If everyone can read this, we're too close

Half the world's languages are about to go silent, taking their wisdom with them

When there's trouble in the ecosphere, the frogs know it first. When there's trouble in what I'll call the ethnosphere, it shows up in language: portents like hastening language loss, and the rise of a linguistic monoculture.

In his distressing new book, "Language in Danger," Andrew Dalby notes that half of the 5,000 languages currently spoken as someone's mother tongue will disappear in the 21st century. "In each of those cases," he writes, "a culture will be lost." That's one language every two weeks, and Dalby is not optimistic about our chances of turning it around.

Should we care? Isn't consolidation of minority languages a sign of progress toward universal understanding? Is it a problem, for instance, that, at a 1991 inter-Baltic political conference, representatives chose to speak in their broken English, despite the fact that all were fluent in Russian?

English increasingly plays the role of "compromise language." There are 1.8 billion "competent" users of English in the world today, which means the language is "approaching the position in which it is spoken by twice as many people as any other language," Dolby writes.

The story of English enveloping minority languages is a subtext to the history of European migration, discovery, conquest, and political expediency. It's a story similar to Latin and Greek spreading through whole regions. Gaulish and Punic also had their day as "languages of power." When citizenship in an empire has its privileges, language is often the price of initiation. Fluid international tourism and multinational corporations accomplish the same effects today. Money talks the majority language. Can uniformity in thought be far behind?

While we gain verbal convenience, what are we losing in alternative or minority conceptions of the world, philosophical nuances, and cultural diversity? One must ask an ironic question: What gets lost when nothing can get lost in translation?

To prepare a context for our concern, Dalby tours the language family trees around the globe, showing linguistic evolution at work. He contends that the loss of any language is as direct a threat to our cultural survival as clear-cutting is to biodiversity or a depleted ozone layer to the biosphere.

He cites Marianne Mithun to define the tragedy: "The loss of a language represents a definitive separation of a people from its heritage ... an irreparable loss for us all, the loss of opportunities to glimpse alternative ways of making sense of the human experience."

The prominence of English is not due to some Darwinian law of language, says Dalby. It is simply by chance that it became "the most useful language for others to learn."

It might also have been the language of the oppressor. For example, a small, tragic theater of conquest: California. In only 150 years, the territory's 98 native Indian languages, "a variety almost unmatched elsewhere in the world," were reduced to the point where "not a single California Indian language is being used ... as the language of daily communication."

The words of J.D. Atkins, commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1887, have a chilling and cautionary relevance: Obliterating native Indian languages was meant "to blot out the boundary lines which divide [Indians] into distinct nations, and fuse them into one homogeneous mass. Uniformity in language will do this - nothing else will."

The modern tools of linguistic invasion are more insidious. "Nowadays, television is in practically every home, talking like one of the family, in fact the most honored member of the family, the one to whom you cannot talk back," says Dalby. "It provides scenes of prosperous daily life that everyone wants to emulate, and television does not speak a local dialect." Nor does the Internet, whereby language travels the planet, shaping culture with the click of a mouse. Dalby gives too little consideration to this powerful, interactive medium - what digital visionary John Perry Barlow calls "the hard-wiring of humankind's nervous system." So are we being wired for English?

There are "three overriding reasons why we need to stop losing languages," Dalby says. "We need the knowledge that they preserve and transmit; the insights they give us into the way things may be; and the interaction with other languages that keeps our own language flexible and creative."

The "frogs" are not healthy. No translation required.

Todd R. Nelson is associate editor of Hope magazine.

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