to a mate at a cocktail party to ward off potential rivals. Notice how much less interesting that is to us than the bit about the Eyak and leaves and feathers.

For the better part of a century, all attempts to conjure any meaningful indication of thought patterns or cultural outlook from the vocabularies and
grammars of languages has fallen apart in that sort of way, with researchers picking up only a few isolated shards of evidence. For example, because “table” has feminine gender in Spanish (la mesa), a Spanish speaker is more likely—if pressed—to imagine a cartoon table having a high voice. But this isn’t exactly what most of us would think of as meaningfully “cultural,” nor as having to do with “thought.” And in fact, Spanish speakers do not go about routinely imagining tables as cooing in feminine tones.

Thus the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding 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. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English.

The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.

But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.

As 5,500 languages slowly disappear, the aesthetic loss is not to be dismissed. And in fact dying languages become museum pieces. For this reason it is fortunate and crucial that modern technology is recording and analyzing them more thoroughly than ever before. Perhaps a future lies before us in which English will be a sort of global tongue while people continue to speak about 600 other languages among themselves. English already is a de facto universal language—yet those who would consider it a blessing if everyone over 15 spoke an artificial language like Esperanto are often somewhat diss-kussted that this is the status English is moving closer toward decade by decade.

Obviously, the discomfort with English “taking over” is due to associations with imperialism, first on the part of the English and then, of course, the American behemoth. We cannot erase from our minds the unsavory aspects of history. Nor should we erase from our minds the fact that countless languages—such as most of the indigenous languages of North America and Australia—have become extinct not because of something as abstract and gradual as globalization, but because of violence, annexation, and cultural extermination. But we cannot change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other language to replace the growing universality of English. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this particular horse is out of the barn.

Even if the world’s currencies are someday tied to the renmimbi, English’s head start as the lingua franca of popular culture, scholarship, and international discourse would ensure its linguistic dominance. To change this situation would require a great many centuries, certainly too long a span to figure meaningfully in our assessment of the place of English in world communications in our present moment.

And notice how daunting the prospect of Chinese as a world language is, with a writing system that demands mastery of 2,000 characters in order to be able to read even a tabloid newspaper. For all of its association with Pepsi and the CIA, English is very user-friendly as the world’s 6,000 languages go. English verb conjugation is spare compared to, say, that of Italian—just the third-person singular s in the present, for example. There are no pesky genders to memorize (and no feminine-gendered tables that talk like Penelope Cruz). There are no sounds under whose dispensation you almost have to be born as a prerequisite for rendering them anywhere near properly, like the notorious trilly sound in Czech.

Each language is hard in its own way. Try explaining to a foreigner why, if you get a busy signal, you might say, “I’ll try her tomorrow,” but you can also say, “Tomorrow I turn 25,” without using the will to indicate the future. But as a language all people are required to learn, would it really be better to have one like Russian, with three genders, fiercely subtle and irregular verb marking, and numbers so hard to express properly that Russians themselves have trouble with them?

There are those who worry not only that English will become primus inter pares, but that it will finally eat up even the last remaining 600 languages as well. But this stretches the imagination, to be sure. As long as there are Japanese people meeting and raising children in Japan, amidst a culture in which Japanese
is enshrined as the language of not only speech but education, literature, and journalism, it is hard to conceive even of the first step toward the day when a child raised in Osaka would speak English and think of Japanese as a language his parents spoke when they “didn’t want me to understand.” Eyak is one thing, but the languages spoken by substantial populations and well entrenched in writing are another.

However, as is increasingly clear today, under the terms of the present order we must prepare for unforeseen circumstances and treat the surprising as
normal. Suppose global warming patterns forced population relocations of unprecedented volume and speed: perhaps this could lead to the use of English as a lingua franca among displaced hordes of assorted extractions, such that children raised in these new settings would speak English instead of Finnish or Japanese or Croatian.

Or just maybe the process could happen as the result of some less dramatic and more gradual process. We might conceive of humanity continuing to benefit from the extinct 600 languages as taught ones. People could savor Tolstoy in the original Russian as we today read Virgil in Latin.

Viscerally, as a great fan of Russian for many years, I am as uncomfortable as anyone else with the prospect of Russian no longer being passed on to children. However, I am also aware that mine is not necessarily a logical discomfort. Coming back to the Tower of Babel, can we say that the benefits of linguistic diversity are more important, in a way that a representative number of humans could agree upon, than the impediment to communication that they entail? Especially when their differentiation from one another is, ultimately, a product of the same kind of accretionary accidents that distinguish a woodchuck from a groundhog?

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.

The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history. Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.

John McWhorter is a linguist, political commentator, and lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

This article has been modified since its appearance in the print version of World Affairs.

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