BY JOHN McWHORTER
December 28, 2006
In the rush of the holiday season you may have missed that a white buffalo was born at a small zoo in Pennsylvania. Only one in 10 million buffalo is born white, and local Native Americans gave him a name in the Lenape language: kenahkihinen, which means "watch over us."
They found that in a book, however. No one has actually spoken Lenape for a very long time. It was once the language of what is now known as the tristate area, but its speakers gradually switched to English, as happened to the vast majority of the hundreds of languages Native Americans once spoke in North America.
The death of languages is typically described in a rueful tone. There are a number of books treating the death of languages as a crisis equal to endangered species and global warming. However, I'm not sure it's the crisis we are taught that it is.
There is a part of me, as a linguist, that does see something sad in the death of so many languages. It is happening faster than ever: It has been said that a hundred years from now 90% of the current 6,000 languages will be gone.
Each extinction means that a fascinating way of putting words together is no longer alive. In, for example, Inuktitut Eskimo, which, by the way, is not dying, "I should try not to become an alcoholic" is one word: Iminngernaveersaartunngortussaavunga.
Yet the extinctions cannot be stopped, for the most part. Trying to teach people to speak their ancestral languages, for example, will almost never get far beyond the starting gate. Some years ago, I spent some weeks teaching Native Americans their ancestral language. To the extent that the exercise helped give them a feeling of connection to their ancestors, it was time well spent.
However, it was clear that there was no way that they would learn more than some words and expressions. Languages are hard to learn for adults, especially ones as different from English as Native American ones. In Pomo, the verb goes at the end of the sentence. There are sounds it's hard to make when you're not born to them. For busy people with jobs and families, how far were they ever going to be able to get mastering a language whose word for eye is ‘uyqh abe?
Yes, there was Hebrew. But that was because of an unusual combination: religion, a new nation, and the superhuman dedication of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who settled in Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew to all Jews, including his infant son. But this extended to reducing his wife to tears when he caught her singing a lullaby to the child in her native Russian. Clearly Ben-Yehuda's was one of those once-in-a-lifetime personalities.
Yet the conventional wisdom is that we must strive to have as many future Hebrews as possible, since supposedly one's language determines one's cultural outlook. But a simple question shows how implausible that notion is. To wit, precisely what "cultural outlook" does English lend its speakers?
Thinking about the broad heterogeneity of people using this language, it is obvious that the answer is none, and the academic literature on the topic yields little but queer little shards of faint support for the "language is culture" idea. Which brings us back to languages as, simply, languages.
The language revivalists yearn for — surprise — diversity. What they miss is that language death is a healthy outcome of diversity.
If people truly come together, then they speak a common language. We can muse upon a "salad bowl" ideal in which people go home and use their nice "diverse" language with "their own." But in reality, almost always the survival of that "diverse" language means that the people are segregated in some way, which in turn is almost always due to an unequal power relationship — i.e., precisely what "diversity" fans otherwise consider such a scourge.
Jews in shtetls, for example, spoke Yiddish at home and Russian elsewhere because they lived under an apartheid system, not because they delighted in being bilingual. The Amish still speak German only because they live in isolation from modern life, which few of us would consider an ideal for indigenous groups to strive for.
In the end, the proliferation of languages is an accident: a single original language morphed into 6,000 when different groups of people emerged. I hope that dying languages can be recorded and described. I hope that many persist as hobbies, taught in schools and given space in the press, as Irish, Welsh, and Hawaiian have.
However, the prospect we are taught to dread — that one day all the world's people will speak one language — is one I would welcome. Surely easier communication, while no cure-all, would be a good thing worldwide. There's a reason the Tower of Babel story is one of havoc rather than creation.
For those still uncomfortable given that this single language would be big bad English, then notice how that discomfort eases when you imagine the language being, say, Lenape.
Mr. McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.