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a response to “the cosmopolitan tongue”

8 November 2009

John McWhorter’s article “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English” in World Affairs is a clear, cleverly written piece considering what the simultaneous growth of a global language and the death of many endangered languages imply, and what value preserving the vitality of such languages has. Nevertheless, in respect to the latter question, he leaves out some important points, while bringing up other ones for no clear purpose.

In – I think – support of his thesis that learning a new language is difficult, McWhorter points to Arabic, many varied dialects of which exist, as evidence that one cannot learn a a simple, standard ‘Arabic’ and then expect to be able to speak to any nationality of Arab. This presents a problem to those who are trying to be able to communicate with the Arab world. It’s a good point, and one that needs to be realized more often, but isn’t evidence that learning new languages is complicated, simply because ‘Arabic’ has been falsely constructed to be a single language when it simply is not.

McWhorter also seems to be a supporter of the argument that attempt to learn a new language as an adult is nigh-impossible. He states “Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15.” I detest this way of thinking, because it is wrong and cynical. It first of all depends on one’s goal in learning a new language: reading, speaking, etc., but this is unstated. In that one cannot become a fluent speaker of Russian at the age of 28 and call himself a native speaker, this is true, but in no way is it impossible to become fluent in a new language at an older age. I myself didn’t begin study of a second language until after the age of 15, and have, since then, studied 9 and attained various levels of proficiency. The attempt being “fiendishly difficult” depends on a number of things, among them the quality of instruction, time devoted, and ability to use/practice the target language. It is detrimental to the study of language when people are cynical about it.

Another problem, which to my thinking is the more grave, is that McWhorter seems to treat – almost trivially and sarcastically – the complex grammatical constructions and syntax of many endangered languages. He cites two endangered languages as examples:

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.”)

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.

He goes on to say that “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,” which, while perhaps true, misses the most important point about the documentation of endangered languages. Indeed, it is because different languages have different vocabularies and grammars that they are interesting, from the point of view of their preservation. It is vastly interesting to find out why light conditions matter to Berik-speakers, or why the Piraha language may or may not be recursive; how language is used reveals how groups of human beings, like us, perceive, process, and relay information about the world through speech, organize time and space, and interact with their environment. McWhorter fails completely to address this point, instead discussing how language death doesn’t imply cultural death, and so on.

Additionally, those who support attempts to preserve endangered languages as spoken and living are not, for example, trying to implement Berik as the language of France; they want the Berik people to continue speaking their own language rather than a global language such as English. Those who want to keep 6,000 different languages alive don’t want to have Central Pomo supplant English as the world’s lingua franca. For French schoolchildren, this isn’t a problem of learning an unrelated and different language, because no one is trying to make them do that.

But, English makes a great global, or even universal, language, McWhorter points out. Its grammar is easier than those Romance languages, its orthography easier than that of Chinese, with its “daunting writing system,” and no ridiculous, silly, difficult sounds like “the notorious trilly sound in Czech,” and, I imagine McWhorter would add, the Arabic ‘ayn, and the tones and clicks of Xhosa. One needs to be on guard here against making value judgments about languages, and about being one who thinks that English is a superior language (a position that I am strongly against). Having expressed these views, I fail to understand how McWhorter can describe himself as “someone who has taught himself languages as a hobby since childhood…”

As an afterthought, I should point out that English isn’t completely genderless: it retains gendered pronouns and vestigial gender marking for inanimate objects. On another end-note, Latin didn’t undergo language death, in the way McWhorter describes it in analogy to reading Vergil in Latin the way we could possibly in the future read Tolstoy in (dead) Russian. Namely that Latin didn’t undergo language death by being supplanted by other languages, strictly speaking, in all places, but that Latin speakers evolved into first regional Latin-dialect-speakers, and then medieval and modern Romance language-speakers.

6 Comments
  1. Concerning the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, can I point to the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign.

    The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September.
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related

    Your readers may be interested in http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. Bill Chapman permalink

    I’m pleased to see Brian’s comment here. Esperanto is a serious candidate for the role of international language.

    Esperanto hasn’t yet gained the recognition it deserves. However, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In just over 120 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with around 2,000,000 speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years.

  3. I think Esperanto and its achievements are notable. My point in the above post, however, wasn’t that there should be a global language, just not English. Rather, I don’t support the idea of any ‘global’ language, whatever it is. I don’t want to see people stop using their historical or native tongues anywhere in the world, especially for the adoption of such a thing, because I think homogeneity is uninteresting.

  4. Hi kato

    Just to reafirm that Esperanto intends to be an auxiliary language.

    The preservation of minority ethnic languages worldwide is essential :)

    Your readers may be interested in http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  5. bulbul permalink

    Well, I’m with Christopher Culver on Esperanto.

    ““the notorious trilly rˇ sound in Czech”
    Czech, ha! Try this:

    pŕhľava

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