The Times - When languages die, whole worlds die too
Published at 12:01AM, June 1 2013
If giant cultural forces are allowed to bulldoze obscure, little-spoken languages, they can kill what we value most.
Three linguistically attuned cheers for Guernsey! The island has just set up a commission to promote its traditional language, Guernésiais. And the patois needs some promoting. In 2000 there were 1,300 fluent speakers in a population of 65,000; now there are just a few hundred, most of them pensioners.
Yet Guernésiais, which looks like French attacked by a vowel vandal and a swarm of angry zeds, has passionate supporters. "Ch'est qu'la langue erpersente énne grosse parte d'note histouère," says Darren Duqemin, the commision's spokesman. And it's because they "speak volumes about our history" that the other ancient languages of the British Isles are being sustained or improbably brought back from the dead.
Cornish is the most famous case. Unesco declared it extinct in 2009. But such was the uproar from west of the Tamar, much of it expressed in impeccable Kernowek, that the bureaucrats hastily apologised. In 1900 it was indeed all but extinct: the last exclusively Cornish-speaking native was usually proclaimed to be the redoubtable Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole, who died more than 200 years ago. But in the past 30 years a remarkable renaissance has produced 3,000 fluent Cornish speakers. There are now Cornish-language films, rock bands, children's books and even a crèche.
Similarly, the Welsh Language Board claims half a million speakers, the Western Isles are home to an estimated 50,000 Scottish Gaelic speakers and the Isle of Man now has about 600 folk who can sustain a conversation in Manx (should they wish). A century ago all of these ancestral tongues were considered lingering anachronisms, bound to be swept away sooner or later by the rolling tide of English. But regional pride is a fierce and stubborn thing, and language is the most powerful badge of identity we possess. Bound up with the revival of Celtic-based languages are all sorts of tribal statements - political, cultural, geographical and historical - that have nothing to do with preserving the linguistic diversity of humanity.
Nevertheless, it's the steady shrinking of that diversity that worries the experts. Every fortnight the last speaker of one of the world's 7,000 languages dies. The usual estimate is that by the end of the century half of those languages will be extinct. While enthusiasts in Britain have the leisure, money and official support to revive endangered languages, the same is not true of Africa (home to 2,100 languages) or Papua New Guinea (where, thanks to the remoteness of the mountain communities, an astonishing 841 languages coexist).
In the developing world, economic necessity forces youngsters to learn the language that will enable them to earn their living. In an ideal world they would be bilingual. But the crushing power of English is so ubiquitous - on the internet, from Hollywood and the music industry, and in the business world - that native tongues tend to be abandoned within a generation or two unless communities make strenuous (and often expensive) efforts to keep their own language alive.
Nor is it only minnow languages being crushed. In India Urdu is disappearing among young Muslims because of the economic imperative for them to speak English or Hindi (related to Urdu but with a very different cultural and literary heritage). Similarly, Yiddish - that wonderfully idiosyncratic fusion of German, Hebrew and Slavic that once united the Jewish diaspora across Europe and the US - is now classified as "endangered" by Unesco.
One obvious response to all this is: "So what?" Nearly 150 years ago Matthew Arnold declared that "the fusion of all into one homogeneous, English-speaking whole is a necessity of modern civilisation". That view has many supporters today, especially among the worst linguists in the world: the British and the Americans. And there is an unromantic logic about it. If languages have been discarded because they no longer equip their speakers to live full and prosperous lives, why attempt to keep them alive by artificial means?
But the notion that humanity can consciously "fuse" its modes of communication into one universally understand language (even if we wanted too) flies in the face of experience. Over the millennia new languages have sprung up, flourished, withered and disappeared all the time. In the days of the Roman Empire, the imposition of Latin across Europe almost extinguished many Germanic and Celtic languages. Yet we owe the glorious multiplicity of English to the mingling, and mangling, of Latin with all those tribal tongues.
Something similar is happening today. English may be the modern world's lingua franca, with more than two billion people able to read Shakespeare (or, more pertinently, Google). But it is continually being "corrupted" - or, more positively, enriched - by everyday use in millions of streets, shops and business meetings around the world. Those countless different dialects could easily transmute into entirely separate languages within a couple of centuries. As a Yiddish scholar once quipped: a language is only a dialect with an army attached. Indeed, if you listen to English as it is spoken in, say, Glasgow, Delhi, Brisbane, the Bronx, Cape Town and Jamaica, you may feel that its fragmentation is already complete.
Yet when a native language dies, a lot of other things disappear too. Place names and family names become inexplicable. Local traditions vanish because people no longer have the words to describe their customs. The names of plants, birds or animals unique to a particular region go, too - so the natural world has to be re-catalogued all over again in incongruous Latin or English.
And the world's stock of useful words - words that occur only in one language, yet identify something that we all need to articulate from time to time - is diminished. Think of how impoverished we would be if we hadn't pinched the word chocolate from Aztec, anorak from Inuit, phoney from Shelta (the secret Gypsy language) or trousers from Gaelic.
But perhaps the most important reason for preserving your native tongue is that it is an integral part of your ancestry, as much a part of what ties you to your forebears as the DNA in your bones. And that's a powerful pull on people, particularly in small communities that feel oppressed by giant cultural forces from outside.
Or as Georges Métivier, the greatest Guernésiais poet, put it: "Que l'lingo seit bouan ou mauvais, j'pâlron coum'nou pâlait autefais." (Whether the lingo be good or bad, I'm going to speak like dear old dad.) Let your native tongue die, and part of you dies with it.