One world, one tongue

There is a good argument for insisting that everybody speaks the same language - and that it should be English.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • Vive la différence

The publication of the book Language in Danger: How Language Loss Threatens Our Future, by Andrew Dalby, coincides with recent gloomy predictions from Manchester University that 90 percent of the world’s 5000 languages are likely to disappear by 2050. ‘The linguistic equivalent of an ecological disaster is looming’, concluded the UK Guardian – following claims that in 50 years’ time we will all be speaking English, Hindi, Arabic, Mandarin or Spanish (1).

The wording here is revealing. ‘Diversity’ is considered to be marvellous, for ecologists, multiculturalists and linguists. But isn’t the Guardian getting carried away with its metaphors? Diversity is certainly crucial ecologically. In a complex ecosystem, remove one part of the jigsaw and things may fall apart. If the frog has no flies to eat, there will be no frogs left. With no frogs, where will the crocodiles get their dinner? And so on.

But diversity in the human world is not always a good thing. Like its evil sister uniformity, diversity poses problems as well as benefits.

In linguistics circles, the loss of a language is mourned because it deprives us of ‘alternative’ ways of looking at humanity. Those who were taught French GCSE will remember being told the difference between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’, that ‘savoir’ and ‘connaître’ meant ‘to know’ in different ways. These words have no direct translation, and indicated differences between English and French cultures. Our perception of the world is shaped by the structure of our particular language, we are told. ‘Language speaks man’, said Heidegger.

But I suspect this lament over language disappearance is more bound up in today’s obsession with ‘culture’ for its own sake. As Nigel Vincent, professor of linguistics at Manchester University remarked: ‘Every language is the repository of the culture of the people who speak it. When you lose the last speaker, you lose the people’s cultural memory.’

This seems merely an aesthetic judgement, a rehash of the sentiments of the anthropologist E Sapir, who wrote in 1949 that people’s language was ‘the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations’. This romanticism often descends into linguistic relativism, which proclaims that no tongues are innately superior to others – that just because a tribe in Indonesia has one word meaning 1, another meaning 2, and a third to represent every other number possible, that doesn’t make it ‘primitive’.

There is a good argument for insisting that everybody speaks the same language, probably English: to promote universal understanding. Mistranslations don’t only cause embarrassment – they can cost lives. The draft of the 1905 treaty ending the Russo-Japanese war, written in English and French, almost collapsed because it rendered the French ‘contrôler’ in English as ‘to control’ – when ‘contrôler’ innocently means ‘to inspect’, and not to dominate.

Similarly, Japanese involvement in the Second World War may have ended sooner had not a government news agency, in relaying in English a reply to the Potsdam surrender ultimatum, translated ‘mokusatu’ as ‘ignore’, rather than correctly ‘to reply shortly’.

And when Cockburn Port some years ago launched its Dry Tang range on to the Scandanavian market, this came a cropper, as ‘tang’ in Swedish means ‘seaweed’. When it changed the label to Dry Cock, the Swedes didn’t mind – but it upset some in Denmark, where ironically ‘cock’ means ‘vagina’….

  • Bring back the stereotypes

What is the Eurovision Song Contest actually for? To bring Europeans together in harmony – or to perpetuate national animosities? Maybe it’s somewhere in between, designed to channel, ritualise and render harmless national sentiment.

In Saturday’s Eurovision 2002, votes were obviously cast along non-musical lines. All the Baltic countries voted for each other; Greece and Cyprus gave each other the 12 points (as ever); the Macedonians gave their ethnic cousins in Romania top marks; and the universally reviled Germans got hardly any points. The universally adored Irish were only prevented from winning because they weren’t there.

None of the crowd furiously waving national flags seemed to mind that the acts didn’t represent their nations in any meaningful way. Nearly all songs were in English. The Russians were a kind of hip-hop collective, the futuristic Greeks looked like a Gary Numan tribute band, the triumphant Latvian chanteuse was doing an impression of Gloria Estefan, and the transvestite Slovenians resembled something you’d see in a Manchester nightclub.

It was far superior when everybody at least made an effort to look like national stereotypes, with your leaping Russian Cossacks, melancholy Portuguese balladeers, and folk-singing Norwegians dressed in turtle-necked jumpers, strumming on their acoustic guitars.

  • Star Wars – the sequel

Apologies to Star Wars aficionados for my previous disparaging comments on Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. It is actually rather good, well, at least an improvement on the previous effort. Some caveats, however: Yoda’s Bruce Lee-esque battle with Christopher Lee was absurd, Natalie Portman’s countless outfits very distracting, and Hayden Christiensen’s Kajagoogoo haircut totally unnecessary.

But how strange, as Sandy Starr has pointed out, that we still desperately pray that Star Wars doesn’t let us down, and often live in denial when it does. Star Wars obsessives remind me of those Cure and Iron Maiden fans who stood by their bands even when they started churning out woeful albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Maiden’s atrocious Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter was my final wake up call. All those skull-adorned t-shirts and tasselled leather jackets have remained in the attic ever since.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Language cull could leave people speechless, Guardian, 25 May 2002

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Topics Politics


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