Wednesday, March 23, 2005

In a thousand tongues.

Hey, don't laugh at her! How many languages do you speak?

- Brian, Avenue Q


How many, really? Aside from English and Tagalog and perhaps (a smattering) of your regional dialect? It's amazing, our facility to speak and understand multiple languages. There are hundreds of ways to say "I love you", for example, by making use of all the languages of the world, providing your partner thinks you're being romantic enough. Try "Aez dae warzyn" out for size.

The world has approximately more than 6,000 languages today. After a fashion, that might seem a bit paltry, where some linguists estimate that more than 12,000 languages were spoken when the world was less populated.

The Bible tells us of the Tower of Babel, and how the Lord struck all His people with thousands of tongues to punish their pride and arrogance. And so they were scattered, all over the world. A veritable start of multilinguism, if you find yourself believing this version.

In the January issue of The Economist, there's an article about world languages and the rate that it's disappearing (one a fortnight). What's making it disappear so fast in the first place?
In recent centuries, colonization, trade, industrialization, the development of the nation-state and the spread of compulsory education, among many other things, have helped to extirpate many languages that had previously prospered in isolation. And in the past few decades, thanks to globalization and better communications, the rate of attrition has greatly accelerated, and dominant languages such as English, Spanish, and Chinese are increasingly taking over.
The culprit isn't a new thing. Globalization has been, at one point or another, been blamed for the extermination of locality and culture, pinning that alongside with dialect decay as well.

And according to the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas, the language distribution is very uneven as well.
The general rule is that temperate zones have relatively few languages, often spoken by many people, whereas hot, wet zones have lots, often spoken by small numbers. Europe has only 200 languages; the Americas about 1,000; Africa 2,400; and Asia and the Pacific perhaps 3,200, of which Papua New Guinea alone accounts for well over 800.
The article goes on to say that "already well over 400 of the total 6,800 languages are close to extinction, with only a few elderly speakers left." Take a look: Busuu in Cameroon (eight remaining speakers); Chiapaneco in Mexico (150), Lipan Apache in the US (two or three); Wadjigu (one, with a question mark). It's safe to say that unless massive action is taken, these languages will languish in historical indistinction.

On the flipside, observers say that life could perhaps be made simpler and more peaceful with just one world language, without the resulting tension from cultural misunderstandings. However, the article posits,
...there is little evidence that monolingualism promotes peace. In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics speak the same language. Vietnam and Somalia are both predominantly monolingual. When Yugoslavia fell into civil war, most of its people were speaking Serbo-Croat.
The "one world language" card has been played and it's been found wanting, fortunately.

I mean hello, wouldn't it be much more satisfying to say "F*ck you!" in your native tongue without worrying about the backlash?